One week ago, many of us sat down to Passover Seders, and we began our retelling with the proclamation, “Avadim Hayinu,” We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. We don’t begin our people’s history with heroic tales, or our righteous patriarchs, we begin with the tale of slaves.
Judaism’s foundation lies not with a dauntless story, but with a bleak one. Slaves were the bottom of society in the ancient world.
The burn of the whip and the degradation of bondage sensitize us to another’s hardships. As slaves and strangers in a strange land,
we understand pain, helplessness, and fear.
Our Torah underscores this identity with constant reminders
to care for the poor, orphan, widow, and stranger.
Our Jewish response could have been one of self-pity, flaunting our suffering as a mistreated people to convince others that we are owed from our hardship. We could have become enmeshed in the role of victim.
Or we could have become distrustful of larger society, never seeking relationship or partnership with others.
But to believe and act in those ways would be to become Pharoah—hateful and wary of the stranger. Instead, our Torah teaches,
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld reminds us,
the lesson is not to act like the Egyptians, but contrary to them—not to fear the stranger, but to welcome her.
We take the experience, even the horror of slavery,
and invert it into an opportunity to elevate our souls.
As we open our hearts to another, we rectify a past injustice.
* * * *
In Deuteronomy, we are given a startling commandment,
“You shall not abhor an Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land.” We are to find chesed, lovingkindness, in our hearts even for our oppressors. Why? Rashi, a medieval commentator, argues that despite all of the horrors the Egyptians did to us,
they did take us in when there was famine in Caanan.
We remember this from the story of Joseph.
Rashi finds a reason to be grateful to our taskmasters,
and thus we are prohibited from rejoicing over the death of our enemies. Thus, at the Seder, we diminish the joy in our wine glasses as a reminder that even as slaves struggling for freedom, spite or revenge will never dictate our memory.
Our time as slaves encourages us to choose compassion for the very stranger who oppressed us, not necessarily because we are grateful,
but because to hate the Egyptians is to lower our moral standards. To hate the Egyptians is to remain enslaved to them fueled by hatred rather than the humanity we share with all people. To hate the Egyptians is an eternal, consuming venom within which neither party could emerge whole.
True freedom comes from leaving behind the bitterness, the marror, and instead carrying with us only the matza of memory as a reminder of our roots.
We seek to interact humanely with the stranger, not out of fear, not out of a need to subjugate or condescend,
but out of pure chesed, having been strangers in a strange land ourselves.
On our last day of Pesach, let us take our history as captives and consider ways we might be still be enslaved—to patterns of behavior, to other people, to our jobs, to any of our fears or insecurities.
Maybe we are even held captive by our grudges?
What are those things which enslave us? How can we be liberated, and let go of them–to not hate the Egyptians?
As we recite Avadim Hayinu, we find solace in knowing that we have broken our Egyptian shackles, but even now, we are never totally free.
In what ways can we more fully welcome the stranger?
Are there ways we contribute to the enslavement of others?
I buy products from foreign lands where people are enslaved by poor wages. I drive a gas-powered car and therefore bind the U.S. to relations with dictatorships. We don’t like to admit this subjugation, but it is true.
As Jews, we don’t start from a place of perfection. We begin with emotional, spiritual, and physical hardship. We are commanded to care for the stranger—not to look away from the hardships, but to recognize and embrace them.
How can we personally move from a narrow place, Mitzrayim, to a place of expansiveness, our Promised Land? Let us take a moment to commit to one deed or thought that allow for even greater freedom in our lives…
This Pesach, may the words of Avadim Hayinu remind us of all the potential we hold as former slaves to truly effect greater liberty.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon, so may it be the Eternal’s will.