Rabbi Naomi’s Passover Message 2022

In the Book of Exodus we read the riveting story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, complete with the ten deadly plagues that afflicted the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea. The people cross over to safety, Miriam leads them in celebratory dancing, and Moses leads them in singing, praising the Divine as a “man of war “ (ish ha-milchamah), a fierce Cosmic Protector. Then forty years go by, full of adventures. As the Israelites are about to enter the Land of Canaan and end their wandering, Moses gives lengthy orations reviewing communal history, ritual and ethical laws. We read:

Observe the month of Aviv [Spring] and offer a passover sacrifice to HaShem your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that HaShem your God freed you from Egypt. You shall slaughter the passover offering for HaShem your God, from the flock and the herd, in the place where HaShem will choose to establish the divine name. You shall not eat anything leavened with it. For seven days following you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of poverty—for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste—so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live. (Devarim 16:1-3)
כִּ֣י בְחִפָּז֗וֹן יָצָ֙אתָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם

After hundreds of years in Egypt, the swift departure was to be etched in collective memory. During the Pesach Seder we read from the Haggadah, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'It is because of what HaShem did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8) And we recite: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5) Part of the genius of the Torah text is that it sets the stage for thousands of years of ritualized participatory story-telling. 
Looking at the story from an ethnocentric perspective, we see that these verses emphasize the “going out of Egypt” as a family affair. The slavery happened to us in particular, our kinship group, our tribe, our people, then our God, the God of our ancestors, intervened and rescued us. For some of us it feels very important that the story be based in history; surely the ancient Hebrews were part of the mixed multitudes that fled drought and famine in the region for the green security of the Nile. (Scholars refer to this in the Greek eisodus meaning the going in.) Others of us experience the story as a foundational myth, an enduring, inspiring tale that doesn’t require historical analysis.
Biblical scholar Carol Meyers suggests another alternative: “Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There's something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It's not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it's a kind of collective cultural memory… When a group of people experience things that are extremely important to their existence as a group, they often maintain collective memories of these events over generations. And these memories are probably augmented and elaborated and maybe even ritualized as a way of maintaining their relevance.” (1)
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was a close friend of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, alav hashalom, peace be upon him. Rabbi Yitz looks at the story from a universalist humanistic perspective: “The secret of the impact of the Exodus is that it does not present itself as ancient history, a one-time event. Since the key way to remember the Exodus is reenactment, the event offers itself as an ongoing experience in human history.” (2)
Whether fact, fiction or richly embroidered communal memory, the Exodus narrative has had a powerful hold on the religious imagination for millions of Jews as well as billions of non-Jews across history and geography as Carol Meyers explains:
“The theme of the exodus is an archetype in not only the Bible but in western culture in general. Even though it may be rooted in some cultural memory experienced by only a few people, it became a way of looking at the world that would have great power for generations and millennia to come—the idea that human beings should be free to determine the course of their own lives, to be able to work and enjoy the rewards of the work of their own hands and their own minds…These are very powerful ideas that resonate in the human spirit. And Exodus gives narrative reality to those ideas. It would be compelling for peoples all over the world, wherever people find themselves subjected to domination and would like to live their lives in some other kind of way.” 
Is humanity doomed to an existence of injustice or are there alternatives to societies in which one group dominates another? Rabbi Yitz goes so far as to suggest that the Israelites’ experience of the Going Out of Egypt and the subsequent Giving of Torah at Mount Sinai provide the Jews, and all of humanity, with another kind of way to live, based on a foundational vision of a just world:
“The Exodus transformed the Jewish people and their ethic. The Ten Commandments open with the words, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Having no other God means giving no absolute status to other forms of divinity or to any human value that demands absolute commitment. Neither money nor power, neither economic nor political system has the right to demand absolute loyalty. All human claims are relative in the presence of God. This is the key to democracy.” (You might want to read Rabbi Yitz’ article to follow his argument, see link below.) Sadly, in America today the people dismantling our democratic institutions with hundreds of voter suppression bills also want to impose their fundamenalist religious views on the rest of us, views that elevate their beliefs above all others.
