Hinneinu – here we are: we have arrived at the Festival of Pesach; z’man cheiruteinu – ‘the season of our liberation’. But how can we call the Festival of Pesachz’man cheiruteinu – ‘the season of our liberation’? Isn’t it really the season of our ancestors’ liberation from the infamous ‘house of bondage’ – beit avadim – 3300 years ago?

So, what are we doing here? We are engaged in a sacred act of remembrance. We Jews do a lot of remembering. Indeed our annual journey around the calendar involves remembering a catalogue of sacred events – events that we have set apart for remembrance from the Exodus onwards. Even the way in which we read the Torah in weekly portions over the course of the year is all about remembering: the beginning of the world, the early days of humanity, the first ancestors of our people, their journey down into Egypt, the plight of their descendants, who became slaves, their Exodus from Egypt, experience of Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

In an important sense, Jews wouldn’t be ‘here’ today if it wasn’t for all that remembering. The Torah’s account of the first Pesach in parashat Bo, Exodus chapters 12 and 13, establishes the obligation of annual observance of the festival for all time (12:17), and also makes it clear that keeping Pesach year after year is about transmitting the memory of the Exodus to the next generation. We read at chapter 13, verse 8:

V’higadta l’vin’cha ba-yom ha-hu leimor: ‘Ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li, b’tzeiti mimitzrayim’

You should tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of that which the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt.’

V’higadta l’vin’cha – ‘You should tell your child’. Some of us who are here today were once children, who were told the story around the Seder table. The word, v’higadta – is from the Hebrew root, Nun Gimmel Dalet – to ‘tell’ – the same ‘root’ from which the noun, Haggadah, is derived; haggadah, meaning, ‘telling’ or ‘tale’ – the tale of the Exodus from Egypt. Taking their cue from the Torah, after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the 70CE, and the sacrificial rites of Pesach could no longer be observed, the first rabbis reinvented the festival as primarily a home ritual, centred round the dining table, the new altar of the Jewish people. And it was the first rabbis, who created the Haggadah, the ‘tale’ of the Exodus story, and the Seder – the ‘order’ of the telling.[1]

So, for almost 2000 years, the exhortation to remember the Exodus from Egypt and to transmit the memory to the next generation has been translated into a framework of observance, which has ensured we do remember and pass the memory on l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation.

But then, there is the second part of that important verse in the Torah:

V’higadta l’vin’cha ba-yom ha-hu leimor: ‘Ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li, b’tzeiti mimitzrayim

You should tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of that which the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt.’

The Haggadah quotes this verse in what is, arguably, the most important passage we read during the Seder:

B’chol dor va-dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’illu hu yatzah mi-mitzrayim – In every generation each person is obliged to regard himself – herself – as if he/she went out from Egypt, as it is written: ‘V’higadta l’vin’cha ba-yom ha-hu leimor: ‘Ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li, b’tzeiti mimitzrayim– You should tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of that which the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt.’

We may observe all the rituals of Pesach – remove chameitz – leaven – from our homes, eat matzah for seven days, participate in one Seder or more, attend the synagogue services at the beginning and the end of Pesach – but do we make this act of identification?

Clearly, it was our ancestors and not us who were liberated from slavery. However two separate verses in the first code of law in the Torah, in parashat Mishpatim, the portion known as ‘Laws’, help us to understand the real purpose of personally identifying with the experience of the Exodus. We read at Exodus chapter 22, verse 20:

V’geir lo-toneh v’lo tilchatzennu; ki geirim heyyitem b’eretz mitztrayim

A sojourner you shall not wrong, neither shall you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And then at Exodus chapter 23, verse 9:

V’geir lo tilchatz; v’atem y’datem et-nefesh ha-geir; ki geirim heyyitem b’eretz mitzrayim

A sojourner you shall not oppress, for you know the nefesh – the inner-being – of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

If the first verse is not plain enough, the second verse drives the point home: the experience of being slaves in Egypt, of being wronged and oppressed was supposed to sensitise the Jewish people so that, once we had the power to run our own affairs we would not wrong and oppress the strangers in our midst: ‘for you know the nefesh – the inner being – of the sojourner’: you know what it feels like to be vulnerable and marginal. Remembering the house of bondage is about remembering that feeling – and because we remember, making sure that we do not wrong and oppress others.

