Now We Are Free…But Are They?
It is often too easy to forget the lessons of Passover after the holiday is over, the first bites of leavened bread washing away the taste of affliction from our mouths. We are satisfied with where we have left off in the story of the Exodus — the Egyptians are vanquished, the Red Sea split in our wake, and we march forth confidently towards Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Torah in just a few short weeks. For a people whose lives were so recently darkened by slavery, the future looks bright.
But I always squirm in my seat when we celebrate our own liberation from bondage. We say at the Seder that we must view ourselves in every generation as having personally left Egypt; that in every generation, there are those who rise up against us to destroy us, but God saves us from their hands. Is this really the lesson of the Passover story — that in every generation we are victims, powerless against our mightiest foes, and that each time God redeems us from a new Egypt? The characters certainly line up: many Haggadot juxtapose the Egyptians with the Crusaders, depicting Pharaoh and Haman and Hitler shaking hands over their joint mission.
Implicit within our retelling of the story of our enslavement this way, however, is a type of moral immunity. As Rabbi David Hartman puts it, “We need not take the moral criticism of the world seriously because the uniqueness of our suffering places us above the moral judgment of an immoral world.” I shudder that this lesson may be the legacy of our sacred holiday.
What happens if the Jews were ever to become the oppressors, instead of the oppressed, embodying the Egyptian taskmasters under whose hands they suffered so much?
This oppression may take forms that aren’t so obvious. In 2005, David Stern, the Jewish commissioner of the National Basketball Association, instituted a league-wide dress code. “Business casual” attire, to be worn before and after games, replaced the staples of the hip-hop (read: black) culture that so many in the NBA admired and embodied; failure to comply with the new standards of dress would result in a fine. HBO sports talk show host Bryant Gumbel, among others, criticized of the change, commenting in 2011, “[Stern’s] efforts were typical of a commissioner, who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer treating NBA men as if they were his boys.”
Considering that the motivation behind the dress code was largely racial — it was meant to dilute the “black” nature of the league by making it more palatable to white viewers, who didn’t identify with the doo-rags and gold chains often worn by the players — David Stern had less in common with his enslaved Israelite ancestors and their victimized descendants, and more with the inheritors of Pharaoh’s heritage, the ruthless plantation owners that sought to control black bodies. Even his successor, coreligionist Adam Silver, expressed his discontent in 2014 at how many NBA athletes donned “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during pregame warmups to honor the late Eric Garner. He claimed he’d rather they “ ‘abide by our on-court attire rules,’ ” giving no indication that the precedent laid down by his mentor to stifle players’ self-expression would change under his watch.
The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah teaches us that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt because throughout their time of slavery, they preserved three things: their language, their names, and their clothing. How ironic that these descendants of slaves would force their subjects to change their clothes, undermining their identity in the process.
This example provides a poignant lesson about the extent to which we must consider the implications of relatively new-found Jewish power and how the Other is treated in our midst. If we refuse to let others judge us, we must then be keen to judge ourselves. The commemoration of Passover demands and deserves nothing less.
In the shadow of Egypt and Auschwitz, and especially in the midst of Yom HaShoah, we must take the cries of “Never Again” not only to mean that the Jewish people must never suffer as they did then. We will not forget those national tragedies, certainly. But the legacy of those memories does not only extend to us. No longer can we be complacent with an ethnocentric celebration of freedom — our work is not done just because the Jews have been liberated from bondage.
The essence of the experience of slavery is not merely that we recognize our own freedom, but also that we commit to ensuring the freedom of others. We are inclined during this time of the year to bask in our own deliverance, elated as we ourselves leave Egypt towards a new beginning of freedom. I challenge us to remain conscious of those who are still enslaved, especially if by our own hands, that, as we prepare to enter the Promised Land, they may one day come with us.