Pesach 5776

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 22 April 2016


What is it that drives a people to leave family, friends, community and home, cross seas and continents to enter a strange and foreign land?

This week at our sedarim, we will retell the story of how our people, the Jewish people, were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh and how on a night long ago, by the light of a full moon, they left in a great hurry. Pursued by their oppressors, they crossed the sea on dry land and walked into the desert where they would encounter hunger, thirst, the stings of scorpions, war, and a taste of freedom.

I am often a privileged listener to the life-stories of guests at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue’s Drop-in for Asylum- Seeker families: women and men who have left homes and families and find themselves strangers in a strange land. They are the victims, or rather, the survivors of rape, torture and war; they are unwitting witnesses to violence and murder; escapees from civil war, or in some cases, entrenched and traditional families. Some, like the Israelites in their hasty Exodus from Egypt, take just a few belongings and leave with urgency, fugitives from abuse and cruelty, from discrimination against their sexuality or political views.

I met Ahmed and Ayesha (not their real names) at one Drop-in just a few weeks ago. Ahmed is partially disabled; Ayesha had given birth to a baby girl eight weeks earlier, just two days after arriving in the UK. They had left their home in haste, Ayesha heavily pregnant, both heart-broken at leaving behind their five year old son. I wondered what had driven them to leave in such a rush, Ayesha about to give birth? Why would two so obviously caring and intelligent parents leave behind their little son? Why put themselves at such risk? After introductions, we established a little conversation, and eventually, they told me that Ahmed’s family had been making preparations for the new baby girl to undergo genital mutilation. And it was this danger to their unborn daughter that had forced them to flee.

If Pesach is to have any meaning for us, then we have to link the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt with these times in which we live. Slavery, the genocide of baby boys by Pharaoh, the courage of the Hebrew midwives, delivering new infants in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree; men, women and children, trafficked, sold into slavery, stealing away under a full moon, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks on their shoulders, children carried or held by the hand by weary parents, the old and the young, all leaving behind the misery of slavery in one night.

This is the ancient story of our people; but it also a central narrative in our own age in the second decade of the twenty-first century – the story of a people driven out of their homelands by war, oppression and autocratic, malevolent dictators, crossing dangerous seas, arriving in countries that are too often hostile to the plight of foreigners.

Yet, it is not enough simply to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, as though simply listening to the story of one people’s oppression will connect us to the story of another.

For if we are to embody in any meaningful way this foundational narrative of the Jewish people, if Pesach is to be more than just a gathering for the sake of tradition, then we must heed the moral precepts that emerge from the narrative: ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me…’ (Exodus 22:20-22).

Progressive Judaism inextricably links the religious message with morality and ethics – the rituals, the prayers, the symbolic food of the seder, the blessings, abstaining from eating chametz – all these and more are signifiers, pointers to examining the honesty and truth of our words, the purity of our hearts, and the action we are willing to take to reach out to others with compassion and decency.

As we gather with our families, our close friends and our communities to celebrate this great festival of freedom and redemption, may each of us aspire to embody the teachings of our faith and commit ourselves to say more, to do more to alleviate suffering and to affirm through our words and actions, the dignity and freedom of all human beings

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Same’ach.

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