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Remembering Refugees on Passover

Sermon by Rabbi Jim Prosnit, March 2018

In my Bulletin article this month I spoke of a tension that exists in how we celebrate Passover; a tension between the universal and the particular.

On one hand the rituals surrounding Passover are very Jewish. Be it in its Biblical setting, when the sacrificial meal was central, or in its later version, that we will be observing next week around seder tables — with haggadah and symbolic foods – the observance is distinctly ours.

The Pesach story, by contrast and the Passover message, however, are universal. The tale of the Exodus from Egypt is about the Jewish people, but it is not only about us. Throughout history it has served as a model for the struggle for liberation from tyrants, and as the epitome of redemption in the face of oppression. Something that is frequently called Liberation Theology in today’s churches has its roots in the Biblical account of Moses and the Israelites. 

I remember a number of years ago a local pastor said to me, “You know that Exodus story of yours is really amazing.” When my ears heard my mouth say, “Why thank You!” I was a little embarrassed, that I claimed personal credit for the remarkable tale we tell each year – but I was also reminded how powerful the sentiment it is to celebrate a religious tradition built on the movement from slavery to freedom.

Tonight after all is Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath before Passover when rabbis were expected to preach on the theme of Pesach. Most traditional rabbis I’m told use it as a chance to be parochial; to remind their congregations how to prepare their home for the festival, how to get rid of chametz and how to eat with a mind to purchasing the products necessary to make the holiday both sweet and kosher.  a koshern un freilichen Pesach/ chag Pesach kasher vesame’ach – kosher and joyful is the traditional wish!

And while I certainly understand and recommend the mitzvah of refraining from leavened  products not just on the seder but throughout the week – I thought tonight I would focus less on the “how toos” of ritual observance and stress the universal message of the festival — one that has very specific  applications for today.

For around the globe examples of the Exodus story abound, as refugees – men, women and children persecuted and oppressed because of the dysfunctional totalitarian regimes in their countries of origin and their search for safety and freedom. The tyrants who rule these countries make the Egyptian Pharaoh of old look like a liberal. The torture and whole sale neighborhood destruction make Pharaoh’s decree that the Israelites produce bricks without straw look like child’s play.

And when some of these threatened individuals manage to escape, the stories they have to tell of how they got away, make the Biblical tales of plagues and splitting sea seem rather low-key.

But once these folks are out they have no Moses to show them the way – and few promised lands willing to let them in. In Europe many nations have shut their doors, and a backlash has emerged in countries that were at one point more welcoming. While perhaps understandable because of the tremendous numbers, the human misery has to break our hearts. 

Even in Israel 86,000 African asylum seekers are facing deportation. Some like DACA students here in the States have been living in Israel for years. Tomorrow evening 10’s of thousands of Israelis are expected to gather in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for a rally against deportation.  Several organizations like HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid), the New Israel Fund and T’ruah are encouraging us to send a piece of Maror from our seders to the Israeli government asking them to end the bitterness being experienced by these refugees.

And what about here! I probably don’t have to tell you. Last year we made some overtures to the CT Institute for Refugees and Immigration to see if there weren’t some volunteer opportunities for our social action committee to help provide for some of the refugees coming to Connecticut. They were receptive of our desire to help – but confided that these days so few refugees are being admitted that this work that they do has slowed to a trickle.

Now we sometimes hear objections when voices are raised suggesting that as a nation we should do more to help refugees from Syria or Sudan; Mali or Myanmar — or wherever.

What about unemployment here in the US? Don’t refugees and immigrants cause economic turmoil and take jobs? To this let us respond by remembering that we are the children and grandchildren of immigrants and refugees; that when our ancestors sought to escape a Pharoah called the Tsar and come here, economic conditions in this country were even worse than today. In fact it was their toil and creativity that did much to make things better. There is no reason why it should be different in the case of new refugees.

A second argument is the danger that they may bring – the crime and terrorism. To date, most domestic terrorism has been of the home grown kind and statistic after statistic states that while there are examples of horrific immigrant gang violence, the percentages of new comers engaged in criminal activity is far less than the general population. Vetting is taking place, but the time it takes and the numbers processed are an embarrassment in the wake of humanitarian crises.

And finally some suggest that while these may be heart breaking stories they are not ones in which rabbis and synagogues need be involved. Shouldn’t we concentrate on Jewish issues. To me here, the answer is simple. Take a look at the story that we’ll tell next week as a reminder that this has always been a Jewish issue.

It is not just an issue of relevance to the Passover narrative but goes to the heart of so many of our moral teachings. And beyond that our freedom in a society in no small measure goes hand in hand with willingness of that society to embrace others. Those who turn their backs on one group usually end up turning their backs on Jews.

The Biblical Amalekites became our arch-enemies because undeterred by fear of God; they cut down the weary and the stragglers. We must make sure that we do not become Amalekites to others. We do this by following the rituals of Passover – tasting the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs – but also by discussing how the cherished symbols can stand for something greater.  I hope those conversations will also be part of your seders next week as in the midst of our sacred, particular ritual—we remember the universal message of the festival.