As long-time ICWJ supporter Karen Shevet Dinah prepared for Passover this year, she offered these words to inspire us to action in the year to come. Karen is a retired member of AFSCME Local 65.
This is the time of year when my calendar reminds me that soon ,I and my Jewish friends all over the world, will be frenzied with the nitty gritty preparations for the week-long celebration of Passover. It is an exciting time when almost every Jew, whether religious or not, looks forward to at least one, probably two long, leisurely evenings lingering with friends and family over delicious, specially prepared holiday foods. We drink four cups of ceremonial wine with a few additional glasses to insure we increase the joy of the occasion as we are obligated to do! All week the Hebrew liturgical melodies, telling the Biblical story of how our ancestors were freed from slavery, will echo in my ears. Mingled with those traditional songs, you might find me humming old labor union tunes a la Woody Gutherie and African-American spirituals featuring Moses, Egypt and Pharaoh.
Yet at this celebratory time, known as z’man cheruteynu—the season of our freedom, I can’t put out of my mind that here in Wisconsin two years out from “The Wisconsin Uprising” Wisconsin workers, indeed, labor across the nation continue to face pay cuts, loss of benefits, dismantling, if not elimination of unions and the protections provided by collective bargaining. Or worse, many people like my friend, Sara, have lost their jobs as a result of down-sizing and out-sourcing to other countries, resulting in exploitation of workers and increased poverty in those countries, too. We read in the Passover haggadah (Biblical story of the exodus with rabbinic commentaries from across the centuries): “Each person is obligated to feel as if s/he were actually leaving Egypt, just as our ancestors did.” Sadly, in today’s economic reality, that commandment is rather easy to fulfill.
Year after year, during the Passover seder, the ceremonial meal, we re-enact the Exodus story by eating symbolic foods. The sting of horseradish brings the brutality of slavery alive in our mouths. Salt water for dipping veggies symbolizes the tears our ancestors shed while under Pharaoh’s harsh rule. Matzah is the bread that didn’t have time to rise as we hurried out of the land of Egypt toward a better life. We Jews have repeated this story of slavery for thousands of years. It has been used metaphorically to spur on various contemporary human rights causes, perhaps most well-known, the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet I wonder, given how oppressive current conditions are, whether we really need such a strong reminder of harshness.
The Passover seder is a ritual of asking questions. “How is this night different from all other nights” the youngest participant, child or adult must ask. So in keeping with the tradition, I ask, “Why celebrate Passover in 2013?” How does one find reason to celebrate the Exodus story when each day more of my neighbors and friends are victimized by an oppressive economic system which is fundamentally unfair to working class folk and those who could once call themselves middle class?
Why celebrate Passover? Because the Biblical narrative is a quintessential document of hope. The Hebrews are redeemed from Pharaoh’s oppression, Moses matures into a great teacher and goes on to encounter the Creator face to face. And the newly-birthed Jewish people accept the Ten Commandments, a summary blueprint for building an ethical society. These scenes are exemplary models the Biblical drama provides to individuals and communities. The narrative directs us to create more meaningful personal lives for ourselves and kinder, more just societies for everyone.
This Passover let’s re-live the hope and personal growth exemplified by the Exodus story. Let’s invite our friends, Jew and non-Jew, to gather around our seder tables and enthusiastically fulfill the obligation to question how our society has evolved into one of such significant disparities. And then continue with the follow-up question, “What are we going to do to create a better world for everyone?”
As the haggadah itself instructs, “All who elaborate on the telling of the exodus from Egypt, they are to be praised”.