Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is Past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the international rabbinical organization of Reform Judaism.
The mystics teach that in every plant, every animal, and indeed every human being there is a spark of divine holiness, the spark of creation. Especially as we celebrate the upcoming Passover holiday, that divine spark is palpable. This holiday is known by many names: Pesach – because God passed over the houses of the Israelites who had put a sign of blood on their doorpost. Of course, blood is the spark of life that flows through us and all animal life.
Passover is also known as Z’man Herutainu — season of our freedom, because on this holiday God brought us forth from Egyptian servitude with an outstretched arm. God’s hand literally and spiritually lifted us up from our oppression.
The spark of God’s holiness was present at the Exodus for all of us to partake in. It was that spark which split the Red Sea for us, allowing our safe passage to freedom. It was God’s Holy Presence that led us by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire at night.
It is also called Hag HaAviv, the festival of springtime. Passover is the first festival of the season and marks the beginning of the spring planting season. Pesach marks the end of the rainy season in the land of Israel. In fact, on this holiday we stop praying for rain in the Amidah. The rains prepare the earth and are the Divine sparks that helps the plants grow and bloom.
On Pesach we remember how we were a small group of foreigners living in the land of Egypt and became slaves. We Israelites were an immigrant class, never really part of the Egyptian society. We were turned into the slaves and servants who did the labor that no Egyptians wanted to do, the backbreaking labor of building the cities and storehouses of Egypt.
And Pharaoh hardened his heart, even through the plagues sent by God. Pharaoh wouldn’t negotiate with Moses. Pharaoh would not let such workers go. He knew what it would do to his economy. He knew what it would do to his kingdom, let alone his ego.
And what about us now? Today, our slave labor is none other than our illegal immigrants, our undocumented workers. Many have lived here for decades. Many are undocumented workers but whose children are citizens. Many of those workers toil for minimum wage and yet find a way to still send money home to support their families there.
And we harden our hearts by turning hard working people into criminals. Does anyone really think that we have the ability to deal with criminals in that number? Or that we would want to?
And now the dreamers: those children, some already grown into adults, who came to the U.S. as young children, are in jeopardy. They are being deported to countries they have never known. The DACA program which allowed them to come out of the shadows is threatened by the change in administration policy. And our government, both the White House and the Congress, cruelly and indifferently, like the Pharaoh of the Exodus story, turn a blind eye to the suffering, fear, and harshness of the decree.
They refuse to solve a solvable problem. It empowers ICE officers to rip mothers from their children and arrest fathers as they take their children to school. Something is gravely wrong when innocents are treated this inhumanely. Where is the acknowledgement of their Divine sparks within?
And in Israel the African refugees who have sought asylum from war and famine and economic trials are no different. These immigrants, many who came to Israel without papers, are now fearing for their own lives, even as they often do work under the table that no one else will do. Or Israel’s version of the dreamers, children born in Israel of foreign workers who have overstayed their visas and know no other country than Israel, are equally in jeopardy. Will Israel turn their backs on these human beings? Will its government policies seek to crush the divine spark of their humanity?
On Pesach we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” We open our doors and our tables to strangers. We do so because we too were once strangers in a strange land. Our Torah is filled with admonitions to us not to forget that time when we toiled at hard labor, when we were strangers. Our Torah urges fairness for workers and commands us to pay the laborer accurately and fairly.
For our words to have meaning and our rituals to make sense, we cannot ignore those in our midst both in the US and Israel whose stories could be ours, and our Passover story is their story.
This Passover season teaches us about freedom and servitude. The Haggadah of our Seder teaches us to celebrate freedom. But it cannot just be freedom in the abstract. The Passover story urges us to welcome the stranger and seek freedom and justice for those who are enslaved in our midst. Let our attention and energy be turned to helping those undocumented workers both in the U.S. and Israel seek the freedom we talk about at our Seder tables.
If we do not, then let us dispense with all the other symbols except the maror, because the bitterness of slavery is the only one that will be present. The shank bone, reminding us of that outstretched arm of God, can’t only be for the ancient Israelites. It must be in our own time for those who are so oppressed today. We can be that outstretched arm, that helping hand for the undocumented, the dreamers and the African refugees in Israel, so that we can join with them in the redemptive hope and taste the sweetness of freedom obtained.