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What We Can’t Learn From the Passover Story

The incompatibility of Manichean moralizing and the modern Middle East

Yair Rosenberg
April 11, 2014

There are many distinctive colors which Jews encounter at the Passover seder. There is red for wine and blood, green for the plague of frogs, and black for that of darkness. But there are no shades of grey. Nuance is a scarce commodity in the Passover account. In fact, the story of the Exodus is the prototypical black-and-white moral narrative. There are the innocent and enslaved Israelites, and then there are the cruel and literally baby-killing Egyptians.

There are not two sides to this story. There is no “Egyptian narrative.” Though Jews do briefly note the tragedy of the loss of human life during the seder, pouring out drops of wine for each plague inflicted on their tormenters, this commemoration in no way excuses or sympathizes with the biblical Egyptians themselves. We are presented with an oppressed and an oppressor—a right and a wrong.

The inadequacy of this foundational Jewish narrative to address certain fundamental Jewish questions today was brought home to me as a college student several years ago. Mere hours before the onset of Passover, an email was sent to my school’s Progressive Jewish Alliance listserv with a link to the news that the Israeli government would be closing off the West Bank border for the duration of the holiday. The author of the email appended one question: “What does it mean if on Passover, the celebration of freedom, we lock in the people living under our control?”

From the perspective of the moral lesson of the Exodus, this is indeed a tremendous tragedy. To internalize the message of Passover is to recoil viscerally from all forms of oppression and control over other human beings. Herein lies the Jewish tradition’s sharp critique of power and slavery, and from this sprung the ideals which motivated rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz to march arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggle. And it is also the Passover message which leads so many Jews today to criticize the policies of an Israeli government whose actions can sometimes seem difficult to reconcile with this central Jewish teaching. In this way, the plaintive question of the email reflects a most important Jewish value. It is a question we are right to ask.

But, just as importantly, the simple implied answer to the question—that Jews must not cordon off Palestinians on our own festival of freedom—is wrong. Because in the modern situation in which we Jews find ourselves in Israel, the black-and-white Passover narrative of yesteryear cannot help us.

Why does the Israeli government close off the West Bank for Passover? Because there is a terrible and sordid history of violence originating from there on the Jewish holiday. In 2002, to take one example, in what has become known as the “Passover Massacre,” terrorists attacked a seder in Netanya, killing 30 civilians and injuring 140 others–including Holocaust survivors. With Jews gathering in large groups and the state security apparatus whittled down to a skeleton crew, Passover presents a tempting target for violent extremists.

Is the Israeli government right to act as it does? Is its tactic effective? Is it being unfair to a majority of Palestinians? These are valid questions. But what is abundantly clear is that there are two sides to this story. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unlike the Israelite-Egyptian one, is not reducible to an oppressed and an oppressor. Today, unlike in the Bible, the question is of drawing the tenuous line between defense of one’s self and respect for the other. To take the simple lesson of the Passover story and apply it here would be to impose a black-and-white moral paradigm upon a situation which is colored by greys. Mature moral thinking must be undergirded by the basic ideals of the Exodus, but cannot end with them, because reality rarely conforms to such a superficial reckoning.

But if the biblical Exodus presents us with only moral building blocks, but not their correct configuration, the rabbinic interpretation of the story in the form of Haggadah does point us in the right direction. For the rabbis, and the numerous anonymous contributors to the traditional Haggadah over the centuries, there is a clear telos to the Passover story:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, did not only redeem our forefathers, but also redeemed us along with them, as it says: “It was us whom he took out, so that he might bring us to the Promised Land…”

For God, it was not enough to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. To be Jewish is not merely to be outside of another’s control—it is to take control and responsibility for one’s self and for one’s nation, in one’s own land. Jews are called upon by tradition to make our best values manifest on the world stage. This is an ideal that could not be more relevant today.

When confronted with the difficult, painful moral choices we must make in Israel—both for the sake of peace and the sake of security—many Jews are tempted to give up on the messy business of nation-building and the exercise of power. Some on the right choose to deny the religious and national value of the state, waiting in their cloistered spiritual enclaves for the Messiah and the advent of the perfect Jewish polity. Others on the left advise washing our hands of the Israel project, and leaving a single, bi-national, non-Jewish state in our wake.

The Haggadah, and the Jews who read and augmented it throughout the centuries, reminds us that to be Jewish is to do neither of these. Rather, as Michael Oren, Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States, has written:

Our responsibility today is to prove to ourselves, and the world, that the phrase “Jewish state” is not in fact a contradiction in terms. Let us remain cognizant not only of our great achievements … but also of the weighty responsibilities we bear: the responsibilities of reconciling our heritage with our sovereignty, our strength with our com­passion, and our will to survive with our desire to inspire others.

Next year in Jerusalem.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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