As I prepare for Passover, I have been reflecting back on the tight knots I felt in my stomach when I found out that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. Both candidates had framed the presidential election around a question of who truly belongs in America, so when Trump had come out victorious I was terrified for all of the marginalized people in my community who, at that moment, had become far less safe.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, we have seen some of our deepest fears realized. Muslims being banned from our country because of their country of origin, millions of Americans at risk of losing their health insurance, tax reform that targets the most economically vulnerable, the continued erosion of environmental protections, a steady stream of deportations, and others. We have lost confidence in our public leaders. Each day we experience new outrage. A president unwilling to act with integrity, and public officials refusing to take responsibility to call him out.
It was not lost on me that the weekend of President Trump’s inauguration, Jews read the Torah portion, Shemot, in which the beginning of the Passover story, one of cruelty and bondage, is recounted. As I reflect on these tragedies of the last fourteen months, it is easy to imagine that those who have been targeted by this administration and those who stand with them are the Israelites, standing at the mercy of a ruthless Pharaoh.
This Passover, I am challenging myself to think not only about the tyrannical Pharaoh and the Israelites fighting for their lives, but about the role of God’s saving power.
At the moment of the Israelites’ deepest oppression, their groans and wails were deafening. A midrash of the Haggadah teaches that at this moment, men and women had been separated and the possibility of future generations of Israelites was in serious doubt.
Within the despair of the Israelites, there comes a theologically improbable act of God :
“God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew.” (Exodus 2:24-25).
What was the nature of God’s forgetting? God had once promised Abraham that his family would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Many years after this but not so long before we encounter this verse, the seventy members of Jacob’s family who came down to Egypt had multiplied into 600,000 Israelites in a matter of generations. God had promised Abraham that his people would be a great nation, and just before the Passover story begins, Joseph is second in command in the land of Egypt. And yet, in only a matter of generations, God had somehow forgotten the covenant. What was once so clear, was now obscure.
How could God have forgotten something that was once so firm in God’s grasp? God is the keeper of our moral imagination, the keeper of the promise of a world redeemed, yet something about this deep tyranny has blown even God off center, unable to hold on to the possibility of what could be.
This vertigo, this destabilization, this forgetting of possibility may feel familiar. Hope is hard to come by, our wails and cries are ever growing. Activists who not so long ago were pushing for new possibilities of a just world, now spend their time defending the rights of Americans that are slowly being eroded. And in these moments, it is easy to forget the moral imagination which sustains us. As we continue to experience new outrage each day, our outrage of the current moment is dampened and it becomes more difficult to continue to get up and fight the next fight. To stand up for what is right. To remain decent people in a time where decency is hard to come by.
This year, I come to the Passover story for hope. The Torah teaches us that moments of great despair are also those in which radical change can be born.
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi) explains that the ambiguous words “God knew” in this same verse suggest that in this moment of great distress, God opened up God’s heart to the Israelites and no longer averted God’s eyes.
God’s acknowledgement of the covenant in this moment teaches that there is always a path forward. There is always a way to keep our eyes open, encounter pain, and fight on. God remembers that the covenant made with Abraham existed long before this moment of despair and will exist well into the future. God regains the strength to hold the moral imagination necessary to see what freedom from bondage looks like. This is also why Jews incorporate remembrances of being taken out of Egypt into our daily prayers. We are trying to tap in to the power of this story, to inspire us to no longer avert our eyes from what can, at times, seem hopeless. We need this reminder every day if we have any chance of keeping up the fight for justice.
This Passover, we should surely remember the Israelites’ journey from bondage to freedom, and we should especially feel as if we were that generation that was redeemed. Only by imagining the possibility of freedom and equality will it become ours. I know that my personal work will be led by the activists on the front lines of these causes, standing as their ally. This Passover, let us remember the moment in which God knows and remembers the covenant, when God decides to stop shielding God’s self from despair, and dares to take action.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Tyler Dratch, a 2nd year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and an educator at Temple Israel in Boston, MA.