Frederick L. Klein

Seeing, Internalizing, Responding: Three Lessons of Passover

Reflections Composed Following the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami’s Mission to the Southern U.S. Border, March 2023

We- Not They– Went out of Egypt

The Haggadah, quoting a Mishna in Pesachim, commands us Chayav Adam Lirot et Atzmo K’Eelu Hoo Yatza Me’Mitzraim. “A person must see themselves as having gone out of Egypt.” Yet, in a society of opulence, it is very difficult to truly feel the sense that we have actually gone through the degradation and dehumanization of an Egypt and then experience the blessings of deliverance.  Nonetheless, the expectation of the seder night is that for a few hours we project ourselves upon a different reality in such a way that our own lives become transformed. The various strange rituals and objects are meant to create another reality, a reality in which we are truly slaves, and shed a tear not for our ancestors, but for ourselves.  In doing a Passover seder correctly, we smash the barriers between present and past, and we truly experience a different universe than our own. The normative messages that we take away every year will change. However, whatever story we do tell, it is a story that should have the capacity to penetrate our hearts.

This was the kavannah (the intention), when fifteen South Florida rabbis went with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to the Mexican border, between San Diego and Tijuana. Accompanying us were professional from Jewish social service agencies in South Florida doing the work of refugee resettlement, including those fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine in the past year. We flew across the country to learn about the horrible crisis of asylum seekers and refugees. Our tradition teaches us that thirty days before a Jewish holiday one should begin studying the laws and traditions of that holiday; our journey together was our spiritual preparation in preparing for our own Passover seders. However, in the stories I will tell, I hope that these words will help you spiritually prepare for your own seders as well.

I will tell you that my seder this year will not be the same, as when I speak about the suffering of my people, I will be thinking about the eyes of a refugee I encountered in one of the twenty-six makeshift shelters in Tijuana. But first, let me give you the context of this brief encounter.

This shelter, a stadium that was retrofitted into a shelter, had twenty rows of beds with almost four hundred souls from all over the world. The moment we walked into the building, hundreds of people surrounded us, as if we were the bearers of good news. These are the invisible people, people that the world refuses to see for their full humanity. These are people who for the most part cannot go back to their homes but have nowhere yet to go either. According to the UNHCR, in mid-2022 the number of forcibly displaced persons approached 102 million, with 32.5 million legal refugees and 4.9 million seeking asylum. It is estimated that 44% of these refugees and asylum seekers are survivors of various forms of abuse and torture.

Because the southern border is essentially closed, a result of the draconian (mis)use of Title 42 as a strategy to limit entry to the US, hundreds of thousands of people must claim asylum on the Northern border of Mexico, an unsafe area of government corruption, rampant crime, abuse and traffickers.[1]  While international law gives people the right to make an asylum claim at the border and await their hearing in the US (most often staying with family members), the US at the Southern border has severely limited this capacity by requiring people to file their claims on an app.  Every day, tens of thousands of people log on at precisely 8 AM to have the opportunity to make an asylum claim. The people show us this app, only operable at the Northern Mexican border, and tell us that often it does not even work, and that on some days there are only twenty spots available for thousands of individuals.  Moreover, children must be filed separately. In essence, the system is specifically designed to dissuade anyone coming to our borders.

When I heard this story, I remembered only one month ago when I was at Walt Disney World, where I and thousands of other people logged on precisely at 8 AM to get on a ride cue for their newest rollercoaster. This cue, like the Customs and Border Patrol app (CBP1), fills all available spots within seconds. However, in one case we are talking about a thrill ride, while in another the fate of a family.

It is no wonder many take a chance, crossing the border illegally or paying traffickers to make the dangerous trip over the border.  Sometimes parents even send their own children alone, with the knowledge that the US will not send back a child. We all asked our guides. “What kind of parent would send children over the border?”  The answer: parents that feel so desperate that in their calculus staying put is more dangerous than sending them away. In hearing one story of a minister who needed to do this very thing decades ago, (never telling her 44-year-old son out of shame), I could not but think of another mother- a Jewish mother-  who sent away her own son. “When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (Exodus 2:3). Moses’s mother felt so desperate that she sent her son into danger. Yet the daughter of Pharaoh ‘saw the child and the child was crying’. She had mercy on this child, and disobeyed the command of her own father. The redemption of the Jewish people began with another, an outsider, seeing the pain of another and responding.

