Though the high holidays are traditionally meant to be the time for introspection, I have always connected more with Passover as a period of reflection. Whether it is the Passover story that helps me find more tangible lessons or the fact that the holiday requires a full eight days of observance to a degree that I don’t usually maintain the rest of the year, Passover to me has always been a time to take stock.
There has already been plenty written this year about the lessons of the holiday and current events:
The COVID lockdowns and people feeling trapped in their homes reminds us of the nature of freedom, liberty, and the ability to choose.
There are tornadoes ripping up the southern United States, reminding people of the 10 plagues and natural disasters more broadly.
There is global political upheaval and changes in government (or in Israel’s case, the lack thereof) that may remind people of how a new Pharaoh rose up who did not know Joseph, who enslaved the Jews in Egypt, and of the fickleness of politics.
And today the world’s eyes are actually turned to Egypt, where a massive ship has blocked global shipping in the Suez Canal. If only the same ship had been present 3,500 years ago as the Jews rushed to escape Egypt – they could have hopped aboard and walked to the other side of the Gulf of Suez, instead of relying on Moses’ water-splitting skills.
Or perhaps the Suez Canal best resembles a Jewish digestive tract three days from now, which will be blocked up by matzah consumption.
With all that is going on in the world, I am stuck on a meeting I had Friday morning, on the eve of Passover. It was with the settlement team of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) in Toronto. As a member of the board, and as an immigration lawyer myself, I was asked to attend their meeting to help brainstorm ideas for how best to assist on a number of refugee issues.
This dedicated team of settlement workers spends their lives trying to assist those most vulnerable. The subject of our meeting was two sets of refugees: persecuted Yazidis in Iraq, and Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.
The specific purpose of the meeting was to determine how best to approach the Canadian government to implore them to assist these two vulnerable populations. This is a tricky ask at a time when government immigration decisions revolve around economic considerations.
On our Zoom call, the team told me about those Yazidi refugees who had already made their ways to Canada. They have been living a simple and frustrated existence in this country, though their hearts remain in Iraq. They left behind family members – young and old – who continue to be persecuted and/or attacked in Iraq, and who yearn for their own freedom, and to be able to make their way to safety. The Yazidi population has experienced an almost successful genocide at the hands of ISIS. The survivors’ spirits have been worn down as they seek to identify family members resting in mass graves, and their own peace.
At the same time, there are Eritrean refugees, similarly fleeing for their lives and safety, who have made their ways into Ethiopia. Risking everything, children and adults have fled across international borders, where they await word on refugee and immigration claims that have been made by generous sponsors in Canada. Patiently, all parties wait for government officers to process the applications, scrutinize their claims, and hopefully grant them the paperwork necessary for their resettlement abroad.
JIAS has helped to facilitate refugee claims and advocacy efforts. They are motivated as a Jewish organization to help those in need.
Yes, the story of Passover is one of freedom. It is the story of G-d, Moses, and the Jewish people facing off against a much more powerful Pharaoh, and insisting that they be given their liberty. With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, G-d took his people out of Egypt, where they soon made their way to Israel to live as free people in their land.
And yes, every year, we are reminded at Passover that even though we, the Jewish people, have obtained our freedom, there are still others who aren’t free. We commit to helping with their liberation, but when you look past the lip service that this task is given, and what truly goes into the liberation of others, the job is daunting.
13 years ago, I wrote an essay for a Haggadah about the kidnapped Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. As today, I noted that it is difficult to celebrate your own freedom when others are not free.
In that essay, I quoted an Arik Einstein song, Avshalom, in which he sings, “Why not now, what will inevitably happen tomorrow?”
This is an optimistic line which invokes an impatience at waiting for something that you are sure will happen soon. At the time, I applied it to the situation of Israel’s kidnapped soldiers, hoping that through government negotiations, good faith, military leverage, or a combination of all three, they would be released back to Israel. And yes, months after writing about it, their bodies were released to Israel and their families, to be buried at home.
However today, when I think about this line – lamah loh achshav mah she’betach yavoh machar – and the tacit optimism contained in those lyrics, I am less convinced. Today, if the freedom of others is to be inevitable, it requires that mountains be moved by those of us who are free.
The story of Passover reminds us that we are each given agency, and the responsibility for our own actions. Had Moses remained reluctant to act on the Jewish people’s behalf when speaking with G-d before the burning bush, perhaps we would still be slaves in Egypt, helping to free a stuck cargo ship.
Moses however was prompted to action by G-d. His actions – with the assistance of others, including his siblings and G-d Himself – led to the liberty we celebrate this evening. But it was only with the acceptance of the task, and the enormity of the job, that Moses got the job done.
This is what I will be thinking about tonight as I crack my first piece of matza, drop wine on my plate, and listen to my daughter asking the four questions. I will think about the enormity of the task at hand, and about the role that our community and others take on when we seek to save Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, Yazidi survivors in Iraq, or even advocate for Uyghur Muslims in China.
Our celebration of freedom falls flat when we do not help others achieve the same. The task is not ours alone, but if we can help, then we must help, and only then will we see each other next year in Jerusalem.