The Passover Story Reminds Us That a Better World Is Possible

This year we must open our hearts to hold the pain of people we know and people we don’t know.

Adapted from a sermon given at Mishkan Chicago on Jan. 12, 2024.

The Talmud records a conversation between the rabbis about which verses of the Bible make them cry. They point to passages of uncertainty and loss, moments where we are forced to reckon with our mortality or acknowledge that what is required of us, by warrant of being alive, may be too much to bear. On the topic of death, Rav Yosef cites a verse from Proverbs: “But there are those swept away without justice.” This passage brings me to tears, Rav Yosef says, because it makes me ask: Are there really people who die before their time and for no reason?

As the death toll continues to rise in Israel and Gaza, this question has become a constant refrain. For many of us in Jewish community, we listen to news of this war in stereo: the fear and anger of Israelis against the pain and loss of Palestinians. With so many stories that make us cry, it may seem necessary to limit where we apply our attention and compassion.

As Passover approaches, we get ready to celebrate our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. This is a miraculous story of fragile hope surviving within and eventually overcoming a harsh reality. Our redemption is a reminder that the world we live in is not the only one possible — and that the belief in a better future is not only our heritage as Jews, but our path forward as well.

Yet as much as the Exodus is a tale of new life, it is also a story shadowed by death. There is a tradition at the Passover seder that, as we recount the 10 plagues, we dip a finger into our cup and take out a drop of whatever we are drinking — one for each calamity — to remember the innocent people caught in the battle between divine justice and human cruelty. Even as we remember our liberation and celebrate the incredible freedoms we are blessed with today, we diminish our joy.

Whether they were slave masters or soldiers, our tradition teaches us to not sit comfortably with the death of the Egyptians. There is a midrash (one of my favorites, in fact) that as the Israelites celebrated their newfound freedom on the shore of the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s army swept away by the water behind them, the assembled angels joined our ancestors singing and dancing. God silences them:  “My children are also drowning in the sea — and you would offer me song?”

Having been slaves for 400 years, it is understandable that the Israelites meet this moment of redemption with relief – even joy. Yet, God admonishing the angels reminds us that we are called to a divine consciousness, one that transcends the narrowness of tribalism. The Torah, the foundational narrative of our people, begins with the creation of the entire world — not just the Jews — for a reason: to remind us that although the Jewish people may have been chosen for a particular path and purpose, we are also connected to and bound up with all of humankind.

The creation story also underscores the sanctity of every single human life. By giving us a common, mythic ancestor our tradition teaches that embedded within all of us is infinite potential. Just as Adam was the progenitor of humankind, the rabbis say, so too each of us contain an entire world — and so to save one life is to save this nascent world, and to take one life is to destroy it.

Our discomfort with the intentional taking of a life comes from the knowledge that violence cannot coexist with peace. When people die before their time and for no reason, as Rav Yosef laments, it delays the realization of the world we hope to live in. According to major news outlets, as of last week the death toll in Gaza surpasses 33,000 — or more than 1% of the total population of Palestinians living in that region. (The 1% mark was hit back in January.) So many of these deaths are civilians, including children — innocents, in the words of our sacred text, swept away without justice. This is a terrible and terrifying number. How can our hearts, already broken by the brutal murder of hundreds of Israelis and strained by worry for those still in captivity, hold this pain as well?

Yet our tradition tells us that we cannot ignore it. The Torah teaches that we are not permitted to stand idly by as the blood of other human beings is shed. Killing — and especially the killing of innocents, whatever the reason or rationale — is something that the human heart and the Jewish soul cannot afford to become comfortable with lest we become partners to the brokenness that widens the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

I know that some people reading will be taken aback at this moment. You may want to question, or exclaim:  What about our pain? As a community, we are still mourning. Our children are dead or dying in a war we did not choose. Our siblings are in captivity. Rockets are being fired at our cities. Our voices are being silenced. Why do we have to be the ones with capacious empathy, enough to hold our grief and the grief of everyone else?

Because this is the path and purpose chosen for the Jewish people, whether by God or by the contours of our collective memory. Do not oppress the stranger, the Torah tells us, because you know the soul of the stranger. Our pain is a source of incredible power, one that calls us toward every broken heart no matter in whose chest it may be beating. And this empathic impulse is not contingent on how they treat us, or whether they are able to meet us in kind. Sometimes we will stand alone. And at various moments throughout history, Jews have been one of very few advocates for human dignity and worth.

And in this moment, we do not stand alone. I am inspired by organizations like the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Standing Together, Israelis and Palestinians who are working on the ground — at great risk to themselves — for an immediate and peaceful resolution to this ongoing tragedy. As Alon-Lee Green, co-director of Standing Together, posted in January: there are seven million Palestinians and seven million Jews who call that land home, and none of them are going anywhere. Any viable plan for the future must accept that reality — or ultimately fail. This is precisely why the current course of action and the destruction it brings with it, borne disproportionately by Palestinian civilians, will not secure Jewish safety. As long as this conflict continues, we cannot afford to look away from or ignore their pain.

This is not an easy task — but it is a sacred one, embedded within our calling to be a people who are not just for our people, but individuals of divine consciousness who care and are concerned for the entire world. The Tosefta tells us to make for ourselves a heart of many rooms, with enough space to listen to and learn from each other. These rooms must be spacious and strong enough to hold the pain of people we know and people we don’t know, people who are like us and people who are nothing like us, people we call our friends and people we are told are our enemies. We must ensure that the innumerable doors of our hearts remain open to just as many stories — even ones that make us cry.

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