How can I feel like I left Egypt, when I feel like I am trapped in Egypt?

My friends are in danger.  Yes, after our elections I am also worried about Israeli democracy, the threat to religious freedom, the reversal of the gains under the previous government for those in need of public housing, the threat of increased efforts to dispossess Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and the danger that asylum seekers will be sent to their deaths.  Occasionally, I even have some concern for my own safety (Not so much).  I know that some will say that I am just a sore loser.  However, my concern about the dispossession of Palestinians, or how many public housing units Israel will be built are not just theoretical.  My friends have names and faces, like the real people I asked you to invite to your seder table a week ago. My Israeli friends may have the dream of an affordable apartment slip away. My Palestinian friends face the increased likelihood that their villages will be destroyed, their lands and water will be stolen, their trees will be chopped down and/or they will be denied access to the lands they need for a livelihood.

My despondency and frustration are even greater because I don’t think that most Israelis want to deny a single parent Israeli mom an apartment, or build settlements on stolen private land.  I am not sure how many truly wish to undermine our court system.  Many of my fellow Israelis voted for the parties they believed would do the best to protect Israel and improve our standing abroad.  That overweighed everything else that came with the package, to the extent that they were even aware of what it means to be an Israeli single parent mom or how often Palestinians wake up to find soldiers and bulldozers surrounding the home they built without an almost impossible to obtain permit.

So, despite the command to feel as if we ourselves left Egypt, I feel I am still in the narrow straights (meytzarim) of Egypt (Mitzrayim).  This Pesakh I have been singing Hallel without a great deal of enthusiasm, even as I try to recite the prayers recounting our blessings with increased awareness.  When we pray in the morning that God renews the work of creation every day, I pray for a new day and a changed reality.

We are told that the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea on the seventh day of Pesakh.  While on Seder night, we read that God freed us from Egypt God’s self, not through any agent or emissary, the midrash tells us that God told Moses that God would not part the sea until all of the Israelites jumped into the water.  There is also a tradition on the seventh day to pray for things that are as difficult to achieve as the splitting of the sea.  We still recognize our dependency on God for that which seems beyond us.  Right now, I can think of a lot to pray for. However, the transition from seder night to the seventh day is also about the transition from total dependency on Divine intervention to accepting our responsibility to take part in bringing about our redemption.

I have repeated the midrash about jumping into the water countless times. I have told it to Palestinians and to Israelis in need of public housing. My daughter had already heard the story so many times by the time she was in kindergarten that she immediately raised her hand when the teacher asked about Nakhshon Ben Aminadav (the first to jump into the sea.)

I, and many of my colleagues have been jumping into the water for most of our lives.  And yet, the sea hasn’t parted.

Let me qualify that.  The sea has parted numerous times, when we have done the seemingly impossible-saving homes and villages, defeating the Israeli Wisconsin plan, getting Harvard to sell stocks of corporations doing business in South Africa under apartheid, making it the law that Israeli security forces must allow and protect the access of Palestinian farmers to their lands…… Even during this Pesakh holiday, almost every day there has been a story of fending off settler harassment of one shepherd or another.  I often say that these are the sparks that remind us of what is possible.  If this were Shavuot, I would say that they are our first fruits.

Nevertheless, our overall reality here remains dismal.

Perhaps it isn’t enough to jump into the sea.  We need to learn to swim. 

We can’t stop doing what we are doing. “One who saves a single life, it is as if one as saved an entire world.”(Mishna Sanhedrin)  However, we must also be trying new strategies to take us to a place we haven’t been able to get to until now.

For many in the human rights community, the international community is our equivalent of Divine Intervention.  On the one hand, I am not particularly swayed by the deep antipathy that so many Israelis feel towards those who ask for international intervention. When I weigh the very real negatives of international intervention against the very real suffering of very real people, ending the oppression tips the scales.  Right now it is often international pressure that is preventing the worst of what our government would otherwise do.

However, we have built unrealistic expectations of the international community.  Its ability and its willingness to intervene is limited.  Furthermore, if the international community can sometimes step up to the plate for Palestinians, as it did in the case of Khan Al Akhmar, it is much less willing/able to intervene on behalf of asylum seekers, barely knows about Israel’s Arab citizens, and certainly is not going to do much for Israelis living in poverty.  Even in the case of Khan Al Akhmar, it remains to be seen whether the international community can protect Khan Al Akhmar in the long run.   Furthermore, just as God tells Moses “Why are you crying to me? Speak to the Israelites and tell them to go forward.”(Exodus 14:15), the international community is not going to help us, if we don’t help ourselves.

I am not sure that there is any magic bullet-something that we are not doing, that we can now start doing.   There are things that we aren’t doing enough of, or that can be done better.

Our fellow Israelis must see that we care about them in the same way that we care about others.  I truly believe that the Israeli single parent mom in need of housing is just as much of a human rights issue as the Palestinian trying to save his/her home.  However, fighting for the rights of our fellow Israeli Jews is also the way to help them understand that they are in our hearts, when our demagogues demonize us only loving our enemies.  Doing this through words is not enough.

We must do a better job of engaging our fellow Israelis.  We must bring out the goodness, the decency, the fairness and the desire to act justly that I encounter in Israelis all the time, and that we see in opinion polls.  I often teach that the Hebrew word for prayer, “tefillah,” is a reflexive verb meaning to look in the mirror that is God in order to see how we, created in the Image of God, measure up.  Tikun Olam is  holding up God the Mirror so that our fellow Israelis can take a good look at what they have been ignoring.  We must do so not to rub the nose of the naughty puppy in the mess they made, and not to tell our fellow Israelis they are awful. They are not.  Rather we must do so with the faith that the many good and decent Israelis will not like what they see if they manage to drop their defense mechanisms, and see what they have been ignoring, or has been hidden from them.

Conveying that we believe we are better than we are acting at the moment, we must remind our fellow our Israelis that they can and want to be better.

Our challenge is carving out sufficient time to do this, even as we must continue fighting every day to stop the human rights violations that can be stopped.  Resources would help.  Just as I published to installments of a “Dispossession Diary” in my Times of Israel blog, I would pay, if necessary, to publish such a diary in various Hebrew media outlets.  It isn’t sufficient to write, we must engage people in synagogues and community centers, and hold parlor meetings.

We must stop jumping, and start swimming.

Finally, the crossing of the Reed Sea reminds us of where we need to swim to.  The well known midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabah teaches us that God commands the angels not to join in the joyous song of the Israelites after successfully crossing the sea, “The work of my hands are drowning,  and you sing praises?”  Only those who have just experienced salvation are allowed to sing. Although we are commanded to see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, and therefore permitted to join in the Song at the Sea, I usually find myself standing silently when we recite it in our morning prayers.  We will truly be able to sing when we no longer are celebrating a zero sum salvation at the expense of others, but singing a song in which all can join in.

As we count the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, we are counting the days towards Sinai. Let us use these days to remember why we are engaged in this journey and what more we need to do to get there.

Khag Sameakh

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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