Passover and the exodus from Egypt is the story of the Jewish people for a very important reason: Because this is how we learn to live our lives. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that this one story is the answer to all that ails humanity, but I think that it at least starts us off in a very good direction.
I. Suffering and Obligation
|יט ואהבתם, את-הגר: כי-גרים הייתם, בארץ מצרים.||19 You shall love therefore the stranger; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.|
Who among us has not been a “stranger in the land of Egypt”? Who among us has not felt enslaved, trapped, abused, despondent, neglected, stuck, addicted, bereft, or depressed?
Our intimate, personal knowledge of suffering from Egypt requires us to care not only for the stranger, but also for the fatherless and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:18-19):
II. Obligation Depends on Ability; Ability Depends on Knowledge
We are not obligated by God to do the impossible; we are only required to do the possible. We are not programmed for failure. What makes caring for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan possible?
Egypt makes it possible. Egypt means that you can and therefore must love the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
An essential aspect of Pesach is that each of us must feel as if we were slaves in Egypt and then experience, through the seder, the moment of liberation. After liberation, in the Sinai desert, the Jewish people received the command to “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” If we had not been “strangers in the land of Egypt,” we could not truly know the plight of the strangers who move among us and we could not be obligated to love them.
We who have suffered ourselves, and who have, whether through the strength given to us by God or by the power inherent in our beings, been freed from slavery or suffering, truly know how the ubiquitous “other” suffers and only we can truly help them.
I really do not want to say that we suffer in order to help others. Who would volunteer for that thankless task? I would be justifiably outraged if someone said that to me. However, once we see and know that suffering is for some unfathomable reason necessary in this world, we have no choice but to use our own personal suffering, and our own redemption, to help others.
III. My Religion
Religion, if it does anything at all, should make our lives better in some way. It makes our lives better not because it requires us to “love the stranger.” (That’s just a nice platitude–along the lines of “Have a nice day” or some other meaningless thing the grocery store clerk might mutter in your direction after you sign your receipt.)
No, Judaism makes our lives better because it insists that we–the ever-suffering, enslaved for 350 years, powerless Israelites, who were so deep in the mucky pit of despair that the Midrash tells us that they no longer wished for redemption–are particularly and specifically commanded to love the stranger, that utterly unknowable wayfarer, and the widow and orphan, who may not be strangers to a community but belong to no one and are therefore as alone as people can be.
There are other places in the Torah (writ large) where we are commanded to love our brothers, our friends, and our family. I do not think that such injunctions are unique to religion or to Judaism. Those are just common sense.
I am going to go out on a limb here and declare that reason given for the commandment to love the stranger is, alone, a good enough reason for me to engage deeply and honestly with Jewish texts. It was those, those who would otherwise be strangers, who came out in support of me during my times of deepest darkest alienation and unknowability, who made my life livable. When I felt most like an unloved and perhaps unlovable stranger, these people, my saviors, came out of nowhere to love me and make my life livable. If my life had not gradually become more and more livable since the Fall of 1998, I would, in a very real and tangible way, not be here today. I would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt, or, much worse, I would be dead.
עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה. וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם. וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָנוּ חֲכָמִים, כֻּלָנוּ נְבוֹנִים, כֻּלָנוּ זְקֵנִים, כֻּלָנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם. וְכָל הַמַרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L-rd, our G-d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.
Given my understanding of the reason why the story of the Exodus plays such a central role in Judaism and in my life, it makes perfect sense that being wise, understanding, or knowing the Torah would not exempt us from telling this story. If anything, one who is considered wise, understanding, or knowing in Torah–one who sits in the ivory tower, as it were, far from the stranger, widow, and orphan–may need to tell it more. The goal of Pesach (and of Judaism) is to tell the story, to taste the salty tears of interminable bondage, and then, with a newfound knowledge of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, to set out to ease their suffering. All who tell this story, all who consider themselves as part of this people, all who declare “עבדים היינו”–“We were slaves” every Pesach, are the inheritors of the Exodus and therefore of the injunction to love the stranger. All who taste the bitter marror join the fleeing Israelites as they cross the Sea of Reeds.
This–the centrality of Passover– is reason alone, for me, to belong to a chain of history and peoplehood stretching back to Egypt and stretching forward to redemption.
I hope that we can all journey, together, from the unmitigated suffering of Egypt to the bright, clear light of the Promised Land. I, and you, too, came out of Egypt.
Note: This piece is based on something that I wrote in 2006 and rewrote in 2008.