Passover’s Radical Message Is More Vital Than Ever

What do we do with our pain? What, if anything, can we learn from it?

The Bible offers a startling and potentially transformative response: Let your memory teach you empathy and your suffering teach you love.

This week, Jews around the world will mark the beginning of Passover. We’ll gather for Seders, in which we’ll re-enact the foundational story of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt. For Judaism, a religion preoccupied with remembering the past, no memory is more fundamental than the experience of having been slaves to a tyrant and having been redeemed from his murderous clutches by God.

Such a memory, for some, may seem impossible to summon now, in a time of so much trauma and devastation. But it is critical to remember the Exodus precisely at moments of horror and pain because it is the ultimate reminder that the present moment need not be the final stage of history. The status quo, no matter how intransigent, can and must be overturned. Further, we are meant not just to remember our suffering but also to grow in empathy as a result.

The Bible’s emphasis on empathy is particularly poignant in this agonized moment, when Israelis and Palestinians, two utterly traumatized peoples, are so overcome with grief and indignation that they can barely see each other at all. And yet if there is to one day be a different sort of future in the blood-soaked Holy Land, both peoples will need to do precisely that: to hear each other’s stories and histories, to listen to and bear witness to each other’s suffering. The revolution in empathy I am describing is urgently necessary to remember precisely now, when it seems so utterly out of reach.

The recollection of slavery and redemption has important theological and spiritual ramifications. We are meant to live with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness to the God who set us free. We are asked to recall — year after year — that we moved from serving a cruel human master who sought only to humiliate and tear us down to worshiping a loving divine master who blesses us and seeks our well-being. We are called to empathize with those who are exposed and endangered in the present, having ourselves been defenseless in the past.

“You shall not oppress a stranger,” the Book of Exodus teaches, “for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” You know what mistreatment feels like, Exodus says, and therefore you should never inflict it upon anyone else.

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