Sermon: Season of Our Memory

Shabbat Pesach
Exodus 13:17-15:26
April 18, 2014
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David Lipper

Season of Our Memory

The reading for this Shabbat comes from the heart of the Exodus journey. After a grueling departure from Egypt, we are suddenly faced with terrible choice. In front of us is the sea in all its furry, behind us is the advancing army of Pharaoh, bent on destruction. One of my favorite midrashim speaks of the Israelites caught between these two choices as Moses fell on his knees in prayer for guidance. As the army approached, a devoted follower soon to become a leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav, rushes forward and flings his body into the sea. While Moses is praying, the sea parts. Nachshon, not able to rely solely on prayer, seizes the moment and saves the Jewish people.  

What a powerful story this is. It raises the tension between prayer and action. Do we rely solely on the power of prayer or must we seize the moment and act to realize our prayer. Had we only prayed for the coming of the State of Israel, we would not be celebrating her 66th Birthday in just a few weeks.

This story of our people also evokes powerful memories. Memories of family and friends sitting around the Passover table fill our minds at this time. Memories of favorite recipes or foods often whet our appetites. Memories of special music or Seder melodies ring in our ears. All of these memories intertwine to make this season one in which more Jews find celebration that any other.

But the most important part of this season is the story that we tell. It is the struggle from bondage to freedom that has moved our people for thousands of years. It is often seen as the glue which binds Jew to Jew and heart to heart. In fact, a number of years ago while attending a conference in Montreal; I had the privilege of sitting, with a number of other rabbis, for tea with the Dalai Lama. The question he posed was, what was the glue which has held the Jewish people together for thousands of years while in exile from our land? The answer was clear, it was the Exodus story and the way we read it. It is not simply a historical narrative; we are living it each and every year.

The power of living in history. Not just reading an ancient text that has been rewritten thousands of ways, but sitting at a table and reading a story of today.   That is the power of Pesach.   It is a true gift and an indelible part of our collective identity.   And we hope, as we invite Elijah to our Seder’s, that this retelling of the story of Bondage to Redemption will bring about the final redemption, the messianic age, where all degradation ends and all bondage is broken.   But alas, Elijah did not come … and the story cycle continues.

So much of my Passover study is spent on the millions of people who are still struggling with their own issues of slavery. They are caught up in the ever spiraling inhumanity that humankind has brought to this planet. So many of our brothers and sisters fight each day for a small morsel of food or a brief moment in the sunlight. They are often thrust into deplorable living conditions with inhuman consequences.

And the list grows each year of the struggles for freedom.   One hundred forty-three years after passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 60 years after Article 4 of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery and the slave trade worldwide, there are more slaves than at any time in human history — 27 million.

Most slaves in America are not Americans. They are often illegal immigrants from Guatemala or other Central American countries, young women and a few men who are brought over the border by coyotes. Their coyotes, after charging them money for their services, may sell them to confederates in the US, or the newly-arrived illegal immigrants may accept work from the wrong person.

Often, Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants, illegal or not, are brought to this country with the promise of education or work; they find themselves forced to work for most of the day, or turned into sex workers. Not knowing English or understanding how America works, they are trapped indefinitely in their new roles.

Sometimes slaves are brought into the country by their owners, diplomats from countries that accept slavery much more readily than Americans do. In these cases, our law enforcement is unable to do more than send the diplomats, slaves and all, back to their home countries.

In other cases, slaves are children from Africa or Southeast Asia, sold by their poverty-stricken parents into sexual slavery. An alarming number of children exploited in the illegal pornography industry come from this category, and the ultimate fates of most are unknown.

Not all U.S. slaves are held in the United States. Some recent evidence has come to light that many Iraq war contractors who use third-world employees are, in fact, engaging in slave trafficking — which makes the U.S. taxpayer complicit in supporting slavery.

These are people who live in forced bondage, who pull at the chains which drag them through time. It reads like a litany we should add to our Dayeinu song.

  • Women in their struggle for equal pay for equal work
  • Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their struggle for workers rights
  • The enslavement of the Dinkas in southern Sudan
  • Child “carpet slaves” in India
  • Shackled laborers in Pakistan
  • Cane-cutters in the Dominican Republic

At this season, our hearts should be turned to theirs. Our collective memories should cry out for all those in need. Regardless of what position we hold in society, from CEO to average Joe, we must be our brother’s keeper. If you suspect slavery or abuse, report it to the authorities. We can contribute to reputable organizations that are involved in stopping slavery in our country and abroad.  Together, we can end slavery in our communities and the world.

As we relive each year the core story of our own struggle, we should be empowered to act to help others. For until all are free, none are free. So Nachshon is our model, action our middle name, freedom for all our goal.  

Shabbat Shalom