Every year, I invite all my friends, both Jewish and goyish, to join me for my Passover Seder. I’m not really a practicing Jew, so it’s a pretty laid-back affair, but it gives me a chance to share parts of my culture that I really value, like my mom’s matzoh ball soup recipe—always a hit—and some lessons from the book of Exodus, the story which is told during the Seder service.
This year I was honored to lead two Seders, one on each coast, and during each one I was sure to point out my favorite lessons from the scripture.
The first is that we shouldn’t revel in the suffering of our enemies. Even as God visited ten plagues upon the Egyptians as punishment for keeping the Israelites in captivity, He did so reluctantly and with a heavy heart. For this reason, we ritually diminish the wine in our glass, one drop for each plague, as we recite them in turn. We decrease our own joy in the celebration of the holiday in recognition of the suffering of each of the Egyptians, particularly the powerless ones who were caught up in a game of Pharaonic politics. (I generally point out to my guests that I see this as the original version of “pouring one out for the homeys that went down.”)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this theme emerges again when Moses parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee the pursuing Egyptian army. As soon as the Jews were safely through, Moses brought the sea back together to drown the Egyptians, at which point the Jews sang a song of joy. Not so fast, said the Lord, to angels who were about to join in the Jews’ rejoicing. “They were my children, too.”
I doubt the Lord had been to one of our workshops, but that does seem like a very Better Angels-like thing to say. Despite our differences, we should all acknowledge that every person is worthy of respect and empathy. Perhaps the apotheosis of this type of thinking is the strength to forgive—and see the humanity in—even those trying to kill us.
The other important lesson I like to point out involves the historical circumstances that set the stage for the dramatic story of Exodus. It’s an immigrant story, with the Israelites a foreign people who had settled among the Egyptians. The Haggadah, the prayer book of Passover, tells how, as their numbers grew, the Pharaoh grew fearful about their loyalties, imagining that the Israelites might become a “fifth column” that would provide aid and comfort to invaders if Egypt were attacked.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians were so afraid that they relegated the Israelites to slavery, and ordered the murder of every first-born son among them.
So at its heart the story of Exodus is one of a nation’s mistrust and persecution of an immigrant population. As with much of history, the patterns of repetition are easy to decipher. To the progressives among us, our immigrants are being unfairly denigrated. There have certainly been instances of them being associated with threats to our security, which blues perceive as unjustified. And once again, we’re doing horrific things to their children.
This is right about where this column was originally meant to wrap up, perhaps followed by some pithy, insightful final paragraph about taking these lessons to heart at the conclusion of another Passover holiday. I’d talk about the common ground that a secular Jew like myself can find with someone—likely on the other side of the aisle—who takes scripture more seriously, and perhaps more literally.
That was before some white-supremacist lunatic decided to bring an assault rifle to a San Diego synagogue on the last day of Passover (and six months to the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting) and spray the congregation with bullets, killing one person and injuring three others. I wasn’t expecting such a direct example of the consequences of demonization of “the other,” someone who was so prepared to celebrate the suffering of his enemies (apparently the shooter listed on social media a bunch of songs he planned to play during a livestream of the carnage on Facebook, though this didn’t actually wind up happening.)
When I read about this shooting, I cried. It hit pretty close to home for me, both symbolically and literally. The Chabad of Poway is just over an hour from me, and I’m heading down to San Diego on Tuesday for a potluck with Better Angels people, to which I’ll be bringing some Passover leftovers.
The events I’ve been watching unfold over the past few years have been truly scary. From Charlottesville to Pittsburgh, and through all of the increasing violence committed by white supremacists, against both Jews and immigrants (which we’re often unable to prosecute as domestic terrorism despite calling it that,) these acts have felt fairly remote to me.
Now they’ve come knocking on my door, and I must say, the feeling is truly terrifying.
I don’t really know how to respond to these events, aside from just talking about how we can counter this type of hatred in our hearts and our world. While the scale isn’t really comparable, this sort of violence is still an extension of the kind of animosity and dehumanization we inflict and suffer when we fail to treat all of our fellow human beings as coming from the same global family.
Or put in a more spiritual way apropos for the season, we are all God’s children.