Tonight I joined a Passover Seder in Baltimore where Jews, Muslims and Christians gathered to read and sing the Haggadah prepared by Jewish Voice for Peace.
As I understand it, this is a very special ritual for Jews to retell the story of how God liberated them from slavery and oppression under the Pharaohs in Egypt nearly 3000 years ago.
Moses parting the Red Sea
This time we cannot cross until we carry each other, all of us refugees. All of us prophets. No more taking turns on history’s wheel. Trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way. This time that country is what we promise each other. Our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between. Until there are no enemies left. Because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none. – Aurora Levins Morales
Many of us did not know each other before we sat down together tonight. We shared some of the social actions we’ve been working on — stopping an anti-BDS bill; passing a fracking ban; working on transgender issues; and others.
Tonight we have a powerful group of people gathering around this table telling the Exodus story as one way to gain a deeper understanding of oppression and refuel our work for liberation in our time. We are involved in many struggles, in our local communities and around the world, all intersecting and inseparable.
After we raised the first cup of wine (Kadesh) to education, we washed our hands before eating a green vegetable which we dipped in salt water (Karpas).
We dip a spring vegetable into salt water — the spring vegetable reminding us of potential and promise and the salt water reminding us of the tears and the pain along the way. This is an invitation to hold complexity — a reminder that change is possible even in what seems like endless darkness. As you dip the green vegetable into the salt water, affirm for yourself the potential for justice even as we hold the tears of oppression.
Then we broke the matzah.
Systems of oppression break our world in so many ways large and small. They shatter bodies, families, communities, sometimes whole nations. The militarism we spread at home and abroad unleashes forces we cannot fathom or control. Rarely do we stop to comtemplate our own complicity in systems that wreak havoc in our name.
As we break the matzoh now, we ask ourselves: how do we benefit from the perpetuation of oppressive systems? What are we willing to do about it? And where might we start?
What is broken can never be what it once was. But it can be repaired.
I was really struck by the relevance of the words in this Haggadah to our world today.
As we begin the Exodus story, we read that the oppression of the Israelites resulted from Pharaoh’s fear that their growth would somehow overwhelm the Egyptian nation. These verses certainly have an ominous resonance for the Jewish people. Indeed any member of a minority faith or ethnic group knows all too well the tragedy that inevitably ensues when a nation views their demographic growth as a “threat”.
Today it is all too common to hear Israel’s leaders and supporters suggest that the “Jewish character” of Israel is threatened by the demographic growth of the Palestinian people. How should we react to the suggestion that the mere fact of this group’s growth necessarily poses a national threat to Israel? As Jews living in the Diaspora, how would we respond if our leaders raised questions about the “demographic threat” of a particular minority group to the “national character” of our country? In a multi-ethnic society, can a state’s identity ever be predicated upon the primacy of one ethnic group without the oppression of another?
Memories of Gaza flooded me, especially the olive harvest, as we read from this Haggadah.
The olive tree is one of the first plants mentioned in the Torah and remains among the oldest species in Israel/Palestine. It has become a universal symbol of peace and hope, as it is written in Psalm 52: “I am like a thriving olive tree in God’s house, I trust in God’s loyal kindness forever and ever.” We add this olive to our seder plate as a reminder that we must all be God’s bearers of peace and hope in the world.
At the same time, we eat this olive in sorrow, mindful that olive trees, the source of livelihood for Palestinian farmers, are regularly chopped down, burned and uprooted by Israeli settlers and the Israeli authorities. As we look on, Israel pursues systematic policies that increasingly deny Palestinians access to olive orchards that have belonged to them for generations. As we eat now, we ask one another: How will we, as Jews, bear witness to the unjust actions committed in our name? Will these olives inspire us to be bearers of peace and hope for Palestinians — and for all who are oppressed?
The four questions followed, with each of us taking turns reading from the Haggadah. Then the Ten Plagues. We raised a second cup of wine to solidarity!
Solidarity is hard work. It requires ongoing self-reflection, clear accountability structures, continual learning and critical thinking. Also: humility, empathy, commitment, hope and love. True solidarity unites communities with different levels of oppression and privilege in the common struggle for liberation. It involves community building, support in struggle, awareness of our own relationship to different forms of oppression, and commitment to action that is accountable to those most directly affected by injustice.
So as we join together tonight to celebrate liberation, we recommit to struggling together for a world where everybody can have their voices heard.
We raise our glass and re-ignite our commitment to the work, responsibility and the joy of solidarity.
L’chayim to solidarity!
Jews will find the following rituals familiar, but it was a first for many at this Seder.
Rach’tzah: washing hands before eating matzah
Motzi & Matzah: blessing over matzah as food and as a special mitzvah
Maror: eating the bitter herbs
Korech: eating a sandwich of haroset & bitter herbs
Shulchan Orech: Then we shared the potluck dishes that everyone contributed.
Tzafun: eating the afikomen
Barech: grace after meal
Third Cup of Wine – L’chayim to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions!
In the long and varied history of Jewish experience, we are inspired by those who have resisted injustice and fought for freedom. At JVP, we strive to live up to those values and extend that history. This is why we proudly support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as part of our work for freedom, justice and equality for all people. We join with communities of conscience around the world in supporting Palestinians, who call for BDS until the Israeli government:
Ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantles the Wall; recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
We believe that the time-honored, non-violent tools proposed by the BDS call provide powerful opportunities to make that vision real. By supporting the Palestinian call, we follow in the footsteps of those who supported similar calls to support struggles in the Jim Crow South and apartheid South Africa. In so doing, we make our hope real and our love visible and we claim our own liberation as bound with the liberation of all.
As we raise our third cup of wine, let us rededicate ourselves to the call!
Hallel: praise — torgether we sing songs of peace & hope.
Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
Lo yilmedu od milchama
Nation shall not war against nation,
and they shall study war no more.
And then it was my turn to read from the Haggadah when we raised the fourth cup of wine to community. It was absolutely the perfect spot for me. Very meaningful!
We come together to envision the world we want to live in: a world where every individual has the right to self-determination by participating in shaping our future together. In this world, we look out and care for one another; we practice trust and kindness; we respect each other’s personal (physical and emotional) space; we lend an ear or ask for a helping hand; we believe that everyone comes to do this work with good intent; and, we hold each other accountable when we err.
We will affirm each other in our spectrum of identities. We will model our shared vision of the world by creating a space that is safe, inclusive and supportive as possible for all of us. This includes having thoughtful coversations with each other if/when we hear language used pejoratively or language that perpetuates stereotypes. We all feel the stress of the present state of affairs, and it is physically and emotionally draining. Though it is sometimes difficult to see, we know there is a rainbow on the other side of the storm cloud of injustice; if we didn’t know this, we wouldn’t be participants in the movement for peace and justice. It is because of the rainbow, not the storm cloud, that we act. We raise the fourth cup to the rainbow.
(Adapted from the JVP 2011 National Membership Meeting: Building a Community of Respect and Trust, a note from Stefanie Brendler, JVP Board member)
L’chayim to community!
Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in al-Quds! Next year in a City of Peace!