Our ancient tale of a people in danger leaving as quickly as possible couldn’t be more relevant today when we read of Ukrainians fleeing their homes as the Russian army advances toward their cities and villages. The New York Times reports, “More than 7 million Ukrainians have left their homes since the invasion on Feb. 24, and more than 4.4 million have left the country altogether, in the fastest-moving exodus of European refugees since World War II, according to the United Nations.” (3)
We explain to our children and grandchildren that we’re eating matzah at Pesach to remember how the Israelites fled in Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time for their dough to rise. This year we’ll be thinking of the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their homes in extraordinary haste taking with them only what they can carry. Our hearts ache to know that so many of the refugees are children, elderly or struggling with chronic illnesses. Pictures of fathers saying goodbye to their families at the train station remind us of so many haunting images of World War ll and the Holocaust. How can this be happening in 2022?
The horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis unfolded more slowly. The first million people were displaced over the course of the first two years of Civil War (2011-2013). The United Nations reports: “As the Syria crisis enters its eleventh year, the humanitarian situation is more difficult than ever. An estimated 14.6 million people need humanitarian assistance and more than half of the population remains displaced from their homes - including 5.6 million refugees living in neighboring countries and more than 6.9 million internally displaced inside Syria. Women and children comprise more than two thirds of those displaced. Over the years, Syrians have shown remarkable resilience, but as war continues, hope is fading fast. In 2021, three quarters of all households in Syria could not meet their most basic needs – 10% more than the year before. In Lebanon, over 90% of Syrians live in extreme poverty.” (4)
In addition to refugees from war, we must turn our attention to climate refugees. Somalia has experienced four years of devastating drought affecting more than 4.5 million people: “According to the UN, almost 700,000 people have been forced from their homes in search of food and water for them and their animals, and the numbers keep rising. There have been four seasons of failed rains and temperatures are unbearably high - 90% of the country is dry. Along the roads in rural areas, carcasses of animals are strewn all over - dead goats, donkeys and camels. This is catastrophic for the many Somalis who earn their living by raising and selling animals…Humanitarian agencies say there is a huge funding crisis. They have just 3% of what is needed to intervene in the country.” (5)
And we turn our attention to Israel and Palestine, two nations shaped by the experience of displacement, two populations burdened by cultural trauma, caught in a competition for scarce resources and recurring cycles of violence. History teaches us that the wounds of war go deep and leave their scars on future generations.
As we hear and speak the ancient words of the Passover Seder this year, we’re challenged to both treasure the story as our very own and also, as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches us, hear how the Exodus tale “offers itself as an ongoing experience in human history.”
As we eat our matzah this Passover, we’ll do so with the awareness that the world’s wheat harvest this year will be drastically diminished by the disruption of Ukrainian agriculture, threatening millions with starvation. Let this dire situation teach us never to take our sustenance and security for granted. Let us learn more deeply what it means to be grateful for what we have: our food, our families, our homes, and our precious but vulnerable democracy.
Every year we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Our generosity is more important now than ever. Here are some excellent organizations to support:
Many years ago I learned a valuable lesson from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, alav hashalom, who pointed out that among the various Hebrew words for joy, happiness, gladness or delight the word simcha refers to joy that is planned, such as the uplift we expect to feel at a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, a baby naming or another happy occasion. Even if we’re feeling sad, we go to the event planning to find joy in it and to participate in the communal experience of joy. We let ourselves be uplifted by the joy of others. 
The traditional greeting for Passover is chag pesach sameach, a joyous Passover festival. Despite the great troubles of the world, we can plan to find joy in our festival. 
I’m also reminded of a conversation with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, alav hashalom, when he visited us in Humboldt many years ago. Reb Shlomo was teaching about the mitzvah of always being joyful. Someone asked, “But what if you’re experiencing something sad, how can you be joyful?” Reb Shlomo answered, “Where is it written that just because your heart is breaking you can’t be in joy?”
Wishing you all a sweet, joyful Passover,
Rabbi Naomi
For a brief article on the historicity of the Exodus narrative: