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Pesach 1 5782    April 16, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

     Today is Jewish Independence Day. Not Israel’s Independence Day, which will be on the fifth day of Iyar, next month. This is the day that the family of Jacob, the People of Israel, the people who were slaves in Egypt, woke up in the morning, after a tense night of watching, to discover that Pharoah had not only freed them from slavery but wanted them out of Egypt as quickly as possible. Before they could even bake proper bread for the trip, they loaded their possessions on their backs and on their animals and set out to the land that God had promised to their ancestors.

     On this day, over three thousand years ago, we became a nation. We became a religion, and we became refugees. We had witnessed many miracles, many plagues that tortured Egypt while sparing our people. By the end of the week, they would witness one more spectacular miracle, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds which would allow them to leave Egypt once and for all and would leave the feared Egyptian army destroyed.

     Our people danced and sang with joy at the great deliverance of our people. There was a celebration and a song composed for the occasion. It was a day when every single member of our people had witnessed the amazing miracle and they were all thankful to God for all that God had done to free them from slavery.

     And what did our people do when the celebration was over? They began their travel to the Promised Land and immediately began to complain. For the next 40 years it would be one complaint after another until Moses could hardly stand it anymore. Many times, our people proclaimed that being slaves in Egypt was better than what they were experiencing in freedom.

     The rabbis of the Talmud had a problem. If the miracles of the Exodus were not enough to make the people grateful for the freedom they had, what would, what could even make them appreciate their freedom? It seemed like it was easier to get the Israelites out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the Israelites. The people had only known slavery for several generations. They knew nothing about freedom. Among the almost two million people who left Egypt, there was only one man who understood what freedom was all about and who had the capacity to teach freedom to the former slaves, that one man was Moses. Raised in Pharoah’s palace, he had not known slavery at all. Until the burning bush he really did not understand that he was an Israelite himself. Moses was uniquely qualified to lead the people from slavery to freedom. But getting them to quit their “slave mentality” was going to take a lot longer. Over a thousand years later, the Rabbis of the Talmud still had to deal with a people who did not fully understand the meaning of the freedom that God had given them. How could these highly educated rabbis, teach the blue-collar workers about why freedom was worth celebrating?

     The Rabbis did what they always do, they turned to the Torah for inspiration. Our ancestors, on the night before attaining freedom, had a celebratory dinner in their homes. They remembered the promises that God had made with our ancestors to bring them out of slavery to the Promised Land. They faced down their Egyptian taskmasters by taking sheep, a holy animal in Egypt, and sacrificing it and eating it while the angel of death passed by their doors on its way to kill the firstborn of the Egyptians. For the Rabbis, this would be the stage upon which the lessons of freedom would be enacted.

     They reimagined the Symposium of the Romans, a meal with esoteric lessons, and took out all the pagan influences and built a new story around the dinner. Jews were asked to think about what slavery meant to our ancestors. Jews were asked to consider how the Egyptians treated us: with harsh labor, meaningless work, with ruthless cruelty and severe punishments. Then, through the participation of every person at the table, they asked questions about how it was possible to leave slavery behind and what it felt like to become free. To think about how the evil Egyptians were punished with plague after plague. To think about a God who cared so much for the people of Israel that all of nature would be turned upside down on their behalf. If God would have only done half of what God actually did, Dayenu; it would have been enough. But God did far beyond what we were worthy to have done on our behalf and so we have an eternal debt of gratitude that we have to pay, and we pay it every time we welcome the stranger and the refugee into our homes. We know what it is like to be homeless, without a land to call our own. So, we have to work with others who might experience a comparable situation and do what we can to ease their pain as God did for us thousands of years ago. We relive our story of freedom so we will never forget our duty to God and our responsibility for others who are in need.

     To this day, Israel, created to be a refuge for oppressed Jews anywhere in the world, is a refuge for many people who have been driven from their homes. Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Russian Jews, French Jews. South African Jews, Sephardic Jews; people from all over can still find a home in Israel. We were once strangers in a strange land and were oppressed. We therefore have to do what we can to ease the oppression of others.

     Today, it is Ukraine that finds itself in danger of losing its freedom. They know all too well what it means to be under the thumb of a dictator. Stalin killed millions of those in Ukraine in the 1930’s by starving them to death. Nazi Germany raced across Ukraine bringing up from behind the equipment to kill all the Jews who lived in that small part of the world. Outside of Kyiv alone, 30,000 Jews were murdered and buried in a steep ravine at Babi Yar during World War II.

