Passover and the Obligations of Our Exodus
By Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
A couple of months ago I was arrested in the grand rotunda of the Russell Building of the United States Senate. Nearly one hundred Jewish clergy and leaders joined in song and prayer, demanding that the United States Congress pass the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to the nearly eight hundred thousand Dreamers who came to the United States as children and are every bit American as my own daughters. As we sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) over and over again, hundreds of Dreamers stood cheering us on from the balcony, ringing us like a human halo. In an intentionally ironic twist on the famous cry from Moses to Pharaoh, we chanted, “Let our people stay!”
When we were handcuffed, removed by the Capitol Police, and placed under arrest, we understood that we were following directly in the footsteps of our ancient Israelite ancestors. Ironically, our being put into fetters was inspired by the Hebrew slaves, who rose up from their slavery in Egypt and cast off the chains of Pharaoh’s bondage in their journey to redemption. As our hands were locked in cuffs and we were led away, we chanted the verse taken from the Song at the Sea “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vah’yi li lishuah,” “God is my strength and might, and will be my salvation” (Exodus 15:2). There seemed no words more fitting than those our ancient Israelite ancestors sang as they passed through the parted seas of their redemption.
Even as we were led into police custody, our group understood that we were walking in the footsteps of countless generations of Jews before us, generations who internalized the Rabbinic mandate in the Passover Haggadah that “it is incumbent on every generation to see itself as if they themselves—every person—had personally escaped from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 116b). Our deeds of civil disobedience were an act of moral resistance to the injustices being perpetrated on the Dreamers, along with tens of millions of other immigrants and refugees. We acted on the spiritual authority inherited from recent leaders like Rabbis Richard Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because they internalized the most often repeated commandment in all of Torah: “You shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
Jews have marched throughout history because the core narrative of our people, the defining master story of our tradition, is the archetypal tale of redemption. Our Exodus from Egypt is the story of the transformation of the world-as-it-is, in which “strangers” are continually crushed by oppression, into the world-as-it-should-be, one where all people know justice. The power of the Jewish master narrative lies in its inherent call to every generation to live empathy; because our ancestors were strangers, we—in this era, and in every era—are to love the stranger.
Jews not only retell the master story of redemption throughout our ritual and cultural life; we have relived it throughout history. Our history has served to reinforce the most central exhortation of our Exodus narrative: we are obligated to love the stranger as ourself.
Among the many gleanings of the Exodus narrative that ground Jewish life and values, three stand out as the sources of the spiritual authority demanding that Jews resist injustice and champion morality in every age (and regardless of the challenges we face). First, we learn not only that resistance is required by our faith and experience, but also that it is always possible. Second, we are reminded that our empathy extends beyond the “stranger” to all those who are vulnerable in our midst. Finally, we instill in our souls that the Exodus is not simply about freedom from bondage; our master story culminates with the agency to enter into a covenantal community in which all people are bound to one another.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Pesner is the co-author of the new book Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority from CCAR Press. Photo above used with permission by Ralph Alswang for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.