At our Melton class on Monday night with the Lyons Learning Project (which we are starting to recruit for a class next year – you should join me!), I was part of a recent discussion that focused on the question, why is it that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly engaged in issues of asylum seekers and refugees? And why was the end of the Dubs amendment, safeguarding children fleeing for safety, such a devastating blow to our hopes for protecting the most vulnerable refugees in the world? With the news of the chemical attacks this week and what looks like an escalation of rhetoric, if not on-going military power, in Syria this question is once again high up on the agenda. Why do Jews, probably disproportionately, care so much about these issues of social justice?
The answer to this can be found in the story told in Jewish households all over the world next week – the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt commemorated in the festival of Pesach. The festival of Pesach falls, this year, on the evening of 10 April 2017. Jews of all denominations and none, will find themselves sitting down to eat a festive meal and reciting the two most memorable phrases of Jewish liturgy. The first a universal invitation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and the second which captures an essential quality of Jewish identity, “In every generation, one is obligated to regard themselves as though they personally came out of Egypt.”
For many Jews, it is these twin imperatives which drive our interest in aiding the plight of others who are suffering. And, for the record, it’s not just the refugee issue but charitable work like that of World Jewish Relief in the Ukraine and East Africa. But let us focus our attention for a moment on one issue.
Not only do we regard ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt, but a very many of us will actually have refugees sitting around our tables at the festive meal; whether that is refugees from Nazi Europe, the Soviet era, Arab lands or other conflicts. We do not need our imaginations to know what it is like to be oppressed and to taste freedom – both the freedom from hardship, bigotry and antisemitism, and freedom to practice our faith, and the freedom of being in a sovereign State of Israel. Sitting down around my table alone will be descendants from at least two or three mass migrations of Jewish refugees from the 20th century. And instead of hardening our hearts – it’s not unheard of one immigrant group to be positively racist about any other immigrants – when we see human suffering our first response is ‘what can we do?’.
The call to invite all who are hungry to our table is an ethical imperative that we cannot ignore. Thirty-six times, the sages of the Talmud (one of our ancient texts) tell us, the Hebrew Bible exhorts us not to oppress the stranger, to love the stranger, to protect them. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. From our personal experience, we are commanded to think of the plight of others like us because they are not just ‘like’ us, they are us.
The Pesach festive meal has become a meal like no other, certainly in all of Judaism and, from my experience and knowledge, in any faith. It is a remarkable pedagogical re-enactment of the Exodus. In this experience, it absorbs the ethical issues of its time – be it antisemitism, labour rights, ethical production of food, anti-racism, the inclusion of the LGBTQ community or peace between Palestinians and Israelis. At the same time, it demands an inward journey, to recognise that we carry around with us the leaven in our hearts that makes us unmoved by the plight of fellow humans or impervious to a sense of the sacred. Perhaps everyone should, if not live the Exodus, ritually simulate and commemorate hardship to avoid a hardened heart?
In my work as part of this community’s rabbinic voice for social action, I have heard over and over again from Jews about their desire to make a difference and often it comes back to our Pesach story. Our programmes run at some cost and are completely dependent on the generosity of volunteer time and donations. Yet we are not reducing our involvement but expanding. Our call to say ‘Refugees Welcome’ on our banner is no lip-service. We are now seeking to be a partner in community sponsorship of a refugee family and to grow a refugee employment mentoring programme. At every turn, we have found individuals and partners in other communities, faith groups and organisations, with whom we can partner. We are not alone and we continue to learn how much stronger we are when we work together. And that is necessary because there are some enormous problems we face, like housing, the cost of programming for the most vulnerable in society, making systemic changes not just ‘sticking plaster’ solutions.
Pesach is a strong reminder for the Jewish community that in the midst of the greatest darkness, within a world that is changing at a rate faster than any of us can keep up with, there is hope. As we band together to work towards that hope, I have discovered that we carry that message of human goodness within us. The world may feel chaotic, but there is no need for despair. Every year, we sit down and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Once again, this year, we will conclude our meal with the Jewish yearning that next year there will be no hungry and all of humanity will be free, safe and redeemed from the forces which oppress us. We know that will not happen by accident and it is our responsibility to be part of the change.