Central to the Passover seders we recently celebrated is the telling of our people’s slavery in Egypt. We proclaim, “We were slaves.” We are to imagine that our ancestors’ experience is our own.
One might think that the experience of some 400 years of slavery would have traumatized our people. One might imagine that dwelling on our suffering, and recalling it with such vivid symbols, such as bitter herbs and charoset, would traumatize everyone gathered around the table. One might think as well that recalling this story year in and year out would scar our children.
This is most certainly not the case. Instead our remembrances ennoble us. The Torah makes the intention of these rituals clear. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23) We remember so that we might uplift lives.
At the seder, even the deaths of our enemies are muted. We spill a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues meted out against the Egyptians. Our joy is lessened because others suffered. The rabbis imagine a story upon this story. They write: when the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds, the angels shouted for joy. God silenced them and said, “My creatures are drowning and you sing praises?”
We retell the story of our suffering so that we can bring healing to others. We remember so that we will feel the pain of others. Memory fosters empathy.
The distance of thousands of years helps as well. It eases slavery’s trauma. Can the same be said of the Holocaust in which six million of our people were murdered? Are the pains too recent for a similar ennobling of the spirit? Has history coarsened our souls?
Memory and history are not the same. Memory has the potential to ennoble. History too often leads to lament.
The question becomes: where do we place our remembrances of the Holocaust? These rituals of remembrance that we offer are still young. They have not been imagined and reimagined over thousands of years. Nearly 2,000 years ago our people suffered another trauma. We were nearly destroyed when the Romans decimated Jerusalem. Instead we discovered new life. Yes, we chant Jeremiah’s lament. We break a glass at every Jewish wedding in remembrance of this tragedy. But our mourning remains brief. Our loss is kept at a distance.
Is it possible for a people still traumatized by today’s remembrances to be open to the suffering of others? Does the new life that antisemitism finds in our own country and among Europeans, that we hear from Iran’s leaders and most especially from Islamists, harden our hearts? Can we love the stranger?
I continue to believe that not only is it possible but necessary. I for one can imagine no other way of remaining loyal to our defining ritual and formative story. We are commanded to love the stranger because we remember what it feels like. Our seders make us know.
And yet the traumas of history harden us.
How can the Jewish nation deport African refugees? How can this nation shut its doors to those fleeing persecution? How dare we remain silent in the face of the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya?
Moreover, what is our responsibility to the people of Gaza? While their leaders are murderous, and most certainly preach dreams of annihilation, have we lost all compassion for its residents? Do we dwell on our history of suffering on say, “Never again—to us.” Or do we focus on the memory of being a stranger and proclaim, “Never again—to anyone, anywhere?”
I am haunted by the images of Israeli soldiers cheering the shooting of Palestinians. I am not naïve about Hamas’ intentions, and I too have read the many articles attesting that the majority of protestors were in fact terrorists, but I do not want to ever become inured to Palestinian suffering.
I do not wish to become immune to suffering.
And while I will always prioritize my people’s lives (they are family) over the lives of others, I recall the feelings of the stranger imprinted on my soul from countless seders.
That memory always feels near. It stirs my heart.
Who will still the soldiers’ cheers?
I acknowledge. History traumatizes.