Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Passover. Passover is a celebration of liberation, resistance, and solidarity. It tells one of the oldest liberation stories that humanity has. The story of an enslaved people, the ruler who oppresses them, the unlikely hero who liberates them, and the god that offers to redeem them. It is a holiday that asks us to honor in memory the times in our people’s history when we were enslaved, oppressed, exiled and slaughtered. And it asks us to honor, stand in recognition, and speak out in support of all of the people in the world today who continue to be enslaved, oppressed, exiled, and slaughtered.
The holiday demands that we wrestle with privilege. We recline in our chairs and indulge in our meal as though we were kings and queens. We drink and sing and celebrate our freedom. We are expected to enjoy the privileges we have and we are expected to examine those privileges as well. We are asked to discuss suffering, to contemplate oppression, to honor resistance, to celebrate life, and to fight for a future in which all people are free.
Freedom, in the story of Passover, was not without cost. It was not by peaceful means that the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Mitzrayim. There was bloodshed. There was suffering. The plagues were a rejection of an oppressive society, manifest as increasingly violent incidents of disruption to the status quo. All of those who were complicit in the oppression of the Israelites were not allowed to simply walk away. They all suffered the wrath of the plagues.
But it was not only the plagues that made this story possible. The story of Passover is also a story of resistance: The midwives Shifra and Pu’ah refuse the order to kill newborn Hebrew baby boys; Miriam takes her baby brother to the river to hide him; the Pharaoh’s daughter saves that baby boy from the river when she must have known him to be a Hebrew; and that baby Moses, from his house of privilege, grows up and kills a slave master. Resistance can take many forms and can come from many places: from the margins where oppression is the strongest, from inside the halls of power, from the children who have yet to accept the agreements of the oppressive society, and, like the plagues themselves, from the unknowable forces of the universe.
We too live in a society that is built on oppression. We too live in a time when the status quo of that society must be rejected. There is slavery and exploitation in our world. There is a small ruling elite in our world. Fear of the people and the demonization of children are very much alive in our world. When we see the soldiers of the powerful, the agents of the state, killing black and brown children because they “look like criminals”, how different are they from Pharaoh’s soldiers that killed newborn Jewish boys? And when we internalize the demonization of these children because it is so pervasive in our society, what does it say about us? When we believe the line, “I was scared for my life” because we too have been scared of an “unruly” teenager with a black or brown face, what does that say about what we have become? How hard must our hearts have gotten that we let the fear that has been pumped into us affect the way we see children? When the ten plagues came, all the “houses of Egypt” suffered and only the oppressed were saved.
If that kind of reckoning were to happen today, who among us would be passed over? Would any of us be protected or would the privileges we carry place us among the “houses of Egypt”? Would we sing on the shore with Miriam or drown along with the rest of Pharaoh’s Army? What does resistance look like today? What can resistance look like for us? What are the ways that each of us can resist the oppressive status quo whether we are sitting closer to the halls of power or closer to the margins?
For thousands of years, all across this world, we Jews have been gathering together, telling this story, asking these questions, eating this meal and singing songs of freedom. Our songs focus on our desire for peace and love, but the story and many other passages speak to a propensity for violent retribution and anger. This holiday demands that we grapple with the tension between the longing for peace, the desire for retribution, and the realities of violence that live at the heart of any liberation struggle.
Tonight, all across the world, Jews and the non-Jews who have become our friends and our families will gather together, as we are commanded to on this day, to tell this story of liberation, to regard ourselves as though we had personally come out of Mitzrayim, to tell our children that we were slaves and that they are the children of free people.
Every generation grows up hearing the stories of those that came before us. These stories shape who we are, how we see the world and what we choose to do in it. As we gather around our seder tables tonight to tell the story of Passover, let us invite in the many liberation stories that live in the memories of our communities, of our neighbors, of all those with whom we want to be in partnership. Let us tell our stories. Let us listen to each other’s stories. Let us ask each other questions. Let us find the places where the fulfillment of our stories depend upon the support, solidarity and action of our friends and partners. Let us use those moments as templates for current action. Let us continue to be interested in listening to each other’s stories. Let us be reminded that it is in the intentional telling, retelling and sharing of these stories that we find meaning in this world. And where there is meaning there is endless possibility.