I can’t imagine, in time for Passover in particular, thinking of Exodus (or exodus) as separate from all the exoduses happening all over the world, as people try to flee their homelands because of a Pharaoh type of leader, or because of famine or genocide. However they are not going to an empty space waiting for their arrival and promised them by God or anyone else. They are relying on the mercy of other peoples whose gates have been already closed, if their walls haven’t already been built.
Jews are supposed to know the story of the Exodus as the basis for Passover, as a time to remember being slaves and owning the experience as if it is ours. And many Jews talk about oppression for anyone as important to us. As a secular Jew who has for many years done a kind of alternative Seder with themes of both personal and more global imprisonments, I see this year as one with particular challenges.
In Seders in our home, we have longed talked about the more personal trials and tribulations having to do with being trapped, if not by a Pharaoh, then by restrictions that are more socially subtle and/or inner conflicts still holding us back. Since there is such a massive attempt at exodus from so many people across the globe, it seems that this might be a viable theme. And yet for me, living in America, it feels like the exodus we should be looking at has as much to do with hatreds and the need to defeat the other and win at any cost.
This search for a theme is more about feeling the need for us to look deeper into what seems like the increasing level of detachment from each other as human beings. And this is at home, as well as abroad. I, in my 70 years, don’t remember a time when 20 million people could be dying in places like Yemen, South Sudan, and of course Syria, from genocide as well as by famine, and we would not be moved to act, to help in some way, especially when the facts and pictures were so undeniable.
At home, in our country that is, it can be even harder to change, where for so many it may not even seem necessary. People who deny the evidence of climate change, or who see immigrants not like ourselves (where do we think we came from?) but as strangers who should remain that way. And yet we may have to begin with ourselves, the liberals who see ourselves as of superior moral status when I suspect we have at least cause some of the waves of defensiveness our country people have about us.
In seeing the recent film written by James Baldwin and created years after his death, “I am not your Negro”, I have been jolted and moved to ponder more about being white in America, not only Jewish, but someone who has inherited what Baldwin refers to as white fear, deadness and detachment. I thought about the mostly white suburb I lived in for 30 years that thought of itself as diverse when it had a section for poorer Hispanic immigrants, and a few blocks for not poor but not middle class black people. It was rare to see a Muslim out and about, and what diversity really meant was it was not purely Christian or Catholic and there was almost 30 per cent if not more, of Jews.
I saw as I watched the film that our future may be as bleak as I sometimes fear, if we don’t get more connected to our history—not just as victims of injustice—but at perpetrators, at the very least as having stood by to demeaning treatment of people of different races, backgrounds, religions and politics. I have known for years that I am a prejudiced person in my way, and that the way out is not to deny it as can be overly comfortable and comforting as well.
I imagine sitting at a Passover table, for now, and reading the story of the Exodus on which the holiday is based, and then moving on to those exoduses of now and including the one waiting for us to participate. It’s good to have a basis, a tradition, a story, but other stories are waiting to join. It’s good to have that wonderful food, lamb this year and matzoh ball soup, and mixes of sweet potatoes and prunes and more. It’s nice to invite friends who aren’t Jewish, who appreciate the food and need to be told that your Seder is so far from typical. It’s good to have the chance not to be controlled or inhibited by the sometimes sense that Passover, and Exodus are about Jews only.
It seems that some of us might be ready to get out of the competition about who suffers most, and who suffered most. If we read about colonialism and the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and racial brutality, we can no longer stand still in the fight over who has a right to use the word “holocaust”, because it isn’t a competition and nobody really has a right to declare the word or words for one cause only. It’s too late for that; the planet is too small; there is too much hatred and indulgence in hatred for what is different about us, about us and about “them”.
How can we be like Pharaoh, heartless and stubborn, and how are we at the same time prone to fears of those who are different? How are all of us more similar, in the need to free ourselves from the dangers of hate, and the terrible crimes of detachment?
The latter exodus will need lots of planning, not only for provisions like food and drink, but for the practice in knowing ourselves better and for the practice of knowing how much we have in common with everyone else.