Now back to the eyes of this person. In this makeshift shelter, amidst this sea of displaced humanity, I noticed the eyes of a woman and her daughter. She looked exactly like someone I knew here in Miami, but no two lives could be more divergent. Her eyes were transfixed upon me, longing and hoping. At first it was almost unnerving. Not really speaking Spanish and not knowing what to do, I simply lifted my hand to my heart, and she did the same. At that moment, her eyes glistened, and her daughter looked up at her mother’s moistened face. What her story was I will never know, but at the soul level I knew all I needed to know. Like Pharaoh’s daughter who exclaimed about the infant Moses, ‘he is a Hebrew child,’ with all its unspoken implications, I was confronted with the vulnerability of another human being. Her eyes make a claim on me. How can I not think of her this year when stating  in the Haggadah ‘V’nitzak el Hashem Elokeinu”, we cried out to God for redemption. If we are truly God’s agents, and God heard the cries of those forgotten, like a bunch of Hebrew slaves, how can we turn away?

All Who are Hungry Come and Eat

Jews open the narrative portion of the seder, maggid, with an interesting Aramaic proclamation, accompanied by an equally dramatic gesture. The seder leader, takes a piece of matza, and breaks it in half. Part of the matzah is wrapped in a napkin or cloth and saved for later. The Talmud notes, this is the way poor people eat, piecemeal, as they never know when the next meal will come. It is on this half piece of matzah we recite Ha Lachma Anya D’achlu Avatana B’Ara D’Mitzraim. ‘This is the poor man’s bread we ate in the land of Egypt’. We begin our story by becoming the slaves in the land of Egypt; we are hungry like our ancestors were. However, the next line of the Haggadah is striking and counterintuitive: kol dichfin yeitei ve’echol, all who are hungry come and eat. One might have thought that the insecurity of poverty and oppression would have led to insularity and selfishness, of people turning on one another, or at the very least hoarding for themselves.[2] Yet, this was not the response of our ancestors, but why?

The moment in which a collection of people became the nation of Israel interestingly was not in Canaan, and not at Mount Sinai. In the land of Canaan, they were simply a large family, and at Mount Sinai the people were already multitude of 600,000 souls, a nation. The Haggadah, quoting Deuteronomy 26:5, is emphatic that it was there, in the slavery of Egypt, that they became a nation. The suffering of Egypt opened the gateways of compassion to one another; one could see the same vulnerability in their neighbor. Because they were confronted with the very same vulnerabilities experienced by their neighbor, they shared. These countless acts of mutual sharing born out of suffering and oppression were those which melded one heart to another. Later they would acquire a Torah, but the fabric of the Jewish people is not simply borne out of a law, but a common beginning that informs our entire subsequent history.[3] One of the great ironies is that all too often the poor are more, not less, generous as an absolute percentage of their earnings.

Abravanel, himself the victim of expulsion and dislocation from Spain in 1492, explains the meaning of this declaration in his commentary of the Haggadah, Zevach Pesach. “To those who are in need of matzah and do not have, come share my matzah for it is the bread of the needy and it is good for you. On this night we are all equal. Do not be embarrassed because you are needy; so were our ancestors in Egypt.” Often, the poor of our world not only experience insecurity, but humiliation and degradation. Jews living in the land of Israel, with fields, servants, and wealth, are commanded to remember these beginnings, lest they forget the lessons of these formative experiences.

