Among the mitzvot pertaining to the holiday of Passover, perhaps the most difficult one to truly fulfill is this: we must see ourselves as if we had gone out from Egypt. That act of imagination is, at least for me, a challenge each and every year. Even in tougher years, like this one celebrated in the shadow of a pandemic, I find that placing myself in the mental space of enslavement is impossible. The reason, of course, is simple: I have never been enslaved, nor has anyone I have ever known. No amount of reading or learning or thinking could really give me a true sense of the freedom my ancestors experienced in those fateful days, simply because I do not have a real grasp on the totality of that freedom’s absence in the moments before redemption.
But I think the rabbis of our tradition, the rabbis who required us to see ourselves as if we had gone from Egypt, understood the impossibility of what they were asking. They knew, I think, that some generations of Jews would have the misfortune to know real oppression, and thus be able to dream of true freedom, whereas other generations of Jews would sit down to their seder tables blissfully unable to conceive of the experience of true persecution. And still we are all asked to put ourselves in the charnel house of Egypt, to make the effort towards empathizing with that which we do not know ourselves, to take the dramatic and potentially morality-defining choice to imagine the lives of those whose existence differs so deeply from our own.
And it is our seder night attempt to free ourselves from our own narrow perspective that is the final rebuke to our captors in Egypt, to the nation which simply could not imagine our lives as sojourners in their land, and who instead were easily swayed to believe in all sorts of lurid fantasies of fifth columns and swarming Israelites whose birthrates were a danger to the state itself. “A new king arose,” the Torah tells us, as the safe haven of Egypt begins its inexorable transformation into the house of bondage, “who did not know Joseph.” And, of course, that not knowing went far deeper than forgetting the man who had once saved the country. It meant not knowing anything about Joseph, about his people; it meant an Egypt no longer seeking to truly see the face of the other who lived among them. By stretching our moral imagination on seder night to include those who are not us, who do not live our lives, we remind ourselves not to fall into the trap of narrowed empathy that led the Egyptians into catastrophe.
And for me, one particular seder night in New Orleans continues to play that role as I consider the world beyond that which I know. I was in the pulpit then, and we had invited a man whom we did not know (as we often did) who was connected to us through one of the members of Avodah in New Orleans. The Avodah corps member worked for an organization called Resurrection After Incarceration, and she asked if she could bring this guest along. I knew only that he was an African-American man who had been released from prison, and who had expressed some interest in the rituals of Passover.
It was, in almost every respect, a seder like most others in my life. There was singing and talking and eating, mostly in that order. I would occasionally ask our guest if he wanted to participate, but he demurred, sitting quietly and taking in the scene. At the very end, after the last notes of le-shana haba’ah b’yerushaliyim had faded into silence, our guest asked if he could say something. And then he told his story. He had been arrested for a crime he did not commit (it turned out the actual perpetrator shared his name) and then spent over twenty years in Angola State Penitentiary, trying to prove his innocence with no money and very little outside support. Finally cleared of the crime and released, this man now sat before us, and he told us that he understood what freedom meant.
And in that moment, I realized I did not understand freedom, not really, and I did not know this man, or his life. And further, it seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that to be a responsible citizen of this multitudinous country, I would need to do a much better job imagining the lives of those who are not me, and do not have my life. I had gone through the seder and realized, only at the end, that I was more Egyptian than I was prepared to admit.
The Torah knew this might be a problem; knew that people have a hard time imagining those who do not fit neatly into their lived experience. This is a human problem, not an Egyptian one. Perhaps that is why the Torah insists, again and again, that we remember that we were strangers once in Egypt, and insists, over and over again, that we treat the strangers in our midst with kindness and fairness and justice. As has been noted many times, this concept is repeated quite a bit in a text that generally tends towards brevity, and the insistence that strangers’ lives matter is never meant to indicate that Israelite lives do not. But the Torah understands the need to emphasize the importance of the lives that we have the hardest time imaging, the importance of the lives that fall beyond our most natural circles of concern. The Torah, in its infinite wisdom, knew we would have a tendency to forget that we were strangers and to fail to see others, just had we had once failed to be seen.
This is how I understand the Black Lives Matter movement, and the call for justice that now rings from cities and towns across the United States. I know that, like any collection of people, there are those associated with Black Lives Matter whose words and ideas are deeply problematic, and I am not insensitive to the complexities of this moment that has included both peaceful protests and destructive violence. And yet I cannot help but hear the call to protect and even love the stranger in the deepest and most profound parts of the demands for justice and compassion that this movement represents.
It is not, of course, just the heartbreaking murder of George Floyd that has brought us to this moment of protest. It is not just Ahmaud Arbery who was killed, it seems, for simply jogging past the wrong people at the wrong time. It is also the man at my seder table, and the thousands upon thousands of people that he represents — a group of fellow citizens whose experience with the police and with our courts is all too often profoundly different from mine. It is a history and context that I cannot fully grasp, that I cannot fully understand, but that it is my responsibility, as an American and a Jew, to try to hear as best I can.
Just one example, among many: June 1st was the ninety-ninth anniversary of the bloody assault on the African-American community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, an attack my grandmother — who fled the Pale of Settlement in 1920 — would have recognized as a pogrom, but one I had never heard of until quite recently. This searing event simply lay outside my vision; it resided in a place that was in our history, but still beyond my imagination of this nation. If this moment of unrest can help us all see those around us a little more clearly, to imagine their lives with a little more empathy, to understand their anger and frustration a little more deeply, then perhaps we can avoid the fate of Biblical Egypt, whose downfall began not with violence or with bloodshed, but with the simple act of refusing to know.
In all honesty, I do not know where Ramah Berkshires fits into this difficult moment for our nation, especially now, facing a summer without Camp. We will have to do a lot of listening, especially to the People of Color in our nation who are the most directly affected by the injustice around us. I know only that we have spent more than the last half century trying, and often succeeding, to be among the most important Jewish communities in the lives of our staff and campers. And in that capacity, as a Jewish community of integrity, and longevity, and please God, a community overflowing with the holiness that arises from a deep sense of the texts and traditions and values of our people, in that capacity, we must find a way to address ourselves to these challenging times, to this passionate argument for justice taking place in our midst.
There is no right way, no right answer, no single decision we can make. Reasonable people will disagree about the way forward. But we are of this nation — this fractured, broken, bleeding nation in need of healing — and we are of this people — this people who are commanded to see that which we do not always wish to see and then to lend our hands and hearts to the task. Let us be the best version of both of those identities. Let us work for an America that is just and righteous and fair, and let us be the proud bearers of a tradition that pursues justice because we have known its opposite all too well. These last months have brought so much loss, and these last fraught days even more. There is so much to be done. We have no choice but to begin.