Remembering Slavery

Haim Watzman

Adi Nes, Abraham and Isaac
Adi Nes: Abraham and Isaac
Jews who grew up in the Diaspora and have raised children in Israel face a challenge at the Pesach Seder every year. The text of the Hagadah, and the spirit of the holiday, call on us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, strangers in a strange land, outsiders. I grew up as a member of a minority. My children, on the other hand, have grown up as members of a majority that rules over a disadvantaged minority population. When I was a child, Pesach was my favorite holiday—its message resonated strongly with who I was. On Seder night, my own children clearly have a hard time seeing themselves as Others.

At this year’s Seder I’m going to focus particularly on this message. Fortuitously, I’ll have the help of a booklet of supplementary Hagadah readings published by Bema’agei Tzedek, an Israeli social and economic justice organization. Called Kriya L’Seder: A Call to Order! (and available only in Hebrew at present), the book let offers materials that seek to link the Jewish people’s experience of slavery and liberation to the injustices we see around us today.

Specifically, the booklet reminds us that slavery has neither vanished nor retreated to the far, benighted corners of the earth. As Israelis, we benefit from the labor of exploited foreign workers and maintain a law enforcement system that has allowed our country to become a world center for sexual slavery. Slaves, in short, are all around us.

Some of the most powerful illustrations in the booklet are from a series of images by the Israeli photographer Adi Nes. In his “Bible Series,” Nes photographed scenes in Israel and gave them biblical names. Two women scrounging for produce on the floor of an open-air market are captioned “Ruth and Naomi,” and a homeless man surrounded by ravens is labeled “Elijah.” The photographs shout the irony of how far Israel, the home of the Jews as a free nation, is from the ideals expressed by our sacred texts and how much we’ve failed to absorb the message of our seminal national experience as slaves ourselves. (Note that the page includes a link to a pdf file that contains a number of images from the series that don’t appear on the slide show.)

One of the readings the book offers is by Rabbi Yosef Sholim Eliyashiv, one of the leading halachic authorities for the Haredi community in Israel. Rabbi Elyashiv notes that when we read, at the beginning of the Hagadah, the passage that begins Kol dichpin—the invitation to the indigent to join us in the Seder—we are already sitting at our table. Logically, we should have made this declaration in public, in synagogue or on the street.

“The statement is not directed towards the poor,” he writes. “Rather, this is part of the precept of ‘telling your children’: “Know that the essence of Pesach is the concern that every human being have his needs provided for, and that no poor and hungry remain in at the time we are fit to be free people.”

It’s hardly surprising that for our children, who have grown up in their own country—one with real enemies—the part of the Pesach message that resonates most is the theme of freedom and victory over our oppressors. But the Seder needs to take them beyond what resonates naturally and to imbue them with an understanding that freedom isn’t free—it comes with an obligation to remember those who are still slaves, to help them achieve freedom, and to remember that it’s very easy for a proud and victorious majority not to see the slaves and the oppressed in its midst.

More of Haim’s thoughts for the Seder: Rav and Shmuel at the Gym: How Should We Begin the Passover Seder?

1 thought on “Remembering Slavery”

  1. Good post. Not only are slaves all around us but within, too. Our own slavery to obsessions… with power, material things, fashions and fads, conventions, and received “truths,” as examples. Rabbi Elyashiv’s understanding has merit, yet instructions with explicit actions and visible evidence increase understanding and … doing.

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