As a rabbi, I have developed a habit of watching the news and filtering the stories through a Jewish lens, always thinking about the way that this or that story relates to Judaism. In the days leading up to Pesach, and during the first days of the festival, there was unfortunately no shortage of stories that could be related to the themes of the festival. In Egypt we witnessed the terrorist bombing of a Coptic Church, with a group targeted because of their religious beliefs. In Syria we watched as the fighting escalates with an ever-increasing number of refugees forced to leave their homes behind fleeing for their lives. In Chechnya, reports emerged of gay men being detained and tortured in camps. And then the United Nations reported on modern day ‘slave markets’ in Libya where young African men are being sold.
Yet instead of our news media and social media feeds being inundated with news of these horrific events, we were instead flooded with a story of a different sort. The footage of passenger Dr. David Dao, whose only offense was refusing to give up a seat for which he had paid, being grabbed and dragged from United Airlines flight 3411 was deeply disturbing. I found myself sucked into the story, repeatedly watching the clip and reading numerous articles about what had actually happened. Yet when I stepped back and reflected on the other atrocities and injustices going on across the globe at that very moment, it felt odd and frankly wrong that this was the story that dominated the news cycle and social media. It raises the question: why are we so outraged by this particular injustice while we push the other injustices off to the side?
I believe the clip has struck such a chord with us because it is easy to imagine ourselves in a similar situation. But what of the situations in which we cannot easily imagine ourselves? This is where Pesach comes in. Our festival challenges us to move beyond simply feeling empathy for people who are in similar situations to ourselves, and instead to broaden our scope and perspective, so that we feel empathy for those who are different.
The entire ritual of the Seder is designed to reinforce the central message of avadim hayinu ata bnei chorin – we were slaves, but now we are free. It is not that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, but that we ourselves experienced the suffering and the slavery. In one passage it is spelled out: “In every generation each Jew should regard themselves as though they personally went forth from Egypt.”
One generation directly experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the preceding years of slavery. Several generations experienced persecution, suffering and challenges that may be paralleled with the events we recount at the Seder. But for many generations, and certainly for the overwhelming majority of us in America sitting around Seder tables today, the slavery experience is completely foreign. We are required by the rituals and story of the Pesach Seder to take a mental leap and imagine that we were slaves in Egypt and to feel the pain and carry the scars of the suffering that was inflicted upon our people. We are then charged to see the world through newly opened eyes, as people who have been persecuted and enslaved but are today privileged to be free.
How many more tweets were written about United Airlines than were written about the bombing of a Coptic Church in Egypt that claimed the lives of over 40 people, injuring hundreds of others? How many column inches has this story already received while the story of modern day slavery has received barely any attention? And for how long will we remember this incident while we seem to have forgotten that today there are more refugees across the world than at any time since the end of World War Two? While we should be appalled by what happened on United Airlines flight 3411, we need to be equally, and arguably more, outraged by the other examples of atrocities and injustice around the world.
Pesach is a call to see ourselves in all of these stories of suffering. We know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is not enough to tweet about it, though it’s a start. It is our obligation as Jews to do something about it. For without being a part of redemption, how can we be worthy of revelation?