Passover in 2017
koppie Sat, 04/08/2017 - 22:31
Yes, this is another trite screed about refugees. But it's heartfelt.
Passover is coming up, and so for family movie night we watched the Prince of Egypt. We were watching the scene where the Jews are finally able to leave Egypt, and I turned to Yelena and wondered aloud: "Is this how my grandparents felt when they were liberated from the Holocaust?* Is this how your family felt when you left Soviet Russia?"
Yelena thought for a minute and then replied: "No. It's hard to process. It takes a long time to sink in."
Sometimes I forget that I'm married to a refugee. She escaped an oppressive land where no one was free, and crossed the sea to a land of freedom.
I've also been thinking more about my own grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, and my father, who was born in a refugee camp. It's too late to ask my grandfather how it felt to be liberated. I know my grandmother experienced terror similar to the Israelites at the banks of the Red Sea** when she realized that she was still in peril of the liberating Soviet troops. Just like the Israelites, she had to make her own exodus to a strange land before she was truly free. (In her case, she hitched a ride across Europe to a British-controlled refugee camp, where she met my grandfather.) My father's first memory is of being on a boat and catching a glimpse of the New World. He doesn't remember the refugee camp, but he grew up with parents who had night terrors and sometimes addressed him by the names of the children they had lost.
The Talmud commands us to speak as though we ourselves were liberated from Egypt. I always found that difficult, since I was born into freedom. But the plight of refugees from Syria and elsewhere has reminded me that the struggle to flee oppression is pretty fresh in my family.
In 2017, it's pretty clear that God is expecting us to make our own miracles. Although maybe that was always the case - the Israelites needed Moses to stand up for them.
On Passover, we are commanded to welcome the needy into our homes. We're all pretty lousy at following that particular commandment; I don't know a single Jew who has literally opened his door and allowed the homeless to dine at his table. Maybe one day I'll have the courage to do what God expects of me.
But it's pretty clear that there is much greater oppression going on in the world today. Popping off a handful of cruise missiles is pretty cool, but don't think for a Goddamn second that counts as liberation of the oppressed. The story of the Israelites in Egypt is our story. My story.
I was a slave in the land of Egypt. Now I am free.
There are still oppressed peoples in Syria and elsewhere. As long as that is true, we have not obeyed the commandments that God has given us.
Is Syria a quagmire? Yes. Will it make Iraq look like a walk in the park? Yes. Is there a very real possibility that, by bombing Russian troops, we will actually start World War III? Yes - and it keeps me up at night. Do we need to put boots on the ground? No. Is there a simple or obvious solution to this? No. Does Trump get credit for doing something? Yes, although there's still plenty of time to fuck it up. Are some of the people fighting against Asad actually just as bad as him, or worse? Yes, definitely. Do we know for a fact that the gas attack wasn't actually Isis or a rebel group? No, we have no idea - it's pretty clear that both sides are committing war crimes. Is it possible that if we let in refugees, we might accidentally let a terrorist in? Yes. Does that possibility absolve us of our responsibility? No - we are still responsible. We can no more ignore the plight of the refugees, than Moses could ignore the burning bush.
So where does that leave us? With a call to empathy. My father was a refugee. My wife was a refugee. I was a slave in the land of Egypt. Now we are free. If we have lived this, then we know what it is, and we know who these people are. We are bound by our own morality to obey God's commandment and liberate the oppressed.
*No, I didn't use the word "Holocaust." My kids don't know about that yet. One day they will, and then they'll get to confront an entirely different dimension of what it means to be Jewish.
** Sea of Reeds