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Our Passover story and theirs: From Egypt to Arizona

From left, Danya, 21, Gabriel, 21 and Borden, 17 all refugees from Odesa, Ukraine help to deliver bags with food to needy people during preparations for the celebration of Jewish Passover at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, April 7, 2022.  (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Beginning on April 15, Jews in Arizona and around the world will begin celebrating Passover, the eight-day festival commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from oppression in Egypt.  

What families and friends are looking forward to the most, though, is probably the Pesach Seder, on the first night, in which we gather together to enjoy a meal of matzah, bitter herbs, charoset (apple & nut paste), and much more. 

Shmuly Yanklowitz

But in addition to the delicious food and great conversation, we recite and study the Jewish people’s story via the Haggadah, as the tradition tells we are obligated to relive the experience of liberation, imagining each time that we personally are the ones going out of Egypt.  

Today, as we watch the journey of Ukrainian refugees, Afghan refugees and Central American asylees, my community is deeply affected by the Passover narrative’s function of cultivating spiritual empathy for all human beings.  

 With almost 4 million refugees displaced from Ukraine, and the number of refugees worldwide at an all-time high, the surge in moral clarity that Passover provides is sorely needed.  

This Pesach season, our thoughts should be centered on the needs of the refugee-and-asylee communities. As we imagine we ourselves are coming out of Egypt, we should remember that we’re not telling mere historical facts in the way a textbook might relate them. We’re actively participating in the passing on of the memory of freedom.   

My wife, Shoshana, makes the best challah, traditional Jewish bread that is made carefully and beautifully, which takes a substantial amount time. But during Pesach, we eat matzah, which is made without the luxury of time to leaven. By recalling the Israelites’ hurry in preparing this bare-minimum food as they rushed out of bondage in Egypt, we can taste and picture the experiences of those around the world today who have needed to leave home on such short notice.  

Here, we’ve collected thousands of urgently needed supplies donated for refugees and asylees. This includes often-overlooked basics such as body wash, toilet paper and deodorant. By being commanded to recall what we would need on an emergency journey, we internalize and act on our obligation to come to the aid of others.  

As we approach Pesach, we should remember that we will be imagining ourselves into the Passover story. Tragically, others in the world, especially at our southern border, are not merely re-enacting the narrative of the Book of Exodus but living it in real life. The mitzvah of celebrating Passover, then, calls us to participate in the pursuit of freedom and justice for all people.  

We can disagree respectfully on the politics of nuances around border policy and number of refugees to admit each year. However, all of us committed to religious and spiritual ideals cannot disagree on the need for compassion for displaced people. My primary religious source of motivation on this topic is the Passover story which inspires deep moral imagination. 

For those of us not celebrating this holiday, or who have other celebrations to draw from, perhaps we can find universal inspiration in the particular call to let the values of liberation inform how we live out our lives.  

When I am at my Passover Seder this year, I will be proud to be American and to live in the state of Arizona, and I will be proud that we celebrate not only our unity but our diversity. We should welcome refugees of all races and religions. This is what makes America a project with fighting for when viewed in light of the Passover story.  

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and leader of Arizona Jews for Justice. He is the author of 22 books on Jewish Ethics.  




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