The Imperative of Empathy

Every year, as Passover arrives and I review the Haggadah in advance of yet another set of Seders, I struggle with the true significance of this holiday. This year was no different… just more so.

On the one hand, Passover is a deeply personal story for Jews. The Haggadah recounts a seminal moment in Jewish history, arguably the first moment in national Jewish history, when our ancestors were redeemed from Egyptian slavery to become a sovereign and free nation. It is our story, and we own it, because it happened to us. But on the other hand, one could arguably claim that no single story in history has fired the imaginations of those in need of redemption more than ours. The mantra of “from enslavement to redemption” has been co-opted by all kinds of groups, from the civil rights movement of the 60’s to early feminist leaders, to anti-apartheid activists and even Palestinians seeking an end to Israel’s presence in the territories.

Whose story is it anyway? Who owns the powerful metaphor that gives ultimate meaning to this widely celebrated festival?

The answer, I believe, is that we own the story. The Exodus story is, when all is said and done, our history. But we are only the custodians of the metaphor. Failing to appreciate the degree to which its lessons are deeply meaningful to those outside of our fold is to betray the power and significance of what was done for us. This year, more than in any recent years, the answer seemed eminently clear.

All through the past year, we have been bombarded with images of refugees fleeing their homelands, not so much in search of a better life, but in a desperate effort to have a life altogether– to save their lives, and the lives of their family members. Primarily, though not exclusively, the images emanated from Syria, and secondarily from Turkey, which was already flooded with Syrian refugees. Men, women and children crammed themselves into barely sea-worthy boats to make their way to Europe, many of which capsized. The tiny body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee child, washed up on a Turkish beach, provided one of the most horrifying and enduring images of a humanitarian disaster that continues to unfold even now. Throughout Europe, countries have been forced to grapple with what their responsibilities are in this unprecedented situation. Some have wondered aloud whether this might all be a strategic move designed to allow militant jihadists to find their way into European capitals, bypassing safety precautions. And through it all, terror continued to show its ugly face throughout Europe, making the issue as a whole more complicated than merely a humanitarian issue. America, though not as directly involved as the countries of Europe, was forced into its own process of heshbon hanefesh, looking inward to explore what its responsibilities were, both legally and morally.

Although we read the Haggadah’s retelling of the Exodus story only on Passover, it is critically important to note that the Torah itself warns us—on thirty-six different occasions!—to be mindful of the predicament of the strangers among us, for we, ourselves, were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thirty-six times! That’s more than any other prescriptive behavior in the Torah. Obviously, the Torah’s intent is to imprint on our very consciousness the preeminent importance of being sensitive to the plight of those who are, albeit for different reasons and in different circumstances, strangers in a strange land.

Seventy and eighty years ago, the people in those decrepit boats were us. Whether is was the St. Louis, which was bounced from port to port with Jewish refugees onboard and ultimately forced to return them to certain death in Europe, or those ships like the Exodus that worked tirelessly to smuggle Jews escaping Europe into then British-occupied Palestine only to be turned away, we were the displaced people. And to this day, we rightly do not let the world forget that when our lives were on the line and our brothers and sisters were being gassed, virtually no country cared enough to find a way to let us in… not even our beloved United States, whose State Department was inexcusably callous and, yes, anti-Semitic.

It is rarely the case that, even in similar circumstances, all of the details of different events match up exactly, and this is no exception. Yes, Syria has been in a state of war with Israel since its inception, and yes, Islamic terrorism is a real and legitimate threat to the West. Jewish refugees from the Nazis were pure innocents caught up in madness. But as I sat at my seder table this year and re-read our story yet again, I found myself increasingly convinced that out own history is made even richer and more significant when it is superimposed onto today’s still unfolding humanitarian crisis. The Haggadah goes so far as to remind us that we are legally obligated to identify with the plight of our ancestors. What better way to do that than to translate that empathy into even broader concern for those in distress today?

Of course, the primary meaning of “never again” is, and must remain, that what happened to the Jewish people in the Nazi era must never be allowed to happen again. But there are secondary and tertiary meanings as well. Who are we, and what is our moral worth, if we turn our backs on the thousands of innocent Aylan Kurdis because some of their parents are potential terrorists? Being consistently moral is never easy, but the price of moral laziness and indifference is incalculable.

Thirty-six times…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.