Passover is rich in social justice themes. It is impossible to study the Jewish story of redemption and not feel compelled to eradicate injustice in the world today. Among the primary social justice themes found in the Exodus story are homelessness, oppression, and redemption.
At Passover, we are reminded of a time when Jews were once restricted to eating only matzah, considered the “bread of affliction,” due to the hasty retreat from Egypt. This experience with hardship following the exodus from Egypt is an inspiration to consider those who eat the metaphorical “bread of affliction” in present times.
In the Babylonian Talmud, we are taught: “Even the poorest person in Israel may not eat until he reclines, and they must not give him less than four cups of wine.” This is a reminder that it is imperative to take care of everyone in the community, even the poorest person. The requirement that even poor Jews be provided with ample wine – and presumably with all of the holiday’s ritual foods and practices – leads to the expectation that Jews should help the poor and the hungry not just during Passover but throughout the year.
Passover also serves as a painful reminder that the Jewish people were seen as strangers in the land of Egypt and spent 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness without a home. These elements of the Passover story remind us of current issues of immigration and refugee concerns, and the memory of being displaced instills in us a desire to eradicate homelessness in the modern era.
At Passover, we read: “This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free.” Jews are commanded to be directly present in the Passover story, remembering what it was like for the Children of Israel to be slaves in the land of Egypt. This personal experience is a motivation to examine the current international situation and wrestle with cases of injustice, oppression, and modern-day slavery. Thus, Passover provides us an opportunity to raise awareness of contemporary examples of slavery and oppression throughout the world, such as such as human trafficking, the sex trade, and domestic violence, which traps victims within their homes, limiting their freedom as surely as if they were enslaved.
You can incorporate social action themes into your Passover observance in the following ways.
Donate Your Chametz
The pre-Passover ritual of cleaning our homes of chametz, or leavening, is the Jewish equivalent of “spring cleaning.” This act requires the thorough cleaning of the entire house in a search for leavened products, down to the smallest crumb. The process reminds us of those who search daily for a nutritional meal to sustain themselves and their families. This Passover, donate your chametz to food pantries or soup kitchens in order to help those who are hungry to come and eat.
Update Your Seder Plate
Potato: In 1991, Israel launched Operation Solomon, a covert plan to bring Ethiopian Jews to the Holy Land. When these famished, downtrodden Jews arrived in Israel, many were so hungry and ill that they were unable to digest substantial food. Israeli doctors fed these new immigrants simple boiled potatoes and rice until their systems could take more food. To commemorate this at your seder, eat small red potatoes alongside the karpas. Announce to those present that this addition honors a wondrous exodus in our own time, from Ethiopia to Israel.
• Fair Trade Chocolate or Cocoa Beans: The fair trade movement promotes economic partnerships based on equality, justice and sustainable environmental practices. We have a role in the process by making consumer choices that promote economic fairness for those who produce our products around the globe. Fair Trade certified chocolate and cocoa beans are grown under standards that prohibit the use of forced labor. They can be included on the seder plate to remind us that although we escaped from slavery in Egypt, forced labor is still very much an issue today.
Ask the Four Questions of Modern Day Slavery
This modern social justice take on the Four Questions can be inserted at the reading of the Four Questions during your family’s or congregation’s seder:
• “Why on this night are some people still enslaved today?”
• “Why on this night do so many remain hungry in the world?”
• “Why on this night do we invite the hungry and lonely to share our meal?”
• “How can we eradicate hunger and homelessness tonight and every night?”
• A fifth question can be posed: “Why is this night no different from other nights? Because on this night millions of human beings around the world still remain enslaved, just as they do on all other nights. As a celebration of our freedom, we remember those who remain enslaved.”
Recite a New “10 Plagues”
As we recite the 10 plagues God sent upon Egypt, we pour out 10 drops of wine, lessening our joy in memory of these hardships upon the Egyptian people. In today’s world, there are many societal cruelties and injustices that can cause us to diminish our joy. Consider adding these 10 plagues to your seder, adapted from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s A Common Road to Freedom, A Passover Haggadah for a Seder. Each drop of wine is our hope and prayer that people will cast out the plagues that today threaten everyone, everywhere they are found, beginning in our own hearts:
The making of war
The teaching of hate and violence
Despoliation of the earth,
Perversion of justice and government,
Fomenting of vice and crime,
Neglect of human needs,
Oppression of nations and peoples,
Corruption of culture,
Subjugation of science, learning, and human discourse,
The erosion of freedoms.
Pick Your Definition Of Slavery/Freedom:
1) We have confused the free with the “free and easy.” (Adlai Stevenson, Presidential contender, 1956)
2) It is often safer to be in chains than to be free. (Franz Kafka, The Trial, Prague, 1925)
3) To be liberated, that is easy. To be a free person, that is very hard. (Andre Gide, French author, 20th cen)
4) Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. (George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, 20th cen)
5) None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. (Goethe, German poet, Faustus, 19th cen)
6) No human being is free who is not master of himself. (Epicetitus, Greek philosopher, Rome, 1st cen)
The Secret In Suffering
If your own suffering does not serve to unite you with the suffering of others, if your own imprisonment does not join you with others in prison, if you, in your smallness, remain alone, then your pain will have been for naught. […] I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter. I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I can rest only a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
— Nelson Mandela
Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God. What is emerging in our age is a strange inversion. Modern people believe that the world is indebted to them; that society is charged with duties toward them. Their standard preoccupation is: What will I get out of life? Suppressed is the question: What will life — what will society — get out of me?
— Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel