March 2021 – Parshat Tzav

This time last year, Passover took place at a time of global upheaval as the effects of the global pandemic became more pronounced. With Synagogues across the globe shut and communal celebrations cancelled, it was definitely a Passover to remember and one that people will certainly be telling their grandchildren about.

Interestingly, the Passover Seder itself contains a central message about turning memory into a call for righteous behaviour. The Exodus story, with its retelling of the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt, seeks to compel us to use these experiences as a calling for moral responsibility. The stories that are retold at the Seder seek to help us understand that because we were a people that were vulnerable and defenceless, we must look out for those that are in a similar position, no matter where they are located in the world.

In this way the Jewish people are unique. Many cultures and religions have imperatives within their texts and creeds to look out for those within their communities that are vulnerable. This usually extends to classes of persons like the widow or the orphan, examples of people who are clearly at risk and should be taken care of. But the Jewish tradition is unique as it also includes the added class of “ger” – “the stranger” who we are obligated to care for and look out for.

In Parshat Mishpatim, the verse in Exodus 23:9 contains one of the most well-known descriptions of this obligation, stating: “you shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Using the story of the oppression of the Jewish people living under Pharoah, the Torah exhorts us, for all generations, to take care of those that are not members of our immediate communities and tribes. We must look out for those that are not part of our direct circles and families, those that are, due to their position in society, vulnerable and at risk of exploitation.

That this exhortation is tied to our collective memory of our oppression in Egypt is symbolic. Having been an excluded minority who experienced suffering, we ourselves are forced to consider those less privileged around us and work to help them. Our collective communal memory compels our ethical obligations.

This obligation is not based on logical reasons but rather a more obvious demand to show compassion for those less fortunate: since we as the Jewish people have experienced otherness, exclusion and isolation. We, therefore, have a moral obligation to never exclude, neglect or harm the stranger.

While this phrase is often repeated in our tradition, it is sometimes easy to forget how radical this requirement is. Instead of exhorting the Jewish people to be kind to those less privileged, it would have also seemed equally reasonable that the call to action could have been that the Jewish people were mistreated, so therefore, they don’t owe anything to any other group or person, as we have to maintain and protect ourselves above all else.

Instead, the opposite in our tradition is true: because we were mistreated and oppressed, we are saddled with the obligation to never, ever mistreat or abuse those that are vulnerable. The memory of our experiences guides our actions and the empathy we have people that are oppressed or strangers, magnifies our commitment to the dignity of those less privileged in the world around us.

As we reach Passover, we use this collective memory to personalise the Torah’s demand for compassion. Each person has the requirement to consider their memories of the last year, the memories which demonstrated their compassion and kindness. The Seder, through the retelling of our history compels us to actively choose a compassionate and kind response, ensuring that the other choice, to abuse and mistreat those less fortunate never becomes the principal response in our lives.

In a year where so many people have lost loved ones and illness has changed the world irrevocably, our collective memories are ever more important. The commandment to love and care for the stranger and to care for those in distress remains a fundamental value at the core of our Jewish beliefs. By using memory and the memories we share as a people, the festival of Passover exhorts us to amplify and intensify our obligations as Jewish people to those in the world around us who are in need.