Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Fifth Question

Every year I study one or two new commentaries on the Haggadah to enrich my seder.  This year’s Haggadah is one of the best commentaries I have ever read and one that really resonates with me after our Israel seminar.  I can’t recommend highly enough Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s Haggadah.  The religious lessons he gleans from the tradition text truly moves me. 

The Maggid section of the Haggadah begins with “Ha Lachma Onya.”  This paragraph ends: “This year we are slaves – next year, may we be free.”  Rabbi Sack writes:

There are two words for freedom in Hebrew, chofesh and cherut.  Chofesh is ‘freedom from’.  Cherut is ‘freedom to’. Chofesh is what a slave acquires when released from slavery.  He or she is free from being subject to someone else’s will.  But this kind of liberty is not enough to create a free society.  A world in which everyone is free to do what they like begins in anarchy and ends in tyranny.  That is why chofesh is only the beginning of freedom, not its ultimate destination.  Cherut is collective freedom, a society in which my freedom respects yours.  A free society is always a moral achievement.  It rests on self-restraint and regard for others.  The ultimate aim of the Torah is to fashion a society on the foundations of justice and compassion, both of which depend on recognizing the sovereignty of God and the integrity of creation.  Thus we say, ‘Next year may we be bnei chorin,’ invoking cherut not chofesh.  It means, ‘May we be free in a way that honours the freedom of all.’

After reading his understanding of cherut, I couldn’t help think but about the some of the social justice issues I confronted during mystay in Israel as part of the Leadership Institute.  I visited kav le’oved (an agency that protects the rights workers whether they be Israeli or migrant workers and works to help women out of white slavery) and my group also learned about the asylum seekers from war torn Africa like the Sudan and Eritrea.  Our speaker took us on a walking tour to South Tel Aviv where these asylum seekers sleep out doors in the park no matter what the weather might be.  Besides no housing, hunger, employment, education, and other necessities of life which lead to human dignity are sorely lacking or at best inadequate.

The Israeli government certainly isn’t living up to the ideals of our Torah as taught in the Haggadah by creating a society built on the foundation of both justice and compassion.  Instead of giving these people refugee status which would guarantee them certain legal rights, they have no rights at all.  Instead of creating refugee camps or other living facilities for them, Israel is building a 10,000 bed prison to house them because the government has enacted laws that make the trek to safety and freedom a crime.  Thank God, individual Israelis are stepping up in lieu of the government.  But more needs to be done.

I don’t have solutions, but Passover, the Haggadah, and Rabbi Sack’s commentary challenges me.  What should I be doing to alleviate their suffering so to honor the freedom of all?  That’s my fifth question for my seder.

If you are more interested in learning more about these asylum seekers and the daily problems and challenges, I encourage you to read my friend Allen Katzoff’s blog, Seven Months in Tel Aviv.  Allen is a past director of Camp Ramah in New England and is now in Israel while his wife Joan Leegant teaches literature and writing at the Bar Ilan University.

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