We are the children of Adam and Eve, cast from the Garden of Eden. We are the survivors of the flood of Noah, the righteous few among the wicked. We are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, children of the covenant. We are the people of the tribes of Israel, scattered throughout the world.
Myriad are the identity statements we could add to this list, but the profundity of the one in the approaching Passover holiday supersedes them all: We are slaves made free.
The implications are multiple. Though Jews may be Kings like David, Barons like Rothschild, and statesmen like Ben Gurion, we are not of noble blood. No, our ancestors were slaves, they owned nothing, not even their own selves. Humble were our origins, low were our births. We are God’s chosen people, but above others this doesn’t elevate us. Rather, this selection is the covenant, a sacred commitment to lead lives of goodness and truth and justice.
Being a descendant of slaves, we identify with the oppressed. History readily records the words and deeds of those in power. Absent is the voice of those who serve, even if they are the overwhelming majority of the people. We remember that the past is more than the actions of monarchs. Our parents were born, lived, and died in anonymity. Slaves rarely merit mention beyond bragging about how many one owns. Yet, that was us, that is who our ancestors were.
Nor are oppression and slavery confined to stories from the past. Even today, within the borders of our own country, examples of the worst injustices are shockingly easy to find. And as Jews, we know it is our duty to strive to right these wrongs. They are not something that happen exclusively to ‘other people’ – no, we see modern enslavement mirroring our own story, our own need to escape it, and we know that not until everyone is free, is anyone free.
At our Passover seder, we have the tradition of, after listing the Ten Plagues God afflicted upon Pharaoh in the days long ago, naming additional, “modern” plagues. While we may now be quick to point to COVID, the long list of evils perpetrated intentionally, people on people, reminds us that even though the story of Exodus took place millenia ago, its motifs remain more than relevant. The consequences of injustice are made plain, we do not turn away, deny their doing.
We identify with the oppressed. We strive for righteousness. We pursue justice in all things. Moses was no natural-born leader. He stuttered, he was shy. He did not seek the role of champion of freedom. But he was called to lead our ancestors out of their bondage, and grew into the person who guided us to freedom.
We – you, me, everyone – are children of slaves, and understand freedom to be the treasure it is.