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Congregation Beth Shalom

Jewish Community in Bozeman, Montana

Only By Understanding Oppression Can We All Be Free

Posted on Monday, April 24th, 2017

This article by Rabbi Ed Stafman appeared in the Bozeman Chronicle on April 23, 2017.

As the Passover season enters our rear-view mirror, it’s a good time to reflect on the meaning of the holiday in our times. The basic story recalled at Passover is well known: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and through a series of plagues and miracles, God redeemed them, the Sea split, and Moses led them to freedom. Upon crossing the Sea, they sang a song of praise (Exodus 15), exclaiming “Who is like You among all the gods that are worshipped?” The Passover story has entered the bloodstream of Christianity through the Last Supper, Islam, and modern civil rights movements, often referenced by Dr. Martin Luther King.

Yet, a troubling question arises: why would the God of freedom allow the Israelites to be oppressed for 400 years? There are many possible answers, but a strong clue is given when, just after the redemption, God commands the Israelites; “do not oppress strangers/foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt,” so you deeply understand what it feels like to be oppressed. Later, that verse morphs into “you shall love the stranger/foreigner because you were foreigners in Egypt.” This command is repeated some 36 times in the Hebrew Bible, far more than any other verse. It is the overriding message of the entire Bible. If the Israelites were to become a holy people, they needed to know first-hand what oppression felt like. Only through intimate knowing of what it feels like to be oppressed could they deeply internalize the message to not oppress others.

Every year, Jews around the world attend Passover seders. The community seder in Bozeman last week drew more than 100. At the seder, every participant is asked to consider themselves as if they personally had been oppressed and set free. Symbols, smells, songs are all designed so that we might internalize the feeling of having been oppressed and redeemed. Annual repetition means that the experience will never get stale. It remains a marker of what it means to be a serious Jew in modern times.

The story of the Exodus told at the seder begins with the Aramaic phrase, “arami oved avi,” usually translated as “my father was a wandering Aramean,” meaning that our people began with Abraham, who wandered from Aramea – now Syria. Today, these words would be better translated as “my father was a Syrian refugee,” a potent message for the 21st century.

If the Exodus story were not enough of a teacher, Jewish history is replete with lessons on what it feels like to be the oppressed foreigner/stranger. We have been expelled and exiled more than 100 times, often with all of our property seized. When expelled, other countries were often wont to accept us, saying that perhaps we would harm their economy, or that we were not loyal and could not be trusted.

Passover teaches us, to quote poet Emma Lazarus who authored the plaque on the Statue of Liberty, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” As a rabbi heavily influenced by the Passover experience, I have little choice to stand up for the refugee. I empathize with their plight because it is my plight. I am no Moses, but I know how to say “let my people go.”