On Passover, Jews remind themselves of their time as slaves in Egypt. The Passover story reads, “עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים”, “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt”. Of course, slavery is universally recognized as evil and immoral today. Still, in the long timeline of human existence, we are not far removed from the injustices of serfdom.
Despite Thomas Jefferson’s pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “all Men are created equal”, it took nearly a century and the bloodiest war the continent had ever seen to establish these ideals, ridding the land of the “peculiar institution” known as slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 set slaves free. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and indentured servitude. The 14th Amendment provided citizens equal protection of the laws. The 15th Amendment prohibited the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on his “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite the robust reform to the nation’s founding document, it would take another century to overcome racial segregation and even longer to re-educate a culture imbued with discrimination based on skin color. Women fought and won their own battles for suffrage and escape from the “cult of domesticity”. To this day, however, we do not live in a perfectly tolerant society. But we certainly have made progress.
If there was one person who would cheerlead the United States unapologetically, it was President Ronald Reagan. His reputation as “The Great Communicator” came not only for his soaring speeches but also for his stern, poignant warnings. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
Reagan’s words are embodied by the annual Passover Seder. The Passover story begins with the recitation of “The Four Questions” by the youngest (literate) child in attendance. Later, we are introduced to the inquiries of children who are wise, contrary, simple, and unknowing, as well as the respective responses that are to be given to each child, explaining what sets the Seder night apart from all other nights. Each child is dealt a unique approach, all of which include a version of explaining, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt”. At a young age, the value of freedom is inculcated in Jewish youth. The verbal retelling of the story is accompanied by physical reminders. We eat bitter herbs (מרור) to recall the sour feeling of slavery; a sweet, dark-colored paste made of fruits and nuts (חרוסת) to remind us of the mud our ancestors shaped into bricks; unleavened bread (מצה) to remember that the Israelites did not have enough time to allow the bread to rise as they made their exodus. Matzah is a staple of the Passover diet over the eight-day-long period during which Jews observe the holiday. For more than a week every year, Jews remember their millenia-old plight of their ancestors.
While the Jewish people did not forget their past struggles, their memory would not spare them of the atrocities of the modern era. On Holocaust Remembrance Day (יום השואה), we remember the 6,000,000 Jews who were slaughtered for their faith within the last eight decades. Memorial services involve rituals such as candle lighting to mourn the deceased victims of the Holocaust. No lengthy Seders, no bitter herbs, no mud-like goo, no snappable sheets of unleavened bread. Nothing of the sort. But we promise to “Never forget”. For the sake of humanity, let’s hope that our word is as good as the Jewish people’s commitment to never forgetting their time as slaves in Egypt.
In fact, the victims of the Holocaust were not unfamiliar with the Passover story themselves. European Jews would have given anything to trade places with their ancestors as slaves in Egypt. Yet through the darkest moments in history, the Jews hanged on to their traditions, the very rituals marking the identity that had led them to the concentration camps. Holocaust survivor and author of Night, Elie Wiesel, describes responding to a moment of anguish with prayer, “Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.” Although the Kaddish is traditionally used to mourn the dead, it nothing more than a hymn of praises to God. The same God of the First Commandment (Exodus 20:2), “I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The Jewish people found themselves in a similar situation, albeit in a different age and under incomparably egregious circumstances.
In fact, the Jews are not the only ones who study the exodus from Egypt. Christians include the story in their Old Testament. Muslims incorporate it in their literature as well, Moses being one of their Prophets. Most everyone knows the story of the Exodus. Let my people go. Pharoah refuses, is plagued upon, still refuses, is plagued upon again. Repeat eight more times. Finally, the Jews are given permission to leave Egypt. They cross the Red Sea, wander the desert for forty years, and eventually reach Canaan (modern-day Israel), the Promised Land. Most religious people do not dispute this account. Additionally, the historical record shows the Kingdoms of Israel and Judea as outgrowths of the southern Canaanites in what is now Israel. Ancient Jewish settlement of the land of Israel are the oldest claims to the land, validating the claim, “Jews are Indigenous to the Land of Israel”. When Jewish students at New York University displayed a sign stating precisely said argument this week, challenging others to “Change [their] mind”, they were labeled racists by NYU Students for Justice in Palestine on their Facebook page. The stand was a part of Israel Peace Week, a series of Israel-focused events for the NYU community at large. Comments on the defamatory post included, “If Jews are indigenous to Palestine, why is the leading cause of death among Jews in Palestine skin cancer?” Despite the repugnancy of the line of questioning, another user responded with rankings by Israel’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the leading causes of death in Israel in 2017; melanoma not among the top ten.
Numerous other comments on the post sought to disassociate Jewish history with the land of Israel by virtue of physical characteristics of Jews and pseudo-historical narratives. Despite the absurdity of these claims, architectural and archeological evidence exhibit Jewish ties to the land. The most famous example is the Western Wall, a vestige of the majestic Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and Judaism’s holiest intact site. Ironically, in December 2018, 148 nations in the United Nations General Assembly disavowed Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
The Western Wall would be to an unscathed Second Jewish Temple, what the world’s Jewish population today would be to a complete set of modern Jews (including those murdered in the Holocaust and their potential descendants). To ignore the Western Wall would be akin to both killing the Holocaust victims again and the rest of the world’s Jewish population. The Jewish people are inextricably linked to the land of Israel and their survival weightily depends on its existence. Attempts to undermine the connection will fail in their tracks for every year, more and more Jews make good on their aspirations of spending next year in Jerusalem. לשנה הבאה בירושלים
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