This year, when we sit at our Seder tables sharing the story and significance of our journey from oppression in Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt) to liberation, reflecting on our individual and collective movement from constriction (maytzar) to expansiveness, it is a potent moment to weave into our discussion, ritual and actions the plight of refugees around the globe at this particularly vulnerable time.
HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), has come out with a Haggadah focused on issues related to refugees and asylum seekers. HIAS, a US-based organization that draws on Jewish values and history, providing vital services to refugees and asylum seekers around the world and advocating for their fundamental rights so they can rebuild their lives.
Here is an excerpt from HIAS Haggadah – a new ritual to frame our experience:
“Before you begin the Seder, either walk with your guests to the front door or have one guest rise from the table and walk to the front door. There, place a pair of shoes on the doorstep and read the words below.
The heart of the Passover Seder tells the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. During the retelling of this story, we say the words (Arami oved avi).” This phrase is sometimes translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean” and other times as “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” Somewhere between the two translations lies the essence of the Jewish experience: a rootless people who have fled persecution time and time again.
When we recite the words “Arami oved avi,” we acknowledge that we have stood in the shoes of the refugee. Today, as we celebrate our freedom, we commit ourselves to continuing to stand with contemporary refugees and asylum seekers. In honor of this commitment, we place a pair of shoes on the doorstep of our home to acknowledge that none of us is free until all of us are free and to pledge to stand in support of welcoming those who do not yet have a place to call home.”
The realities of refugees in the world, most recently fleeing Ukraine, is nothing short of a global humanitarian crisis. There is desperate need for food and clothing, for medical supplies and care, for protection and transport moving from one place to the next, for safe and warm places to sleep and for all the supplies and support involved in resettlement in safe new homes. The presence of these realities has an important place at our Seder tables.
And yet, Pesach is a celebration. This year, as spring awakens and blossoms, we are experiencing the ability to increasingly come out of Covid isolation, to embrace each other and eat together and raise up joy. Can we include suffering and celebration at the same time? The answer is yes, not only is it possible but in wisdom of the Seder ritual we are guided to experience them both and allow them to inform one another.
The Seder moves its participants through a beautiful and complex experience of both tasting bitterness, remembering degradation, opening ourselves to insecurity, constriction and fear – past and present – and at the same time, celebrating, singing and tasting sweetness in the fullness of joy and new life.
We embody what our ancestors did. On the very last night of their enslavement in Mitzrayim, the Israelites gathered together around tables laden with food, celebrating the first Seder. Their oppression was not yet over. They were still in Mitzrayim and the experience of slavery was still very much in their bodies and spirits. Death and destruction were outside their homes. All this was present while they sat with sandals on their feet, their walking sticks in hand, dressed and ready for liberation. And they sang.
Our Sages teach that prophecy is only possible from a state of joy. The ability to call for change and move into it, to respond to suffering, to envision new pathways and possibilities cannot be engaged when we feel hopeless and helpless. The Israelites needed to celebrate in joy before they could step into freedom, to enable them to be brave enough to move out into the unknown. Joy is strengthening and hopeful. Joy is rooted and strong when it is informed by realities of suffering, while it leans into sources of liberation and goodness that are bigger.
This year, let’s have our eyes and hearts open to the realities of refugees. Let’s leave shoes on our doorsteps and let’s also awaken the strength of wonder and joy, with sandals on our feet, dressed for liberation.