But, again, how do we remember? Observing the sacred rites of Pesach which have been transmitted to us is not the same thing as remembering what it feels like to be a slave. Of course, some Jews will have had direct experience of persecution, but most Jews today, thankfully, in Britain, at least, will not have experienced oppression. So what can we do?

We can take a leap of imagination not just into our past as a people, but also towards other people who are oppressed today. To imagine is another kind of remembering; by imagining, we can evoke the remembrance of our experience as a people. That important passage from the Haggadah, which speaks about each person’s obligation, in every generation to consider him or herself as if s/he had gone out of Egypt, concludes with these words, from Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 23:

It was not only our ancestors alone whom the Holy Blessed One set free from slavery; but also us, God freed along with them, as it is written: ‘God brought us out from there in order to bring us [in], to give us the land which He swore to our ancestors.’

Shalach et-ammi v’ya’avduni – ‘Let my people go that they may serve Me’.[2] According to the Book of Exodus, this is what God instructed Moses to say to Pharaoh. The slaves were liberated for a purpose: so that they might establish a society that was the complete opposite of the house of bondage; a society based on justice. It is not possible to establish a society in a vacuum – and so the place: the land beyond the River Jordan; in that place a new social order.

So what about that place? In early February I participated in an eight day trip to Israel and Palestine with a group of my Liberal and Reform rabbinic colleagues and a few other interested people, organised by the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights.[3] It was demanding and challenging – each day, more places to visit, both in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian Territories; more people to encounter and learn from. I remember it all very keenly – and if there was more time, I would give you a blow by blow account – but three particular experiences stand out for me.

The first experience was on the first day, which we spent going round East Jerusalem. Visiting East Jerusalem involves encountering the separation barrier – in this context, an 8 metre high concrete wall. According to the Israeli authorities, the separation barrier designates what is part of Israel, and what is not. Several Palestinian neighbourhoods have been deemed to be part of Israel. What does this mean in practice? Well, we visited one of them – Sheikh Jarrah – and spoke with Mohammed, a Palestinian owner outside what remains of his home. He and his neighbours have been evicted. Ironically, it was on 9th November 2008 – that is, on the 70th anniversary of Kristalnacht[4] – that their houses were surrounded and they were thrown out; their furniture removed and dumped into the municipal area. Since that time, Mohammed has erected tents and had them demolished 17 times – and with each demolition a charge of 450 shekels. While we spoke with him, I noticed the house next door: Israeli flags along the front porch, it is now occupied by two Israeli young men – one of whom arrived while we were there. And the house opposite – also covered in Israeli flags – with a giant Chanukkiyyah on the roof.

Sheikh Jarrah, and other Palestinian neighbourhoods like it in East Jerusalem, has been taken over by Jews, by our fellow Jews, who are also, at this moment, celebrating Pesach. For them, that Torah verse quoted in the Haggadah gives them license to claim the whole land promised to our ancestors and expel the Palestinians. But that’s not how Rabbis for Human Rights, led by rabbis from across the spectrum – from Progressive to Orthodox – understand the Torah. Their leading activist, Orthodox Rabbi Arik Ascherman, was not able to join us for our first session that day because he’d been arrested for standing in front of Israeli bulldozers. Rabbi Arik Ascherman and his colleague, Masorti Rabbi, Nava Hefetz, who takes the lead on educational matters, have internalised the Pesach story. They spend their days supporting persecuted Palestinians in their struggle for justice and freedom.

