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The Seder: A Perfect Time To Discuss Human Rights

Photo created with AI
Photo created with AI

Passover celebrates the story of the enslaved Israelites winning their freedom from Egypt. In today’s terms, we could describe the Israelites as fighting for what we now call human rights. If we dig into the story, we actually find that many wrongs perpetrated by the Egyptians would be considered violations of specific human rights declarations and treaties in force today.

Slavery

Most obvious is slavery, which Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares must be abolished. We might even think the statement in the haggadah that if God had not redeemed us we would still be slaves unto Egypt is no longer true- by now international human rights law would have set us free. But according to the International Labor Organization, as of just a few years ago approximately 28 million people are still being held as slaves all around the world. This means that in absolute terms, that are a greater number of slaves now than at any previous point in history.

Most of today’s slaves do not sweat in the sun, bound by chains and toiling under threat of taskmasters’ whips. A more accurate picture might be a penniless undocumented immigrant, having fled violence or natural disaster in their home country, performing dangerous labor for long hours at low pay. They are unable to leave due to fear of deportation and lack of resources to supply their most basic needs for even a short time without the help of their employer.

When we read about slavery in the Haggadah, we might ask ourselves when unsafe working conditions, low pay, and lack of options trap people into exploitative arrangements which constitute a modern form of slavery. We can also ask who is responsible for putting a stop to this? Governments, corporations, or even consumers?

Reparations

The Torah says that during the Exodus the Israelites took the Egyptians’ possessions, thereby leaving with great wealth. In terms of current human rights law, we would call this reparations- payments human rights abusers must give to their victims in order to compensate for the harm they’ve inflicted.

Reparations intuitively seem to make sense. Victims of slavery and other serious abuse often have nothing, and reparations are a way to give them a chance to begin building new lives. Also, apologies for grave human rights abuses ring very hollow unless accompanied by an offer to give up ill-gotten gains.

But as we discuss this detail of the exodus at the seder, we should also recognize that reparations can raise a host of problems. Who should pay them? If the Israelites were working primarily building storehouses for Pharoah’s personal pleasure, but reparations come from all Egypt, while it may be justice for the Israelites is it also creating a new wrong? One of the chief objections to slavery reparations in the United States is that in light of the passage of time and societal changes, it’s difficult to define who should pay them, who should receive the money, and how it should be spent. And do reparations payments serve to lighten the guilt of the oppressor, such that the suffering they caused is considered lightened or even erased?

Genocide

When we say that Pharoah tried to kill only the boys, but Lavan wanted to destroy the entire Israelite nation, we speak of what today would be called genocide. The original meaning of this term was an attempt to destroy an entire religious, racial, or ethnic group, such as the Holocaust.

But both international law and common usage have expanded this definition tremendously. When we talk about this at the seder we might ask whether the definition of genocide has evolved and expanded to the point that now it is used in ways we hardly recognize and in situations where it may cause confusion or hurt.

The saying ‘Never again’ is a common response to the holocaust. We can ask ourselves what exactly we mean. Is it that Jewish people must make sure to attain political and military power so we cannot ever be rounded up to concentration camps? Does it mean we have a special responsibility to make sure genocide is not inflicted on others?

Why the Seder?

It can be very difficult to discuss hot-button topics such as slavery and genocide with those who strongly oppose our views. All the more so when they are friends and family with whom we need to maintain a good relationship. Nevertheless, these discussions are important. Avoiding all talk of what’s going on in the news is shallow, and also hard to do.

One thing that can help is distance. So for example, it may be much easier to talk about genocide plotted long ago by Lavan and Pharaoh than to argue about whether that term applies to the current situation in Gaza. Discussing how to repair the economic injuries caused by the exploitation of Israelite labor in ancient Egypt can be much less fraught than talking about how to rectify racial inequality that has its roots in United States slavery.

Using the seder as a springboard to discuss human rights gives contemporary meaning to the holiday, and also allows us to use the holiday story to discuss current events in a less emotionally charged way. Unfortunately, many of the human rights abuses described in the Haggadah are still with us. While it’s sad the world hasn’t yet changed fundamentally for the better, it’s also an opportunity to use the ancient past to help create a better future.

About the Author
Shlomo Levin received Rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Yeshivat Hamivtar, and an M.A. in International Law and Human RIghts from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica. He is the author of the Human Rights Haggadah, which highlights human rights issues in the Passover story with Jewish and secular sources along and questions for discussion. Learn more at http://www.hrhaggadah.com.
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