‘For you were strangers in the land of Egypt’: How many times does the Torah repeat that phrase? And now we have arrived once again at the season for remembering our misery in ‘the house of bondage’ par excellence: Pesach; or, as the first Rabbis called it, Z’man Cheiruteinu – the ‘Season of our Liberation’.
I don’t know how often the Torah reminds us of our slavery in Egypt – I’ve never counted. I do know that having read the Torah year after year these past twenty-six years, since I first began my rabbinic studies, my main thoughts about that constant repetition have gone in two, interconnected, directions: So, even before we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, the experience of slavery defined our existence as a people; and: the imperative to remember our experience then, acts as the principle rationale for Jewish ethical conduct now – that’s why being reminded that we were ‘strangers in the land of Egypt’ invariably follows an injunction about our obligation to act justly towards the vulnerable and marginal in our midst.
But there is one very obvious thing that I’ve never really noticed about the Torah’s insistence on remembering our bondage in Egypt – or maybe just taken for granted: The Torah is addressing a people, not only liberated from slavery a long time before anyone can actually remember, but, even more significantly: a people with power over their own lives – and, perhaps, more important; power over the lives of others. Alongside the key narratives about the journeys of our ancestors, which coalesce into a journey down into Egypt, and then, 430 years later, a dramatic Exodus from Egypt, at the heart of the Torah are the various codes of law, whose purpose is to regulate the social order. In fact, that’s the whole point of the Torah – and of the complex odyssey of our forbears, from the time Abraham and Sarah left their land, their kindred, and their home: to journey towards a particular piece of God’s earth – the land of Canaan – where they will establish a new society.
Yes, it’s very obvious – and yet, we never really consider the implications – for at least two main reasons: The first reason is because, reading the Torah narrative as we do, year after year, re-tracing the steps of our ancestors, of the slaves, of the wanderers in the wilderness, and then, just as they are about to enter the land, returning to the beginning again – to Creation – that new society is always a future promise beyond. The second reason is that, despite the fact that our forbears did, in fact, enter the land, and establish a social order – albeit, failing, repeatedly, to follow the laws of justice – they were conquered and exiled again and again – and then, spent almost two thousand years living a marginal and vulnerable existence in other people’s lands. In other words, our experience as a people has, for the most part, not been about empowerment at all, but rather been about being disempowered – and worse: persecuted and oppressed.
And so, until the establishment of the modern State of Israel in May 1948, being a Jew was synonymous with being a victim at the mercy of those in power. And so, generation after generation, we have read the Torah, not as a self-determining people, with responsibilities and obligations towards others, not as a people with power, but rather, as the vulnerable and the marginal. And so, we haven’t really understood the reminder, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ – because we have never forgotten: we have still been the victims. And so, we have, for the most part, failed to notice, that the Torah is addressing those with the power and the means to act for good or ill – because, from the perspective of our historical experience, we have, for the most part, been powerless.
But with the establishment of a Jewish state in our ancient homeland, a substantial section of our people now does have power. And yet, we do not seem to have caught up with this new reality: neither the Jews who live there – the new ‘Israelis’ – nor the Jews who still live as minorities in the diaspora. In a sense, we have become two peoples – an empowered people in Israel, and a diaspora people, living in other people’s lands. But , of course, we are not prepared to see the Jewish people, as two peoples – for understandable reasons, because we share the same inheritance, the same history, and, crucially, the same very recent trauma: the Sho’ah. And most of us are not prepared – neither Jews in Israel nor Jews in the diaspora – for these shared reasons – to acknowledge, not only that a Jewish state means Jewish power, but that since 1967, in particular, the State of Israel has exercised power over the lives of others, who are not Jews – the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Now, there is nothing wrong with having power. One of the most unique and valuable aspects of the Torah – apart from the wonderful tales it tells – is that rather than deny the reality of power, the various codes of the Torah regulate the exercise of power and insist that those who occupy powerful positions in society exert their power responsibly and ethically – especially in relation to the most vulnerable and marginal.
Of course, we only have to read the accounts of the reigns of the numerous monarchs of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the books of the Bible that follow the Five Books of Moses, and in particular, read the words of the prophets, who railed against injustice, to know that ethical government was a very rare thing back then. And if the Bible is not our regular ‘book at bed-time’, the weekly Haftarah, the concluding reading after the Torah reading, on Shabbat and the festivals, which comes from the second section of the Bible, N’vi’im, ‘Prophets’, often reminds us of how Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Amos raised their voices against the corrupt and oppressive rulers of their day.
