Last Monday evening, President Barack Obama gathered with his family, members of his staff and other guests, many of them Jews and African-Americans, to hold his fifth seder since coming to the White House.
Many Israelis, who until the President’s tour de force visit to Israel the previous week had tended to think of him as emotionally distant from Israel and Jewish concerns and sensitivities, were pleased to hear Obama state proudly during his dynamic speech to the audience of young Israelis in Jerusalem that he initiated the tradition of holding the annual seder at the White House when he became President in 2009. In fact, this was a continuation of a longstanding custom by him and his wife Michelle of participation in Passover seders in their hometown of Chicago.
In fact, Obama began observing Passover after moving in the mid 1980’s to the mixed Jewish-African American Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, where he taught law at the University of Chicago, launched his political career and formed close personal relationships with a broad spectrum of Jewish academics, political professions and even rabbis.
In his speech that day in Jerusalem, the President explained that he decided to host the annual seder at the White House because “I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah and the story at the center of Passover, that makes this time of year so powerful,” a story which, as he noted, is both central to the Jewish people and which also “holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering, but also all of salvation.”
Seeking to convey why Passover resonates so powerfully with him and with many other African-Americans, as well as with Americans of diverse backgrounds, Obama explained to his audience in Jerusalem;
It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert, a story of perseverance amidst persecution… It’s a story of finding freedom in your own land. In the United States – a nation made up of people who crossed oceans to start anew – we’re naturally drawn to the idea of finding freedom in our land. To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image to emerge from the grip of bondage to reach liberty and human dignity – a tale that was carried from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement into today.
Permit me to suggest another aspect of the Passover narrative that resonates with President Obama as well. At the Passover Seder when we recall the Ten Plagues that God visited upon the ancient Egyptians, it is important to remember that not all of the plagues manifested themselves in the form of physical afflictions. Rabbinic sages explain that the Ninth Plague – the plague of Darkness – did not represent an actual darkening of the sky, but rather a darkness of the heart, a communal blindness, a plague which has afflicted human societies from time immemorial.
Exodus 10:23 states, “They saw not one another” – meaning the ancient Egyptians were blind to each other’s needs, and that their gross insensitivity and inhumanity in relation to the suffering of the Hebrew slaves living among them ultimately led to the breakdown of Egyptian society. The biblical narrative of Passover has reminded Jews and others throughout history that in order to avoid the fatal blindness of the ancient Egyptians we must feel and display empathy toward people of diverse backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities, including people with who we may strongly disagree.
The need for empathy and understanding of the pain of the ‘Other’; whether Jew or Arab, came through powerfully in President Obama’s message to the people of Israel. The President transmitted enormous empathy and reassurance during his visit to Israelis of all political strains who are deeply unsettled by the metastasizing chaos and growing religious extremism in neighboring countries like Syria, Egypt and Iraq, and the constant threat of the genocidal and nuclear-bent Iranian regime to wipe Israel off the map. Stressing that in such an uncertain environment “the security of the Jewish people in Israel…cannot be taken for granted,” Obama stated powerfully in the true spirit of empathy:
And today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – so there’s no mistake here, so long as there is a United States of America – Atem lo levad. You are not alone.
Obama’s ringing affirmation of “Atem lo levad” and his iron-clad commitment that the U.S. will protect Israel’s security no matter what, was deeply reassuring to Israelis, who feel ever more isolated and vulnerable amidst the chaos in their region triggered by the Arab Spring. Yet at the same time, echoing the theme of empathy and understanding, Obama asked Israelis to stretch themselves to also show human empathy to their Palestinian neighbors; asking his audience to “put yourself in their shoes” and “look at the world through their eyes.”
The President acknowledged that the plight of the Palestinians is due in large part to many wrong-headed moves by the Palestinian leadership over decades, yet reminded his Israeli audience that “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own” and that Palestinians of all ages are forced to endure the many daily controls, limitations and humiliations that go with living under occupation. Obama expressed the belief that if Israeli parents were able to meet with Palestinian youngsters, as he had done in Ramallah earlier that day, they would say, “I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities, just like my kids do.”
The lesson of the Ninth Plague of the Passover story challenges us to see the humanity in all of God’s Children, and to free ourselves from the shackles of indifference. Let us celebrate this timeless message of Passover by keeping aglow the light of understanding in a world too often darkened by the inability to see and to feel for the Other.