Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the enslavement and liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt, is right around the corner. In just a few days, Jews everywhere will gather not only to recall the story of the Exodus but also, through conversation and ceremony, to internalize, personalize, and universalize the narrative.
For us Jews, the Exodus from bondage in Egypt is not mere history. Our tradition also instructs us to understand the Exodus as an allegory about the present. In every generation, the same drama plays out: Some will seek to secure their own privilege and power by relentlessly vilifying and oppressing the weak, while the oppressed will yearn for liberation, dignity, and equal opportunity. Every person, in every time and place, thus faces a fundamental choice: Either you can be a Pharaoh or you can be a Hebrew; either you are an oppressor or you are the oppressed.
Some may argue that within the Exodus story there is a third possibility. Weren’t there regular Egyptians who did not themselves enslave any Hebrews? Technically, yes. But, at least the way the Bible tells it, during the four centuries of Israelite bondage in Egypt, not once did any of those Egyptians protest Pharaoh’s oppressive policies. Only a handful of courageous Egyptian women engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Everybody else stood silently on the sidelines as an entire nation was brutalized.
How do you think Pharaoh interpreted his people’s silence? Just as any modern leader would, Pharaoh doubtlessly assumed his people supported or at least tolerated his policies. It is natural to interpret an absence of protest as agreement. In this sense, silence always benefits the status quo. So, while the average Egyptian may not have personally harmed any Israelite, by failing to speak out, he effectively sided with the oppressors. Perhaps that’s why the ten plagues afflicted all Egyptians, and not just Pharaoh.
As a rabbi, this awareness has always fueled my social activism. And it especially drives me now, at this moment when injustice is routinely entrenched in policy and cruelty seems to have become a governing philosophy.
For instance, how can I, as someone devoted to a tradition that commands, literally dozens of times, to “love the immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19 is but one iteration of this law) remain silent when politicians enact policies that systematically target members of our country’s immigrant community, vilify immigrants (especially those from “sh*thole countries”), conduct warrantless searches of people who appear to be foreign, hold those suspected of violating immigration law without trial or bail, break apart families, destroy lives, and shatter the dreams of young people who have known no other home? I cannot, and so I have been active in the Central Virginia Sanctuary Network and in pro-immigrant advocacy.
How can I, as someone whose tradition holds as foundational that all human beings – created in God’s image – have infinite worth and equal dignity, stay neutral when our leaders pursue explicitly stated goals like banning Muslim immigrants? Or when they perpetuate noxious myths about people of color, or when they are repeatedly accused of sexual assault, or when they support and safeguard men who brutalize and prey on women? I cannot, and so I have been fiercely committed to supporting the Muslim community in the face of rising Islamophobia, to activism on behalf of refugees, to advancing racial justice, and to helping amplify women’s voices and supporting strong female leadership.
Furthermore, my tradition mandates that, in a just society, all people have equal status, privilege, and protection (see, for example, Leviticus 24:22). How can I therefore not voice my concerns about the availability of a quality education for all Americans? How can I not express my fears over the equal enforcement of civil rights laws or the erosion of voting rights?
Our democratic institutions and the norms that support them are also reflections of the Jewish notion of human equality. Those institutions and norms are facing unprecedented daily assaults, both from hostile foreign powers and our own leaders, all while those officials who are meant to defend us from such threats have failed to protest in any meaningful way. The ways in which our current leaders have undermined and warped our democratic institutions are too numerous to list here but to name a few, the President has demanded his political opponents be criminally investigated, interfered with active investigations, threatened top law-enforcement officials, and attacked federal judges, all steps that, both individually and in the aggregate erode the independence of law enforcement and the judiciary.
Likewise, the President has ignored, and in some respects has actively encouraged, Russia’s interference in our country’s elections, actions which both make us less free and less safe. Meanwhile, congressional leaders, charged with the responsibility to check such abuses, have at best largely remained silent about them, and at worst have actively encouraged the President’s words and actions. Can I, as a rabbi, in good conscience remain silent about any of this?
How can I, as someone whose tradition insists that human life is a supreme value, stand idly by when our leaders refuse to help resettle refugees, or when millions of guns, legal and easy to buy, threaten our children at school, at the mall, at the movies, at concerts, all because our leaders value the concerns of well-funded special interests above the lives of vulnerable citizens, all but ensuring shamefully common, uniquely American, man-made tragedies like last month’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida?
Were I to remain silent in the face of such egregious injustices, I, too, would be responsible for perpetuating them.
Similarly, since my tradition teaches that healthcare is a fundamental human right and a communal obligation, I feel obligated to work to ensure that everyone in my community has access to affordable, quality healthcare. If I don’t do my part to fight for universal coverage, then I am partly responsible when people do not receive or cannot afford the care they need.
Since my tradition calls for enough redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least so that “there shall be no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4), I feel obligated to purse tax policies that further the goal of economic justice. If I don’t do my part to fight against tax reform that favors corporations and wealthy individuals, then I am partly responsible when people become trapped in cycles of poverty.
Since my tradition requires planetary stewardship, I feel obligated to stop and reverse global climate change before it’s too late. If I do nothing to champion policies that would protect our planet, then I am partly responsible when our world becomes unfit for human habitation.
While I may not be guilty of all the injustices prevalent in my world, if I’m aware of them and fail to act, I nevertheless bear responsibility for them.
As Passover nears we should all be reminded that we perpetually face a basic choice: we either stand on the side of righteousness or on the side of evil. There can be no neutrality. And, just like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the choices we make – the actions we take or refrain from taking, the injustices we perpetuate or tolerate or protest – determine our fates – it is time again to decide where and with whom we stand.
This column originally appeared in RVA Magazine.