However, the sharing of one person with another is not only a call to solidarity, but in itself redemptive in nature, as it points to a change in character. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l, noted that matzah is both the bread of poverty as well as the bread of freedom. The difference is not in the bread itself, but rather in each of us. “One who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself to be capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. … Bread shared is no longer the bread of oppression. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.”[4]  In opening our hearts, we show ourselves a people worthy of redemption.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook in his commentary on the Haggadah notes, that we open our retelling of the Exodus with this invitation of hospitality, because this is the very nature of the Jew, the ‘light of Abraham’ who embodies chesed, loving-kindness.[5]  In essence, for us to call ourselves Jews, we must identify with the tradition going back to Abraham. How is Abraham’s kindness manifested in the Biblical text? Through his gestures of hospitality, welcoming the stranger.

In the core narrative, Abraham is sitting ‘at the entrance of the door in the heat of the day’ (Gen. 18:1), when he sees three individuals walking by. Abraham is not simply responding to a need, but he is at the door actively looking for those who need hospitality. Far from doing them a favor, he treats them like kings, calling them ‘my masters’, washing their feet and feeding them bread and meat. Later we will realize these mysterious individuals are angels, but at this stage they are simply wanderers in need of a place to rest. The day that this event happened according to rabbinic tradition was none other than the 15 of Nissan, later the day of Passover.[6]  Thus in inviting others who are needy to join us, we are modeling our patriarch Abraham, emphasizing we are his descendants.[7]  We too are sitting at the entrance of the door, seeking the wanderer and providing hospitality if we can.

I thought of this text when we visited the Jewish Family Services shelter in San Diego for those who have finally arrived in this country as refugees or asylum seekers and are seeking a brief stay before they are transported to the places where they will await their asylum hearings. This center not only provides hot meals, basic supplies and a hotel, but the center partners with United Airlines to provide subsidized flights for these individuals throughout the continental US. They have even have an entire staff of travel agents making arrangements. Most of the people sheltered only stay a few days, the first stop after being granted permission to enter this country. Since the beginning of the year, over 22,000 people have been served, and the budget for this program is over 38 million dollars (!). The JFS of San Diego embodies the ethos of Abraham, and shows how a community (as well as a State as well as a US city) embodies the moral imagination implied in our opening proclamation on the matzah. May all who are hungry come and eat!

Responding- The Lessons of the Exodus

One of the most important lessons our people are to learn from Egypt is to love the stranger, a concept that appears in the Torah 36 times. However, what precisely does this command mean? Do I really love strangers like my own child?! Is that even possible? What is the experience of being strangers in the land of Egypt meant to teach me in relationship to the stranger, someone who is not of my family, much less my people?

Our Torah commands us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,’ v’ahavta le’reacha kamocha (Leviticus 19:18). Many read this mitzvah in the most maximal of ways, legislating an emotion of love for my fellow human being that is equal to self-love.  However, most rabbinic authorities argue that not only is that unrealistic, but the Hebrew syntax does not bear out this reading. [8] In truth the meaning is you shall act lovingly towards your neighbor in the same way you would want them to act lovingly towards you. Furthermore, the verse gives the context in which this loving attitude should be expressed. You shall not bear a grudge nor take vengeance, but rather act in a loving manner. In other words, the mitzvah challenges me to consider the interrelationships in which I am entangled, and to think how I might feel as the object of the grudges or vengeance of another. If I had wronged another, would I want them bearing a grudge or trying to get even? In truth, the meaning of the text, more accurately follows the seminal teaching of Hillel, who told the convert who wanted to convert on one foot, ‘that which is hateful to you do not do to another’ ( T.B. Shabbat 31). Thus, in building relationships with those in our immediate orbit, we need to maintain the ties that bind us. Failing to do so would create an endless cycle of violence and hatred.

However, what about those not in our orbit? A few verses later in Leviticus 19, a similar verse appears, but this time the verse considers the ger, the stranger.

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not oppress them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself  (v’ahavta lo kamocha), for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I Hashem am your God (Lev. 19:33-34).

Here the prohibition is to oppress the stranger, as opposed to holding grudges or acting vengefully. In general the stranger is vulnerable and has no recourse; they do not really have the capacity to hold a grudge or ‘get even’, as they are denied real power. For this reason, one could easily take advantage of a stranger. Who will really care anyway?! (See e.g., Ibn Ezra 19:33). However, we are not merely told not to take advantage of those without power, but to see these people in a completely new way.  They shall be like your fellow citizens, a.k.a your neighbors! If they are seen like your neighbors, then you must treat him in the very same way you must treat your neighbors discussed above! You must not abuse them or harm them.