The second experience I want to share with you took place the next day in the South Hebron Hills, where, among other places, we visited a village called Netzer. The Palestinian territories are divided into areas A, B, and C. Area A is under full Palestinian control, and includes Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Tul Karem, and Qalqilya.  Area B is under Israeli military control, however the Palestinian Authority has civil responsibility. Most of the villages on the outskirts of area A cities are in area B. Area C, which constitutes 62% of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control – which encompasses military and civilian issues, as well as education, and amenities.

Netzer is in area C. We visited Netzer because, like most of the Palestinian villages in area C, it is not connected to water and electricity grids. Needless to say, this is not true of the Jewish settlements in area C…. However, there is some good news: With the help of humanitarian aid channelled through Comet ME, an Israeli NGO, solar panels have been installed in seven villages, including Netzer, which means they now have electricity – although the supply is pretty low during the winter months. In Netzer, we were guided around the solar panels and small electricity generation area by Nehad Mor, a young woman, accompanied by her two young children, the villager responsible for looking after the panels and the electricity supply.

It was both heart-warming and humbling to meet Nehad Mor – here was a young Muslim Palestinian woman, responsible for such a vital project. But then to learn that according to the Israeli authorities, these solar panels – along with those in the other six villages – are illegal and have been slated for demolition. Fortunately, with organisations like Rabbis for Human Rights on the case, this is not the end of the story. On March 14th The Guardian reported that a legal fight waged by Rabbis for Human Rights has succeeded in suspending, although not lifting, the demolition of the panels at one of the villages – Imneizil. Meanwhile, as a major funder of the solar panels project, the German government has launched an intense diplomatic effort via its foreign office to save the others in nearby villages.[5]

The third experience: we visited another two villages in the South Hebron Hills. One of these is no longer really a village: Bir Elid. It was almost completely demolished by the Israeli army in June 2011. Twenty large extended families used to live there in caves and tents and stone houses. Eight families have returned, although only three are now living there permanently. In April 2011 solar panels fitted were fitted, some of which were damaged during the expulsion. The Army also cut wires leading to some of the caves. After drinking tea with Ziyad, one of the returnees, in his tent, some of us then went and visited briefly with his wife, in the cave just behind it. There she was with a baby, living in a cave – evidently part of the landscape. And this cave provided more than shelter: apart from an open fire, there was a fridge complete with fridge magnets, and a television, which was switched on. A village devastated and cut off – and yet, despite all this, not disconnected from the outside world. That’s what solar panels can do. And here we were: visitors from that outside world, letting them know that we care about their plight and support efforts to do something about it.

Let us recall how the liberation of the slaves began: a lone shepherd was shepherding his father-in-law’s flock achar ha-midbar – behind the wilderness.[6] Apprehended by a burning bush that was not consumed by the flames, he turned aside to take a look. We read in Exodus chapter 3, verse 4:

When the Eternal saw that he had turned aside to look, God called him out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered: Hinneini! – ‘Here I am!’

Like Abraham before him,[7] Moses’ immediate response to the commanding voice of the Eternal was to say hinneini! – here I am! – ready to act. So: hinneinu – here we are this Pesach morning. The tale of the liberation of our ancestors calls each one of us to do more than eat matzah and savour the complex taste of affliction and freedom; it summons us to say, hinneini! – here I am! – ready to commit myself to the sacred task of liberating the oppressed. May we all find the courage to rise to that challenge. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Pesach – 15th Nissan 5772 – 7th April 2012

[1] See Mishnah P’sachim, chapter 10.

[2] Exodus 9:1

[3] 5th – 12th February 2012 – led by  Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Rabbinic Head of the Movement of Reform Judaism and Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism.

[4] The ‘night of the broken glass’, which marked the beginning of the Nazis’ violent persecution of the Jews of Europe

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/mar/14/palestinians-prepare-to-lose-solar-panels

[6] Exodus 3:1ff.

[7] Genesis 22:1ff.