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Pharaoh, Putin and why this Pesach is different from all others

Again, a despot brainwashes a nation into committing atrocities against an innocent people — but in Poland, we discover history does not have to repeat itself
Stone pharaoh tutankhamen mask (iStock), Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Stone pharaoh tutankhamen mask (iStock), Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

We all ask the famous question at the Seder of ‘ma nishtana’ (why is this night different from all others)? But, in light of the last six weeks of war, and certainly for those in Poland whose neighbor, Ukraine, is undergoing untold atrocities and unjustified aggression, we should really acknowledge that this Pesach will indeed be like no others we have experienced. Well, at least most of us have not experienced, since there are still some Holocaust survivors who have those memories. The rest of us, however, have grown up in relative peace and freedom.

And so, when we celebrate Pesach this year, as bombs continue to pulverize cities in Ukraine and refugees continue to escape imminent danger by the thousands, we realize that just as our lives in Poland have changed due to this war, so too will our commemoration of the Pesach seder. Yes, we are, thank God, one step removed from the fire, as we are fortunately in the position to offer support, refuge, and a semblance of normalcy for many refugees, but we cannot help but feel like the themes of the holiday — slavery and redemption, tragedy and triumph — reverberate ever so loudly in our hearts and minds.

One of the important mitzvot of Pesach is to tell the story of Pesach at the seder and the rabbis instructed us that the story must have an embarrassing beginning, but a praiseworthy ending: “matchil begnut umesayem beshevach.”

If I were to tell the Pesach story happening in modern times, 500 miles to the east, I would note that in the first half of the story — the shameful beginning — I see great symmetry in the personalities of the two villains, Pharaoh and Putin: Both ‘kings’ had total control over their nations, both brainwashed their citizens to do their bidding by separating their people from the outside world, and both hatched a plan to get rid of their enemy by exploiting their own people. Pharaoh together with his ministers secretly planned to turn the Israelites into pariahs, to demonize them and ultimately dehumanize them. Putin made the same plan for his western neighboring country, a people who were very similar to Russians but had some different thoughts about life and society, which Putin perceived as a threat.

By using the tactics of lies and fearmongering, Pharaoh managed to brainwash an entire nation into doing unspeakable acts against an innocent people — ultimately to the point of murdering children. Putin’s fabricated propaganda sowed the seeds of hate and mistrust between the two peoples and his unprovoked attack on Ukraine reflects his willingness to stop at nothing to achieve his maleficent goals.

A new Exodus narrative

But here is where we depart from the Biblical tale and engage in our own modern-day Exodus narrative. The second half of the story relates to a certain ‘praise’, a description of the hero who saves the day and redeems the nation. In the Torah, it is crystal clear who that personality is — God Himself. In fact, time and again the Torah speaks of God fighting against Pharaoh, God striking down Egypt, God slaying the firstborn, and splitting the sea. Moses’ role was only as a physical messenger to warn Pharaoh of his wickedness. In fact, to punctuate the point, Moses’ name is not mentioned on the Seder night at all! Thus, due to the impotence of the victim — the Israelites — and the cowardice of the neighboring countries to confront Pharaoh, God Himself had to wage this war and defend the vulnerable.

History tends to repeat itself and bullies have continued to persecute with impunity while often the weak have suffered alone. Yet, though no other country has stood up to Putin and fought alongside Ukrainians in this war, nevertheless countries all over the world have fought against this injustice in less conventional ways — soundly condemning Putin in the halls of international justice, banning trade with Russia and putting a stranglehold on their financial solvency, supplying Ukraine with much-needed provisions, militarily and humanitarian, and (to continue the Exodus parallel) opening up their borders to allow the Ukrainians to flee from danger to freedom.

Poland has risen to the occasion and mobilized both on the national level and more significantly on the individual level. Having been to the border many times I have marveled at the sight of Poles sacrificing their time, money and jobs, in order to work 24/7 to extricate Ukrainians from harm’s way and care for them during their journey to freedom. Some Poles have turned their community centers into humanitarian outposts, providing all types of services day and night; others have opened their homes and invited strangers to come in and find comfort; many millions of others have donated, rallied, shown true solidarity and welcomed the millions of refugees into their land.

Indeed, it is here that we depart from the standard Pesach story, for it is not God (alone) but individual people from all over the world who have earned praise in these last six weeks. And Polish people in particular — many of whom have had a difficult time confronting their past, and who have sometimes struggled to stand up for the vulnerable in recent history — it is they, now, who stand up to tyranny and for the weak, impoverished, persecuted and lonely.

Our Pesach seder is different this year not because there is no longer evil, unfortunately, that has yet to be eradicated; rather, it is because those who have not been indifferent to the suffering of others, can stand proud, knowing that history does not have to always repeat itself.

The Pesach story of old is not an absolute joyous celebration—it is fraught with horrible memories of destruction, slavery, and oppression. Indeed, we eat maror, the bitter herbs, to acknowledge that there is intense sadness even amidst the celebration of victory. Similarly, our story is filled with multiple narratives: joyous tales of camaraderie and love as well as tragic stories of war and loss while at the time of this writing, the war continues, and revelations of atrocities begin to emerge.

Let us hope and pray that just as the redemption of the ancient Israelites took place in the blink of an eye, on one night, in a shocking twist of fate, so too, this war will change its course in a flash and peace will reign supreme even before we sit down for the seder. And just as the Exodus of the past ultimately led to Israel returning to their promised land, so too, this current war will cease, the enemies will be repulsed, and Ukrainian citizens will be able to finally return home to begin rebuilding their homeland.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible-- In summer 2019 Rabbi Baumol published "In My Grandfather's Footsteps: A Rabbi's Notes from the Frontlines of Poland's Jewish Revival".
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