But why? They look different, they speak a different language, they have different family ties, and they are of different religions. In truth, we do have varying levels of obligations based upon the nature of our relationships, but in one regard these people- these strangers- are cut of the same fabric as we are. They are, and we were, both strangers, and in this sense, we are one people. This realization is meant to awaken me to the fact that in a very fundamental sense, these people are part of our extended universe of moral concern, engendering certain legal obligations. We must protect the strangers (gerim) as ourselves, because we both in one way are tied together. They are not outsiders, but insiders. In at least one sense, and one particularly important sense, the stranger really is one of us. We both have gone through the Egypt experience, but while we have come out, they await their liberation.

In no conceivable universe can we truly say that our world is protecting the uprooted and the stranger. Given we are living in the most prosperous time in human history, this is particularly tragic. Refugees and uprooted people are the most vulnerable people on earth, without place or status, and are regularly subject to sexual, physical, and economic abuse. The mitzvah of loving the stranger does not mean, ‘be nice to people’, but prevent them from the same abuse to which you would not want to be submitted. For me, after my journey to the Southern US border, the importance of this teaching has pitched urgency, and we are failing not only them, but the values to which we pay lip service.

What I have shared are not policy positions. I do not know how to solve hunger, homelessness, political violence, climate change or any other of the myriad of factors which has caused the largest movement of peoples in human history.  Furthermore, no person or country for that matter can cure all the ailments and suffering of an unredeemed world. Only God can do that.

However, what I have been doing is shaping the contours of a personality in which these are issues at all. The seder is an ideal time to consider these questions; how does the seder awaken us to the unredeemed world around us? We need to feel and see suffering, we need to feel claimed by that encounter, we need to be proactive promoters of hospitality and kindness, and we need to battle the oppression of those most vulnerable. If we are brutally honest, those are not the most important values of most societies, nor large numbers of people, because if they were, our world would look vastly different from the way it does.

We cannot change the entire world, but each of us has a circle of influence, a way in which we can impact the course of the world for those in it. Let us be the source of hope to all who need this year.

A Happy and Healthy Passover to all.

[1] To see how this obscure law designed 100 years ago in the interest of public health has been used to advance a policy of severely limiting any immigration into the United States was supposed to expire, but now is being extended.

[2] This is a distinct possibility and one of the messages of the miraculous manna in the desert.  The people, living with a fixed daily allotment, tried to hoard the manna and lacked the faith that God would provide.

[3] This is an instructive lesson for those who like to play the ‘who is more Jewish game.’

[4] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah, (USA:Continuum, 2010), pg. 11

[5] Haggadah shell Pesach im Perush Olot Re’iyah [Hebrew] (Israel: Mussad HaRav Kook, 1963), p 28

[6] See the piyyut zot zevach pesach at the end of many Passover Haggadot which makes the connection.

[7] Hakham Avraham Arusi makes the point explicitly as well. Let your house be wide open” (Mishnah Avot 1:5) – to offer food and drink, to satisfy the thirsty and fill with goodness the yearning soul, whether deserving or undeserving. And this was the particular quality of Abraham our father, peace be upon him, who used to feed anyone who passed by, whether they were circumcised or not, according to the verse, “and he planted a tamarisk,” in Hebrew eshel, “at Beer Sheba,” in which our sages of blessed memory gloss “eshel” as anacronym for the Hebrew words eating, akhilah, drinking, shetiyah, and sleeping, linah.  (“Or la-Yesharim,” collected in Ner Yair, p.26 (Medan Publishing, Bnei Brak: 1996. Cited by Drori Yehoshua in a source sheet produced by  Machon Hadar, Project Zug, How do we Create Peace in the Worlds, Unit 2:2)

[8] See e.g., Nachmanides ibid, who argues the text should say et et reacha and not l’reachecha if the Torah was legislating the obligation to love another as oneself.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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