What is liberation this year?

Moving from Purim to Pesach this year is hard. Purim hits too close to home—the threat of a massacre of the Jewish community, the massacre of the Shushanites, the instability at the end of the Megillah—who will next get the King’s ring and license for genocide? Pesach offers liberation, Divine intervention in the world, the appearance of God over the splitting sea (according to the midrash) when everybody could literally point and say “this is my God”, and God’s crushing of cruel oppression. This year, we did not see liberation on Simhat Torah and it is Jews, Israelis, who seem to be cruelly oppressive now.

It may be time to take a look inwards.

In the middle of a discussion of the seder, the ritual meal on the first night of Passover, in Tractate Pesahim of the Babylonian Talmud, there is an anecdote about a seder that happened more or less fifteen hundred years ago.

Rav Nahman, a Babylonian Sage who was one of the most respected and important rabbis, was having seder. He turned to his slave, Daru, and asked him: “An enslaved person whose master frees him and gifts him with silver and gold; what should the enslaved person say to the master?” Daru replied: “He must thank him and praise him.” Rav Nahman replied: “You have fulfilled our obligation for the recitation of ‘We were enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” And then Rav Nahman continued with his seder.

Many questions arise from this exchange. The most troubling aspect, for me, is that Rav Nahman had to have raised Daru’s expectations of being freed when on Pesach, the holiday celebrating the liberation from bondage of the Israelites, Rav Nahman asks Daru how would he, Daru, feel if manumitted? The fact that Rav Nahman just continued with the recitation of the seder liturgy, restored Daru as object for Rav Nahman and those at the seder, and dashed any hopes that Daru might have had for a moment to be freed.

The most puzzling aspect of this story is why the editor of the Talmud places this story here, in the midst of an explication of the seder.

The story occurs during a discussion of a relatively famous mishnah from which we get the so-called “four questions,” and the general rules for the order of the seder, a word which itself means order. One of those rules is that one is supposed to start with that which is demeaning, writes the mishnah, and end with that which is praiseworthy. It is in the context of discussing what that instruction means that we find our story.

There is, of course, (this being the Talmud) a debate about what praiseworthy and demeaning refer to. Rav, one of the founders of the rabbinic academies in Babylonia says that “demeaning” refers to the fact that originally our ancestors were idol worshippers, and it is “praiseworthy” that they arrived at the monotheistic worship of God. Shmuel, Rav’s colleague, however, argues that “demeaning” refers to slavery, and “praiseworthy” to liberation from slavery as in the liturgical formula “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us out with a strong hand….” Rav Nahman’s story is brought immediately after Shmuel’s statement.

This placement is not coincidental or serendipitous. I want to suggest that this story was taught as a self-critique. The rabbis, by implication, were saying that at the very moment when we decry Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness and the need for Divine intervention to free the Israelites from slavery, we should not be feeling totally self-righteous in our victimhood and joyous in our liberation. We have to take a long look at ourselves and be sure that we are not also a little bit Pharaoh in our lives. Maybe more than a little bit.

This is our challenge this year. After the Simhat Torah/October 7 massacre and the taking of hostages (133 of which are still in captivity in Gaza), the understandable need to restore security, slipped quickly into the desire for vengeance. The Pharaoh instinct took over. Almost 34,000 Gazan Palestinians, most of them civilians, one third of them children, have been killed. The killing still goes on, if at a reduced pace. Journalists and aid workers have been killed. There is a serious threat of famine and disease as almost all the hospitals have been destroyed.

Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares, taught that the first step to the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt was that Egyptians convinced themselves that they had a right to enslave; that they were superior; that the Israelites were somehow less than human. Tamares calls this intellectual oppression, and he teaches that the point of the seder is to unlearn that ideology which claims that some people are less than human and that oppressing them and killing them is justified.

This is what liberation could look like for us, the Jewish community, this year. Taking a lesson from the story of Rav Nahman that we too have the potential of Pharaonic heard-heartedness; and unlearning the idea that the Palestinians deserve the killing and the famine and the disease, that it is their fault.

We could, and should then take these lessons and turn them into demands for a hostage and prisoner swap,  an immediate cease fire, and massive humanitarian aid to Gaza.

That is what liberation might look like for us this year.

One thought on “What is liberation this year?

  1. Nebach on Cohen and the others writers in this forum. They immediately look to find fault from within, that old Jewish guilt never goes away. They will twist words of Torah to fit their agenda. Hopefully, non Jews do not read their comments. How weak and stupid these supposed scholars look to the outside world. How do these people and their ilk develop Jewish pride? The first step is not to dilute and twist the holy words of OUR Torah. Follow the mitzvos properly and they will perhaps learn to defend their own people instead of always looking to find fault from within.

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