Once We Were Slaves, But Now ...

Our seders begin with "This is the bread of affliction ..." The word affliction in Aramaic, anya, can mean many things besides "affliction." Among them, according to commentator Shebulei HaLeket, is "the bread over which we speak many words." From "We were slaves ... " (Avadim hayinu) until after Dayenu, we discuss aspects of our liberation from bondage. But perhaps we over emphasize the Exodus, and miss the point: viz.-- Physically WE are free!

How much do we appreciate our freedom, and what would we do both to preserve it and guarantee it to others?

This is the 50th year since the occupation of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) by Israel. Whatever your political perspective as to the reason, we can agree that the Palestinians are not free. They are an occupied people, and have been for 50 years. What is our obligation to them? Does the slogan "Never again!" mean for Jews, or for everyone? The House of Israel is confronted by an unceasing moral dilemma, which only increases day by day: how to live safely and share the Land of Israel with Palestinians who claim the land also?

And in the U.S., since January 20th, we have asked the question, "What are the components of freedom?" When people are shot down in cold blood on the street or in their homes or businesses, are we free? Have we ignored this in our cities, and only now that it touches our lives more directly are we willing to really pay attention and taking it personally?

Our school systems are threatened, not only in Kansas, but all over the U.S. But the African-American community is saying, "What's new? Maybe this is just occurring to you, but it's all we've ever known in our neighborhoods." Have we reveled in our freedom, and ignored the lack of freedom among our neighbors?

Ceaseless wars are being waged in our name by the U.S., since 2001 in Afghanistan, for instance; but we now use mercenary troops rather than call upon our entire citizenry to participate. If we as a nation are threatened, why do only some serve? And if we are not threatened, why are we waging war?

What does it mean to be free? The seder says, "In every generation, each person must see him/herself as though s/he came out of Egypt. But we are compelled to ask, "Did I become free at someone else's expense? Whom did I leave behind?" and "Am I free today only because of the subjugation of someone else? Have I become Pharaoh?"

These are not simple questions, but they are necessary to democracy, and imperative for Jews, and I would say, for all Americans.

The seder is not some mere ritual. Its entirety compels us to question the various aspects of the meaning of Jewish and human existence, to question who is the enslaver and who are the enslaved. At times we may not like the answers, but to refuse to ask is to condemn ourselves not only to the darkness of ignorance, but to be like those who lived in the town called Auschwitz, who after the Liberation came, answered the question, "How could you let this happen?" by saying, "We didn't know."

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.