Passover Message from Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)
What might we remember this year at Passover? The most important idea that ought to be front and center at our Seders is that we were and still are strangers, gerim. As a community we’ve forgotten what that means and are no longer conscious of the obligations that devolve onto former slaves who have reveled and thrived in freedom. When it is convenient and we stand to benefit we tend to remind everyone that we were the victims of history. The rest of the time we simply take our place and act as if we’re entitled. Where is the active memory, the awareness of who we really are and what our tradition has taught us we ought to be? How do you maintain a consciousness of being a stranger when you are so successful and comfortable?
The Netziv, R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893, father of R. Meir Bar-Ilan and head of the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva for 38 years) writes incisively in his Haggadah commentary that the referent intended by the proclamation: “It is this [promise] that stood by our ancestors and us,” is not what follows, that “in every generation they stand against us to destroy us,” but what precedes, that is, “Know that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs.” In other words, when we lift up our cups to declare what we have learned from our history and what is to be our destiny, we assert that it is not antisemitism that has sustained and motivated us but our self-identification as strangers, as gerim, that has framed our worldview and shaped our values.
In fact, it was our basic training in Egypt as strangers that provided us with the wherewithal to survive countless persecutions and a history of torment and second-class ‘citizenship.’ It wasn’t the antisemitism that kept us Jewish, but our built-in capacity to navigate the world as outsiders, as the perennial other.
The lesson is poignant and profound. It means that even when we feel at home and have achieved a degree of comfort, we are obligated, if we want to maintain our Jewishness, to sustain a sense of discomfort, for that is the nature of being Jewish. Discomfort, not because they hate us, but as a consequence of a psychological state of marginality, of being simultaneously a part of and apart from, in and out of society, integrated and acculturated but not assimilated. Judaism is to be carried as a badge that reminds us never to settle-in completely, not to get too close to the centers of power and to always maintain a distance, a strong sense of distinction. Such a complex identity would foster humility, prod us to strive for excellence and compel us to develop a deep identification with the vulnerable - the eternal other - for they are us.
“In each and every generation one must display oneself (according to Maimonides’ text) as though s/he personally left the slavery of Egypt.” Indeed, we are the slaves, the downtrodden, whose mission it is to represent the vulnerable. The lesson we learned is that, since we suffered, we bear the special responsibility to make sure that others don’t suffer as we did. The Seder is a physical performance dedicated to impressing the memory of our traumatic experience in Egypt on our psyches so that we are naturally predisposed to empathizing with the underdogs and acting on their behalf. At our grand celebration of liberation, we transmit the wisdom of our tradition that has taught us never to count ourselves among the subjugators but always among the liberators.
On this Seder night, won’t you join me in the process of recovering our Jewish identity as strangers; psychologically uncomfortable amidst the comforts of our resplendent homes?
Chaim Seidler-Feller, Rabbi
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