By Rabbi Bill Kuhn
It was impossible to watch the recent uprising in Egypt and not think of the Passover story. How ironic! Egyptian citizens in the year 2011 felt they were oppressed and enslaved by an authoritarian dictatorship. Perhaps their political oppression was not on a par with the ancient Pharaoh’s enslavement of our Israelite ancestors, but the Egyptians of today certainly felt the need to achieve freedom no less than we did over 3,000 years ago.Recent developments all throughout the Middle East have focused attention on one of the most basic of human needs, the desire to live in a free and open society. With remarkable speed, this spirit arose in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As of this writing, the authoritarian regimes have been able to put down these revolutionary movements with violence and repression. Yet the spirit to breathe free still exists, and will not be so easily put down.
In the United States, we are blessed to live in a free and open society, which is governed by laws to protect our individual freedoms. These rights are so ingrained in our daily lives that we almost take them for granted. Yet, when we see the extent people are willing to go in order to obtain these basic rights, we are reminded of how very precious they are.
Jewish tradition would say that freedom is a God-given right. This is the essence of the meaning of the Passover story. Our people were slaves in Egypt, suffering from cruel bondage at the hand of Pharaoh, a tyrant who used any means necessary to oppress our ancestors. With the help of God’s mighty acts, Moses was able to convince Pharaoh to let our people go. Through a series of miracles, God frees our people and delivers us from Egypt.
Most of us read the Book of Exodus and find the material on the miracles a bit far-fetched. Our contemporary, rational minds cannot accept a story in which a sea is split. But if you cannot believe the miracles written in the Book of Exodus, how do you explain what the world just witnessed in Egypt. We watched with our own eyes on television, online, and in print media, events that could not be explained by rational minds. An entire nation rose up and expelled the dictator of Egypt. Was God involved in this miracle? I’ll leave that for you to decide. But the God-given inalienable rights of human beings to be free were certainly the motivation for this uprising.
And when the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, and realized they were saved, they sang and danced and celebrated and thanked God with the prayer, MiChamocha…”Who is like You O God…performing miracles and working wonders!”
And when the Egyptians heard Mubarak had stepped down from his post, they gathered in Tahrir (Liberation) Square and sang and danced and celebrated for days on end. They also thanked God for the miracle of freedom.
So, this year at your Passover Seder, I hope you will spend a little extra time considering the meaning of the central message of the Hagaddah. This is not just a story about our ancestors who lived in ancient times. It is a fresh and new story that has special relevance and significance this year. The quest for freedom is a universal struggle, not only for the Israelites in Exodus, but also for so many people throughout our world today. As Jews, we must work for the day when all of humanity will be free.