Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, God teaches us: You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This is such a powerful theme of Passover because it asks us to remember our history and then intentionally use that history as our inspiration for moving forward. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and therefore have an all-too-clear understanding of what it is like to be persecuted and hated. And precisely because of that historical experience, You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him.
On Passover, we are meant to be joyous about not only our freedom, but about our responsibility to help insure freedom for others.
This Shabbat should be joyous. We are in the middle of Chol HaMoed Pesach, the intermediate days of Passover. Tonight is the 4th day of the Omer, the period of 49 days linking the joyous freedom of Passover with the holiness of Shavuot.
And yet, it sometimes feels as if we are still in Egypt, entrapped into stereotypes, closed-mindedness and hatred.
Last Sunday, as Jews around the world were preparing to celebrate Passover on Monday evening, a man walked into the Jewish Community Center in Kansas and city and shot and killed three people. He wanted to kill Jews. He had posted thousands of hate messages on different web sites and blogs. He thought Jews ran the country. He talked about the fact that Jews destroyed health care in America.
Slate magazine goes into detail about his history of hate. I was shocked to learn that since 9/11, extremists motivated by Al Qaeda's ideology have killed 23 American citizens. But that number is dwarfed by those Americans killed by extremists that were already known to be affiliated with ideologies and groups such as white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants. These individuals have killed 34 Americans.
A few days after this incident, there were reports coming out of the Ukraine that seemed to be other-wordly. Leaflets were handed out in the city of Donetsk starting with the words, Dear Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality. The language ordered Jews to register themselves as Jews, or else have their assets seized, face deportation or have their citizenship revoked.
After a few days of muddled information, news broke today that these leaflets did not come from the government. They were the manifestations of an elaborate prank coordinated by a local hate group. Nonetheless, these leaflets certainly illicit a particularly strong response from Jews.
I can not offer any logical answers to these harsh, painful realities. There is no sermon, no text, no Torah passage that can make sense of hate crimes. But, Judaism does teach us how to respond.
Judaism teaches us, implores us even - that we can not respond to hate with hate. As the Torah says, we can not hate a neighbor in our heart, even if the reverse is not true. Deuteronomy screams at us, Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof - justice, justice shall you pursue! Our rabbis teach us that the word for justice is repeated twice to remind us that even as we seek out justice, we must do so with justice.
The Exodus from Egypt is but one story of freedom and emancipation. The Israelites' emancipation was but one moment in history. In times like these I think that Passover should not talk about The Exodus, but rather An Exodus ... For there are many more miracles that need to be performed ... Across our world there are many people that still need to be freed. Whether it is from the oppressive rule of a cruel dictatorship or the kind of slavery that chains people to preconceived ideas and stereotypes, we must remember that we were slaves in Egypt, precisely so that we will never again be slaves in Egypt.
In America, we live mostly blessed lives as Jews. We are able to join together with our non-Jewish brothers and sisters to condemn hatred and violence, oppression and closed-mindedness. Because we know what it is like to be strangers in the land of Egypt, we need to act so that hate crimes do not happen. against. anyone. Blacks, LGBTQ individuals, gypsies, Latinos, people with disabilities, women, liberals, conservatives ... many people have been attacked and vilified because of the color of the skin, their sexual orientation, their nationality or their religious heritage. We Jews do not own a claim on persecution. But we can own a claim in helping to end persecution. We can be a light onto the nations.
This is indeed a bittersweet Shabbat. We are reminded far too often that we live in an unjust world. But let us also remember that it is our job to change the world. You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt