Screenshot from "Prince of Egypt," as Moses begins to feel pangs of empathy for Hebrew slaves
Screenshot from "Prince of Egypt," as Moses begins to feel pangs of empathy for Hebrew slaves

Passover is a time to practice empathy for ‘the stranger’ among us

The Passover seder is a brilliant teaching mechanism in which we not only retell the story of the Exodus but relive the story with ritual foods and symbols that reflect the dynamic of moving from slavery to freedom. It is a story that has shaped the identity, consciousness and values of the Jewish people. We remember that once our people were strangers in a strange land, vulnerable, without rights or protection, subject to oppression, cruelty and slavery. As we ascend the 15 steps of the seder, we literally taste the bitterness of our oppression and are reminded of what it is feels like to be the stranger, unwelcomed, with no one to come to our aid.

Our ritual is meant for us to cultivate empathy for all those labeled as “the stranger” and for all who are oppressed. The Torah insists, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

Yet, the Torah’s command is more audacious, holding us to an even higher standard: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt …” (Leviticus 19:34). And furthermore: “You shall have one standard of law for stranger and citizen alike, for I YHVH am your God.” (Leviticus 24:22). Our obligation is to offer the stranger in our midst not just empathy, but a place of refuge, of physical security, economic security and most especially, equal treatment under the law.

We are people of privilege, who enjoy the freedoms of our society. Sadly, there are others in our communities who do not share in that privilege because of their ethnicity, their religion or the color of their skin. There are also strangers — a great many of whom are refugees escaping political, economic and physical violence, and who seek asylum — who are not treated with the same freedoms we enjoy.

As we celebrate our festival of liberation and freedom, how can we ignore that we are living in an era when hatred has been unleashed and goes unchecked in our own country and throughout the world? The ugliness of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment is rampant. We live in a time and in a place where those seeking refuge are labeled as criminals, where children are forcibly separated from their parents and held in cells, where freedoms are trampled, and the noble words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are made null and void. That brilliant light that guided our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents to this country with the promise of safety and equality is being extinguished.

At the beginning of the seder we lift up the plate of matzah and announce: “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and be nourished.” The time has come to read this not only as an invitation but as a challenge: Do we have the courage to overcome our fear of the “other”? Are we ready to open our hearts, our homes and our communities to the stranger? Both our sacred teaching and our experience as a people demand that we are duty-bound to create societies established on the principles of justice, righteousness and compassion. It demands us to stretch our notion of privilege and equality to all people, and especially to the stranger.

If not now, when?

Rabbi Lavey Derby
Rabbi Lavey Derby

Rabbi Lavey Derby is the director of Jewish life at the Peninsula JCC. He is the eighth-generation descendant of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, for whom he is named, and comes from a family line of rabbis that traces back to the 16th century.