Every year, at our Passover Seders, a ritual meal when we celebrate the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom and our own freedom today, we begin the Maggid portion of our Seders by declaring that “this year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free.” As a child, I thought this declaration made the Seder an absurd experience. We are either free or not. We cannot celebrate freedom from oppression and still declare that we are not yet free. It was only as an adult that I came to truly understand the power of this text, for this declaration defines the Passover experience. We cannot be free until all celebrate freedom from injustice and oppression. We celebrate the Israelite journey to freedom not as a historical event, but rather as a call to action, a reminder that freedom must not stop with us.
As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
All of humanity, all of God’s creations are connected. We do not – and cannot – only care about that which impacts us. We must stand up against all discrimination and injustice. Most importantly, we cannot let our success cause the suffering of another. And we must demand that justice for all.
Dr. King also wrote:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
That means knocking at Pharaoh’s door again and again, just as Moses did. That means continuing to declare “let my people go,” in spite of hardened hearts. And that means that each and every time we bang on Pharaoh’s door, it gets louder and louder, for at first just Moses approached Pharaoh, but with each showdown, the number of individuals that accompanied Moses increased and increased. For the power of the people is ultimately always greater than the people in power. Still, Moses understood that the Israelites’ fight for freedom couldn’t come at the expense of others. Rashi explains That the first plague of dam, blood, represented the life force of Egypt. The land was watered by the flooding of the Nile, so it was worshiped by Egyptians. Turning it to blood was not just a blow to their water resources, but to that which they considered to be divine. But Moses was uncomfortable with this reality as well.
There is a midrash in Shemot Rabbah that teaches us that Moses was uncomfortable with God’s command to smite the river because the act represented pain and suffering. And Moses reminded God that the Nile saved him, as a baby in the basket, the basket did not submerge under the water. Instead the waters protected him. He couldn’t imagine striking that very water. I believe this midrash has an even deeper meaning. Moses is finding the possibility of harming Egyptians for the sake of Israelites’ freedom difficult to accept. Moses is asking: must we bring harm to the innocent bystander? Must we hurt those who were also scared of Pharaoh’s wrath? These are not Pharaoh’s taskmasters or courtiers. These are citizens who were scared silent. Why must they suffer? In fact, by Moses asking this, he is representing God’s own struggle.
After all, the Torah reminds us:
“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1).
God tells Moses to see yourself as a representative of God to Pharaoh. As Moses struggles with harming those who are innocent bystanders, he acknowledges that this isn’t something that God wants either. In fact, Mesechet Megillah tells of when the Israelites crossed the split sea into freedom and says that God’s angels were celebrating. God chastises the angels as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea:
“God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”
It is clear that God is equally uncomfortable with the suffering of others. As God and Moses teach us through midrash, we cannot celebrate when others are harmed. We cannot celebrate when our freedom is caused by another’s pain and suffering. The freedom of one cannot be caused by the suffering of another. This is our struggle. The Torah also tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not leave alone:
“And a mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38).
The Torah reveals that the reason so many left Egypt was because an erev rav, a mixed multitude of individuals, joined with the Israelites. Egyptians who dealt with their own hardships and pain and suffering also set out to leave Egypt and were also freed from Pharaoh’s rule. In the end, it was not just the Israelites who were freed. It was all who suffered from injustice.
Moses and God agonized over the pain and suffering that others felt because they understood that one cannot be free unless we are all free. One cannot suffer while the other succeeds. That is not true freedom. That is not true justice. May we learn from God’s and Moses’ hesitation. Let Martin Luther King’s legacy snap us out of complacency. As Rev. William Barber reminds us:
“In recent years, NGOs and government officials have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy, turning his birthday into a call for service. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes stand up at podiums to honor Dr. King, but then pass vulgar policies that threaten the very soul of our nation.”
We cannot claim to fight for justice and encourage — or at the very least ignore — racist policies. We cannot only fight for the freedom of some. For as long as injustice continues, we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free. Next year, may Dr. King’s dream finally be realized. And may we stand up to the Pharaoh’s among us until it is.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky