At the Passover seder, we will read the answer to the Four Questions in the Haggadah. We will read that we were slaves in Egypt: “Avadim hayinu”. It is a statement of celebration and thanks. We are grateful for having been freed from slavery. However, as we know, it was certainly not the last time that our people experienced oppression or persecution.
And so the rabbis added “V’hi she’amda” to the Haggadah. It is an eternal truth, the text reads, that someone, at various points throughout our history, tries to destroy the Jewish people. It is also an eternal truth that God, ultimately, saves us.
Jewish history is filled with moments when we faced localized injustices and persecutions and, of course, epic calamities like the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. Today, while in a far better situation than in the past, we Jews find ourselves victimized – to a lesser extent than in previous generations but, nevertheless, victimized.
Hate Crimes Against Jews
According to the FBI, in 2012, Jews were the most targeted group of anti-religious hate crimes in the US. Almost 60% of these hate crimes were against Jews.
In the same year, the statistic was virtually the same in Canada.
And last year in Toronto, the highest number of hate crimes in the city were directed at Jews.
Last year in the UK, hate crimes against Jews rose almost 94% within the span of one year.
Rather than explore all the statistics of Jew-hatred around the world, it should suffice to say that we know it exists. Unfortunately, in recent years, particularly in Europe, the climate has grown increasingly unpleasant and precarious for Jews as a result of this pernicious hatred. Persecution or victimization of the Jewish people, as we know all too well, did not end with being delivered from Egyptian enslavement over 3300 years ago.
Yes, Jews have long been victims of racial and religious hatred. Yes, this continues to be true today.
Despite this continued hatred, as we approach Passover, we are reminded by the prophet Malachi, who we read in the Haftarah this Shabbat Hagadol, that it isn’t the general public’s favour that we need to win. After all, what will make our detractors happy? What actions could we take that would put a stop to certain individuals from spewing venom at us or from performing acts of hateful vandalism against us? Catering one’s actions to appease the general public is a policy that is doomed to failure.
Of course, we must combat anti-Semitism. Of course, we must do everything we can to defeat those who would seek the destruction of the Jewish people or of the Jewish state. But if our identity as Jews is defined by the outside threats against us, then we are doing ourselves a disservice. Jewish identity extends beyond having a common enemy. Jewish identity extends beyond having a common sense of victimization, whatever the scope. It is also a spiritual identity.
As we approach Passover and our thoughts turn to how we have been victimized in one way or another throughout our history, the rabbis have us read these words from the prophet Malachi:
Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you – said the Lord of Hosts.
The popular of our God being a vengeful god is dispelled in these passages. God seeks a world of justice. God asks us to behave with a sense of right and wrong. And indeed, God is described as loathing acts of injustice. But if we turn back to God, God’s mercy is forthcoming and abundant.
There’s a popular song by ABBA in which the voice of the song dares her love interest to put her to the test – to take a gamble on her.
If you change your mind, I’m the first in line
Honey I’m still free
Take a chance on me
If you need me, let me know, gonna be around
If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down
If you’re all alone when the pretty birds have flown
Honey I’m still free
Take a chance on me
Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie
If you put me to the test, if you let me try
Take a Chance on Me, ABBA
Similarly, the prophet Malachi quotes God:
Put Me to the test – says the Lord of Hosts. I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings on you.
It isn’t wrath and retribution that awaits us, it’s mercy and blessings. And God is there, waiting for us. God is patient. God is forgiving.
In the story of Passover, we recall having been saved from Egyptian subjugation. As the prophet Malachi, in this week’s Haftarah, asks us to focus on our relationship with God, we see that instead of the source of the threat to the Jewish people, our focus should be on the source of our salvation and our freedom – God.