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The Passover message: Just don’t do it
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The Passover message: Just don’t do it

The Seder teaches empathy — and reminds us not to oppress the stranger

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem asks an interesting question about the Pesach seder. Why do we celebrate with matza, which is called lehem oni, the “bread of affliction” or “poor man’s bread” ? He wonders, “If the essence of Pesach is hag haherut [the holiday of freedom], then wouldn’t it make more sense to eat cake, which symbolizes freedom?” He continues, “OK, maybe we should start the seder with matza…. But let’s end with cake.”

Of course, that’s not what we do. We conclude our meal on the seder night with the afikoman so that we can go to sleep with the taste of lehem oni in our mouths.

The Haggada says, “In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” And yet, it seems that the eating of the matza and maror, the two essential rituals of the seder — not to mention everything we have to do in advance — focus our attention on slavery rather than freedom.

Why? I once asked a group of Hebrew school students why we are required to tell this story every year. Why is it so important to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt?

The kids offered their answers: So that it won’t happen again, so that we won’t make the same mistakes that led us into slavery. They offered several different reasons, but they were all based on the same idea — we need to learn about the bad things that happened to us in the past so we can prevent them from happening to us in the future.

What I find curious is that none of these students offered the Torah’s answer for why we not only remember but strive to internalize the experience of slavery. The Torah says, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Shemot 23:9) In this and many similar verses, the Torah tells us that because we were once enslaved, we should have empathy for the oppressed and the outcast; because we were treated cruelly, we should have learned to treat others decently.

Not only my students, but most kids, are surely familiar with this scenario: Two boys get into a fight, and when one is caught hitting the other one, what’s the first thing he says? “He hit me first” — He did it to me, so I have a right to do it to him.

And it’s not just kids. Adults get caught up in the business of getting even, too. Sometimes it’s silly — they didn’t invite us to their daughter’s engagement party, so we won’t invite them to our son’s bar mitzva — until the entire extended family is forced to take sides. And sometimes it’s seriously dangerous — what is road rage but: He cut me off, so now I’m going to drive like a maniac and chase him down and cut him off. And beyond that, there is the horrible fact that many people who were abused — emotionally or physically — as children grow up to become abusers themselves. It was done to me, so I am going to do it to someone else.

But the Torah insists — you can be better than that. You know what it feels like to be oppressed, to be enslaved, to fear for your children’s safety, to know you could be beaten or killed on a whim. So learn empathy — learn not to oppress the stranger.

This is why we don’t eat cake — we can’t afford to forget how it feels to be oppressed.

It once happened that a non-Jew approached the sage Shammai and said to him, “I will become a convert to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod that he happened to have in his hand. When the non-Jew came before Shammai’s contemporary Hillel, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (Shabbat 31a)

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