Jewish holidays come again every year.
I’ve always found this to be comforting—if a particular holiday did not quite go as you had hoped, you know that you have another shot next year.
As I get older and feel more responsible for making the world a better place, I find this to be less comforting and more frustrating.
Jewish holidays come again every year, which means there is always another chance, yes, but it also means that the stories of our people become routine. We become complacent in hearing them, and we become complacent in our own relative privilege.
We are asked to imagine ourselves as if we had personally been freed from Egypt. Past tense. What does it mean for us that we think of the Egypt story as something that happened a long time ago in a faraway land? We celebrate the freedom our ancestors were given, but we are not asked to think of ourselves as part of a system of oppression and freedom that continues in the modern day, wherever we may find ourselves geographically.
My favorite plague, if you can call it that, is darkness. We usually depict this plague as the absence of light, but the truth is that the darkness cast upon Egypt was a thick, swampy fog that made it impossible to see or feel our neighbor. We were so occupied with this fog and our place in it that we could not reach out to our fellow in any way.
The Jewish community has been hit with this darkness in modern times. Although the current political climate paints an unclear picture for some Jews, we are, for the most part, living in a time of unprecedented freedom to be Jewish. With this freedom, our communities have forgotten what it is like to be living under the constant threat of oppression and persecution, and consequently the Passover story seems far removed from our lives.
I want to propose a different response to this story. Instead of thinking of our freedom from Egypt as being something that happened to our ancestors that we are grateful for, we need to think of the journey between oppression and freedom and something we are always participating in. Once we have our freedom, it’s all too easy to wipe off our collective brow and not turn around to those behind us, still waiting in Egypt. Use these last days of Pesach to think about how you can do the all important work of clawing through the darkness to free people from their Egypt.
When we ignore the realities of privilege and oppression that exist in our world, we are ignoring the Passover story. We forget that there are times when we have the power to be the enslaving Egyptians, as cruel to others as Pharoah was to us. When we sing ‘Let My People Go’, we must remember that there are still people crying this tune today.
Throughout history, Jews have often been at the mercy of dominant groups to treat us fairly and allow us to practice openly. It should then be obvious to us when someone calls out for us to help them reach freedom, but so often these calls go ignored.
This year, don’t let the call for justice go unanswered. While you are imaging yourself as if you were personally freed from Egypt, don’t forget that you now have the freedom to bring others out of narrowness.
Emily Volz is a Jewish studies major at Oberlin College, with a focus on religious feminism. She plans to go rabbinical after college and also have a lot of cats.
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