Tonight is the first night of Passover.
This is a night for celebrating Jewish liberation from slavery with friends and family. Jews first came to Egypt during a famine and lived as guests a short while, but then in a bitter turn became slaves under Pharaoh. Only after generations of suffering, and only by miracles and plagues demonstrated to Pharaoh and his sorcerers and military, were the Israelites able to gain their freedom. A final miracle — clearing a path for the Israelites across a dry sea bed — brought forty years of wandering in the desert before the establishment of their own kingdom.
This, in a nutshell, is the story told at Passover. It is both a story of liberation and persecution (“In every generation they rise up against us)”. For many liberal Jews there’s far too much of the supernatural and too much about one peoples’ story. For this reason many of us prefer to see our story as the universal struggle for freedom. In our family we sing “Go Down Moses” as poorly as we do “Dayenu.” In years past we’ve had an orange to signify gay liberation. We’ve had an olive for Palestinian freedom. When conducting a seder, in fact, innovation is a requirement. What always brings life to Passover is the truth that — in every generation they rise up against someone.
Dayenu — literally “enough” — is a song with fifteen questions that begins by asking if it would have been enough for god to bring us out of Egypt, to part the sea, to provide manna, and it ends with the building of the temple. The grateful answer to each question in turn is — yes, this would surely have been enough even without all the other gifts.
But one question Dayenu doesn’t ask is what would have happened if the Israelites had met immigration agents in the desert. What would the arc of history have been if we were sent back into Egyptian slavery?
Dayenu doesn’t ask what the descendants of the Israelites would be expected to do with 40,000 African refugees who — just like their own ancestors — travelled thousands of miles across deserts to Israel and now sit in detention centers awaiting deportation. Or Palestinians, who have lived under martial law almost twice as long as the Israelites wandered the desert.
Dayenu doesn’t ask what kind of society we are obliged to create to treat fellow human beings better than we were treated by Pharaoh — an especially relevant question this year as the number of police murders of black men is exploding. And at a time white Americans still continue to rise up against African-Americans, even after centuries.
Dayenu never asks, but the seder certainly points at, the seemingly endless procession of new Pharaohs emerging on the world stage — strutting dictators surrounded by their modern-day sorcerers and charioteers. A plague on all of them; they certainly do rise in every generation.
Dayenu doesn’t ask, but the implication seems clear to me, that those who have found their freedom are now obligated to help others realize their own liberation. After all, didn’t the Israelites take the mixed multitudes with them out of slavery?
For some it is enough to recognize persecution and victimization. Dayenu. For others it’s enough to recognize persecution and demand liberation. Dayenu. But for liberation to be truly realized, as the Passover story reminds us, injustice and cruelty must be directly challenged and crushed.
Chag pesach sameach.