Ancient Exodus, Modern Democracy: Lessons from Egypt at Passover
The bitter and the sweet
Everyone loves charoset, and I have always been intrigued by the tradition of dipping the maror in charoset before we offer the blessing and ingest the bitterness of slavery. Only in the presence of something sweet can we fully take in the bitterness of the maror. Only when hope glimmers can we allow ourselves to feel the full force of the bitterness of our suffering.
While we now know that some of the young Egyptian activists had been preparing for months and even years for a moment such as this, when the time would be ripe for mass protests against the regime, what made this moment the time? More than the sad, desperate self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-vender in Tunisia, it was the success of Tunisian protestors in overthrowing their ruler of 23 years sparked hopes in Egypt. Suddenly, people could taste the sweet hope that the freedoms that had for so long seemed unattainable, might now be within grasp. And suddenly, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in Cairo and other cities and towns in Egypt, ready to risk beatings and arrest and worse, to stand up and say No More.
Freedom from… Freedom for…?
In calling for the end of the regime of their modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians were able to come together in inspiring and moving ways, across lines of religion, gender, class, and education. Their ability to stand together against forces that sought to divide them, even in the face of violent attack, and their success in ousting Mubarak stands as an enormous achievement. And yet, there is no time to lose celebrating. Freedom from the oppressive regime has not yet been fully accomplished. The military, first celebrated by the Egyptians as supportive of the revolution, is now increasingly coming under attack as Egypt’s reviled Emergency Law is still in place, allowing for the continuing arrests and imprisonments, sexual harassment, and torture.
And even as the Egyptians continue to push for freedom from the oppressions of the past, the next question is already upon them, and will shape the formation of political parties going forward. What should this freedom be for? What kind of society do they want to build? What is the vision of a modern Egypt that calls them forward? For many, the idea that Islam should play some kind of role in their society is appealing. But what kind of Islam? And what kind of influence? And at the same time, for many, the experience of protest in Tahrir Square holds an important piece of the vision: a celebration of the diversity of the Egyptian people, and the dignity of every human being. But the vision needs to be given fuller shape and expression, which will include but not be limited to the establishment of new laws. Moving toward Freedom For involves even harder work and is a lot messier than fighting for Freedom From. The Egyptians and the rest of the world need to be prepared for a sometimes slow and circuitous journey.
Freedom from… freedom for…? The experience of the Egyptians points us back to one of the great challenges of our own Exodus. We relive and celebrate our own humble beginnings as slaves with a transformative journey from slavery to freedom, but we are reminded that this freedom is only the first step of a long journey through the wilderness, toward a fuller freedom that still needed to be defined. From our first steps into freedom from slavery, we had to begin to chart that journey, a journey that took us to Sinai and beyond, that included far-reaching laws and teachings, toward a fuller redemption for us and the world. If our journey had not included Sinai, (or Shabbat, or Israel, or a few other things listed in Dayenu) would we still be around to tell the tale of the Exodus?
So the journey continues, and in every generation, every year, we ask ourselves at Pesach, how, this year, are we enslaved? What is the liberation that calls to us most deeply? What do we need freedom from? What do we need freedom for? And what is the path to this liberation? What is our maror, and our charoset? What is the bitterness for us, and what offers the sweetness of hope that can wake us up to the full bitterness of our current oppression, and galvanize us forward to seek liberation? We are invited to look inward and outward in asking these questions, to consider the broadest political landscape as well as the deepest inner spiritual terrain, and to realize that we do not need to choose between them, but rather can seek new connections between the two realms we too often see as separate.
Our seder tables may hold the best possibility for exploring these questions together, so we can all experience again the promise of the holiday, and perhaps, be able to take a few real steps forward on our journeys.
Chag Pesach Sameach!