When I was young, Pesach was the chance to connect with my honorary Bubby and Zayde. Since all our relatives lived in Europe, our Bubby and Zayde were “adopted.” They also had their own “real” grandchildren in Toronto, but we often celebrated Passover together.
My Zayde is a survivor of Auschwitz and my understanding of Passover is deeply imbued with the story of his captivity, his struggle to survive, and the miracle of his liberation and of the generosity and love with which he continues to live his life.
Because my extended family in Europe also suffered significant losses during the Second World War, it is no surprise that I identified contemporary European struggles for freedom with those of the ancient Israelites. While I was growing up, this was the only metaphor that mattered.
Later, I saw a second parallel between Atlantic slavery and the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. My mother’s paternal family is descended from African and Caribbean people who were captured from their African villages and enslaved for generations on New World plantations so that the European economy could be enriched. This link helped to inspire my future doctoral research into human rights, inherited generational trauma, and the need to promote “comparative” rather than “competitive” memory. (Interestingly, in many African languages, the word for slave is the same as the word for stranger.)
Two years ago, I defended my PhD dissertation on the day before Passover. The night of the first seder, I definitely drank four full cups of wine. The next night, I arrived at the Or Haneshamah community seder looking like I had trekked through the desert for five years – if not 40. I had made it through the narrow waters of the PhD. I had left my Mitzrayim, I had passed with minor revisions, and found the Promised Land, or so I hoped, that came after the thesis. I joked that I was now free.
But, as each year passes, and despite the parallels I can draw between different experiences, I am struck by the distinction between metaphor and reality. The mitzvah of Passover is to tell, share and teach the story of our ancestors’ journey from slavery to liberation and to imagine that we, too, had been slaves in Egypt.
Yet, we haven’t been slaves in Egypt or elsewhere. Is it fair to imagine our servitude when, in fact, some members of our community are actually survivors of captivity? And when, additionally, 21 million human beings are currently enslaved? Today, at this moment, approximately 21 million men, women and children are victims of modern-day slavery.
Slavery is distinct from other human rights violations. A person is enslaved if they are forced to work, if they are owned or controlled by another person, if they are dehumanized, if they are bought or sold as a commodity, and if they are physically constrained or their movements curtailed. Slavery is enforced by abuse or by the threat of abuse. According to Anti-Slavery International (www.antislavery.org), forms of modern slavery include bonded labour, child slavery, early and forced marriage, descent-based slavery, forced labour, and human trafficking.
This Passover, I hope that we can gather with our loved ones, enjoy old and new customs, and delight in welcoming strangers to the table and sharing the story of our peoples’ flight to freedom. And I hope that we can also take a moment to feel gratitude for the freedoms we are privileged to enjoy.
What would happen if, during our seders, we all sent out a collective prayer for healing to those who are not so fortunate, including those 21 million? How might that be both a powerful addition to the narration of our story of liberation, and an empowering call to further action?
To learn more about ways to incorporate a human rights consciousness to your seder, visit Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s website www.ritualwell.org where you will find many ideas as well as several Haggadah supplements including one dedicated to racial justice by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (http://tinyurl.com/jrnwmr7) and one about fighting modern-day slavery by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (http://tinyurl.com/jyl82nj).
This column is dedicated to my beloved Bubby and Zayde in Ottawa, who inspire me.
Chag Pesach Sameach.