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Once We Were Strangers

Every year at the first full moon of spring, on the 14th day of the biblical month of Nisan, Jews all around the world gather with their families to re-enact their ancestors’ flight from Egyptian slavery. Passover is the most familiar ritual on the Jewish calendar, bringing together Jews of every stripe, the devout and the distant, to share a meal and tell our people’s story. More than any other day, Passover touches us and draws us close because it bears a message that is so instantly recognizable, at once universal and uniquely Jewish: liberation from bondage and oppression.

It is universal because it gives voice to a yearning shared by people everywhere — to be free, to walk in dignity, to enjoy the fruits of our own labor. The legacy of Israel’s exodus from Egypt has been taken up worldwide by those who struggle against their taskmasters, whether European peasants or African slaves. And yet, it is uniquely Jewish because it is indeed our own legacy, the tale of our origin. We remember our humble roots with pride, knowing that our particular story has become the human story.

We remember, and yet we forget. Once, the memory of our oppression made us reach out to others. Now it makes us draw into ourselves. Ritual tells us to remember the stranger as we were strangers in Egypt, to invite all who are hungry to come eat.

But now we shrink from the stranger. We close our doors in fear. In this incomprehensible, upside-down world in which we live today, it seems that the oppressed, the hungry peoples of the Third World, the children of the new ghettoes, have somehow come to see us — us, the children of slaves! — as the oppressor. We see them coming to us with one hand extended in supplication and the other curled into a fist, and in the end we see only the fist.

Of late, we have taught ourselves to reinterpret the Passover holiday so as to reflect our new understanding of oppression. We are no longer hungry or enslaved, most of us, but we are lost in the desert of our freedom. How do we liberate ourselves from this? Teachers come and go and tell us to find the oppressor within ourselves. They urge us to liberate ourselves from our ego, or to flee the narrow spaces within our hearts, or to free ourselves from our new-found freedom and return to tradition. And so Passover becomes Yom Kippur, a time of inner search, or Shavuot, a celebration of the Law, or Tisha B’Av, a remembrance of every past injury.

All these messages have meaning. They add layers of richness to our Seder table. But they are the dessert, not the meal. Passover is a time, first of all, to speak of real liberation from all-too-real bondage. This Passover is a time to speak of Zimbabwe and Tibet — and perhaps even Gaza. It is a time to remember that we were strangers in Egypt, and to call on all who are hungry to come and eat.


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