Passover’s Legacy of Civic Responsibility

As Passover approaches, we prepare to celebrate the seder, that home ritual combining symbolic foods and behaviors that enliven the Haggadah script, telling the story of redemption from slavery. Ask most people what brought about that exodus from slavery to freedom and they may say God, ten plagues, the leadership of Moses/Aaron/Miriam or even the stubborn vanity and ego of Pharaoh. But a critical incident recorded in the Torah may have been the key tipping point in the making of the Passover miracle.

Passover’s redemption took place as a culmination of pain, frustration, faith, divine intercession and human agency. It was a comprehensive effort that changed history. Words alone were not enough.

Some people today would place gun violence on a list of contemporary plagues. The pain and frustration of its victims have been met with words of faith and prayers for divine comfort. The latest incident in Parkland, Florida may signal a new chapter in what feels like an enslavement to politics, partisan positions and a “what can we do?” attitude. High school students are now leading a national movement of civic engagement, lobbying politicians, galvanizing citizens and creating events that keep the issue in the headlines. From what source did these teens draw strength and inspiration?

Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate magazine, observes that, “The effectiveness of these poised, articulate, well-informed and seemingly preternaturally mature student leaders of Stoneman Douglas has been vaguely attributed to very specific personalities and talents.” But drilling down a bit deeper into the education and training the students have experienced, Lithwick points out that the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School demonstrate the power of a comprehensive education. “Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age. Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one. The student leaders of the #NeverAgain revolt were also, in large part, theater kids who had benefited from the school’s exceptional drama program. Coincidentally, some of these students had been preparing to perform Spring Awakening, a rock musical from 2006… that musical tackles the question of ’what happens when neglectful adults fail to make the world safe or comprehensible for teen-agers,’ and the onus that neglect puts on kids to beat their own path forward. The student leaders at Stoneman Douglas High School have also included, again, not by happenstance, young journalists who’d worked at the school paper, the Eagle Eye, with the supervision of talented staff.”

Like the painful story of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Passover story has elements of a “comprehensive education” that could empower all of us towards greater civic engagement. The role that Moses played was, of course, essential. But the Talmud states that, “It was the reward of the righteous women of that generation that caused Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.” Exodus 1:15-17 relates that, “The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl let her live.’ The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them: they let the boys live.” This act of civil disobedience allowed for the birth of Moses and led Israelite women to continue to have children and, as a result, have hope and a future.

Rabbi David Golinkin, the halakhik (Jewish law) authority for the Masorti Movement in Israel, holds that in fact the Talmud suggests that when we withhold criticism of society, we bear the burden of responsibility of failing to repair and to critique governmental leaders. Our responsibility depends on our own standing in society, beginning with our family, our town, our state and our national government. Golinkin makes a strong argument for both public protest and civil disobedience based not on the issue or the political position, but on conscience. In The Observant Life, Golinkin writes, “There is a long history of Jews standing up to the ruling powers. From Moses to Jeremiah to Isaiah to the Maccabees, Jews have stood up to the ruling authorities – whether those authorities have been their own people or of other nations… Judaism considers the welfare of the community to be an important value for each individual. Thus, being a citizen of a country entails obligations, responsibilities and adherence to the laws. When these laws are in opposition to Halakhah, rabbinic authorities must decide which law to follow.”

A lively and relevant seder must be a part of a “comprehensive education” that inculcates values and skills critical for American Jewish citizens. This year, consider highlighting the introductory segment when doors are opened wide and those in need are invited in, and encourage the skill of respectfully asking intergenerational questions and listening to the answers. Unpack the pouring out of our “cups that run over” in empathy for the Egyptians painfully caught in plagues of the Pharaoh/Moses-God power struggle and feature the courage of those midwives. Use a quote from Marjory Stoneman Douglas – an environmentalist, journalist and activist whose name is now forever linked to the school shooting that rocked Parkland, Florida last month –  as a text study: “Be a nuisance when it counts. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.”