     There has been a lot of ink spilled trying to understand why Russia is trying to conquer Ukraine. There is some mineral wealth underneath the land. Ukrainian wheat brings bread to many starving nations in Africa. To tell the truth, I do not think Putin cares about any of this. For Putin, Ukraine was once part of Russia and now it must be a part of Greater Russia again. When a dictator is at the helm, it really does not matter what the reasons are. One excuse to invade is just as good as any other. Power is the only situation that makes sense. Might makes right. Anything else only shows how weak you are. For a despot, it is all about taking what you want and creating so much terror that nobody will dare to complain.

     Now, when they are in danger of losing their freedom, the people of Ukraine are standing their ground and fighting to remain free. They know that the richest and most powerful countries of the world are democracies. It is freedom that unleashes the creative power of people to move themselves and their countries ahead. If we are going to fight for a worthy cause, freedom is one of the best reasons to fight.

     I need to be clear here, fighting has never been a way to resolve controversy. Wars never make things better. Nations fight until they are exhausted, and one side may win but the other side, often, will spend years planning revenge. Remember the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians. They were prevented from fighting for over 75 years and when the former Yugoslavia broke apart, they went back to fighting for causes that were over five hundred years old. The Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland could not stop fighting until an atrocity so big occurred that they were finally shocked into ending the dispute. In South Africa, the white minority fought long and hard to keep the native Black population out of power. And when they finally lost power, did the Black population seek revenge? Nope. The new leadership created special courts where people could confess their crimes and find forgiveness.

     This war in Ukraine will end eventually but the Russians will never admit defeat. They will only wait another 50 years, one hundred years or however long until they can attack again. Ukraine will fight to the last man. After that, I cannot pretend to know what Russia will do if they were to win.

     And this is the strangest part of this sordid tale of dictators and democracies. Democracies do fail, they do dissolve into dictatorships, not because they are conquered, but because they lose sight of what their freedom means, and they vote in political parties that promise them success but at the price of authoritarian rule. It happened to Germany and Italy in the 1930’s. We can trace this all the way back to Rome, which had great success as a democracy but began to unravel when they gave their rule over to despots.

     The United States has flirted with this unraveling of democracy several times in its history. The inability to compromise led to a Civil War. Rather than bringing the South back peacefully into the Union, there was Reconstruction that was so insulting to the South that, as soon as it was possible, they enacted Jim Crow laws that recreated the inhumanity that was the hallmark of slavery without having to own slaves. There are also many today, who fear that the tribal splits in our society will lead us to undermine our democracy and hand the country over to a leader who promises that he or she will fix all that ails our country.

     How can democracies save themselves? Having a Passover Seder could help. Teaching free people to relive the oppression of tyranny, to act as if they had once been oppressed by Pharoah, Hadrian, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, or Putin. What would that feel like? What would that taste like? We need to give our children a chance to ask questions: Why is this night different? Why are dictatorships like night and why is a democracy a world filled with light? On all other nights we do not think about what it means to be free very much at all. Why on this night do we stay up and discuss the importance of freedom. On the night of July 4th, we celebrate our independence with fireworks, why on this night do we eat the bread of affliction and look forward to redemption?

     It does not take miracles to move from slavery to freedom. We do not need ten plagues to afflict those who would oppress us. The story of democracy is not a complicated story at all. The definitive book on tyranny called simply “On Tyranny” has only twenty steps that can lead a democracy to give up all that it stands for. You can read the book in one evening. You can think about it for a lifetime. Historian Timothy Snyder from Harvard University, in one small book can teach us everything we need to know to protect our democracy. We have four questions. Snyder had twenty lessons. It is easier to save freedom than it is to save the environment.

     When we attend a Seder this year. Perhaps we did it last night, perhaps we will have one tonight. Perhaps we will have a Seder both nights. When we attend a Seder, we need to talk about freedom. We need to relive the path to freedom. We need to suffer slavery so we can understand our freedom. We need to be able to taste what freedom tastes like, see what freedom looks like and experience the joy and dancing that comes when we become free.

     There are plenty of people who think that democracy is overrated. That elections are for the feeble, that freedom is a sign of weakness. They are lying to us. Freedom is a delight to all our senses as long as we are sensitive to what we need to keep it alive. Seder is not about a meal or a story, it is about the very essence of what makes life worth living. Celebrate the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom because that journey continues, as long as we value the freedoms God gave us.

     May God protect the defenders of Ukraine. May God protect the defenders of American democracy, and may God protect us all from the scrouge of tyranny as we say…. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Sameach.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784