The prophets were not afraid to speak out – on the contrary, they saw it as their duty as servants of the Eternal One to challenge the abuse of power; when they held the rulers of the people to account and exhorted the wealthy to share their riches, they did so in the name of God, the liberator of the oppressed and the guardian of the needy. Let me just remind you of a few verses from Isaiah chapters 1 and 5 (1:16-17 and 5:7-8):
Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; / learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the widow; defend the cause of the orphan.
For the vineyard of the God of Hosts is the House of Israel, and the seedlings He lovingly tended are the men of Judah. And He hoped for justice, but, behold, injustice; for equity, but behold, iniquity! / Ah! Those who add house to house and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land!
Here we are, on the first day of Pesach, at a moment, when all our people, all over the world, in the diaspora and in Israel, are celebrating the liberation of our ancestors from tyranny and oppression: ‘For you were strangers in the land of Egypt’; remembering that ‘we were strangers’ is what this festival is all about. But why? Why do we need to remember? We read in Exodus chapter 22 (:20), in the first code of law included in the Torah, Mishpatim, the code that is inserted into the account of the Revelation of the Eternal at Mount Sinai:
V’geir lo-toneh v’lo tilchatzeinu; ki geirim heyitem b’eretz Mitzrayim
A stranger you shall not wrong or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And two verses in K’doshim, the ‘Holiness Code’ in Leviticus chapter 19 (:33-34), make clear the context for the injunction:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. / The stranger who resides with you shall be like a citizen amongst you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.
Why the need to remember? Because once settled ‘in your land’ there is the danger of becoming forgetful… So, what would Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Amos be saying to the government of Israel today? What would they say about the forty-two year occupation of the West Bank and the continuing domination of another people against their will? What would they say about house demolitions in East Jerusalem and the destruction of Palestinian neighbourhoods to make room for the ever-expanding Jewish settlements? Would they not call the government to account and rail against injustice? I’m sure we know the answers to these questions – and we also know that if the prophets were around, the Israeli government would probably make strenuous efforts to silence them – just as it has taken steps to silence the individuals and groups working for human rights and justice in Israel today – chief among them: Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Israel Religious Action Centre, and B’tzelem, the Human Rights organisation that takes it’s name from the verse in the Torah, which states that each human being is created b’tzelem Elohim – ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27).
Those who defend or excuse the actions of the Israeli government often argue that they ‘love’ Israel and what they are trying to do is protect the Jewish state and ensure its security and survival. Well, I love Israel – and have done ever since I lived on a small kibbutz in the Western Galilee for seven months in 1978-79. My efforts are directed to protecting the Jewish state and helping to make it more secure. I want Israel to survive – and thrive. I also want Israel to be much more Jewish – a really Jewish state: a state that is governed by Jewish values; by the ethical imperatives we find in the Torah and in the words of the prophets – which is the only way that it will become fully secure and live in peace with the Palestinians and all the other states of the region. I have quoted from Isaiah – and Micah expresses very similar sentiments (Micah 5:12;15;24) – but let’s give the last word to Amos (:7-10) – or rather to the Eternal One who spoke through him:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to Me, O Israelites? declares the Eternal. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir? / Behold, the Eternal God has His eye upon the sinful kingdom: I will wipe it off the face of the earth! But I will not wholly wipe out the House of Jacob, declares the Eternal. / For, behold, I will give the order and shake the House of Israel through all the nations – as one shakes [sand] in a sieve, and not a pebble falls to the ground. / All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, [those] who boast, never shall the evil overtake us or come near us.
The prophets did not mince their words! And we should not either. Yes, Israel is surrounded by enemies – but the greatest threat it faces is not from Iran or Hamas – however dangerous these two forces of anti-Israel hatred may be. The greatest threat Israel faces is from the forces of injustice within. Surely, the time has come for those who love and support Israel to speak out, so that, in the words of Amos (5:24): ‘Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’, and we may yet see two sovereign democratic nations, Israel and Palestine, flourishing side by side and living in peace – bimheirah b’yameinu – speedily in our own day. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Ve’reiut
30th March 2010 – 15th Nisan 5770