There are many advantages to being an Israeli and some would claim that the greatest benefit is to have only one seder
All of us who have survived two sedarim and who are here this morning deserve a special pat on the back Y’yasher Kochachem. Turn to the person on your left, without leaning to your left and shake their hand.
How do we make the seder meaningful and fresh each year, when we repeat the same basic text, especially when we repeat it for two nights in a row?
The haggadah contains the following guidance just before we complete Maggid, the telling of the story. It is a verse from the Gemara dealing with Pesaẖ (Pesachim 116b).
- a. B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim.
- “In every generation, a person must view herself/himself as if s/he had gone out of Egypt”
- In this case, going out of Egypt means liberating ourselves from a current oppression, even if it is just escaping from a narrow place that we have been stuck in.
- The text uses the term “k’ilu” “as if”. As if we were still oppressed and needed liberation. Unfortunately too many people are still actually oppressed.
The verse is in fact more properly understood as not just referring to a once in each generation exercise, but to be engaged in each year. Each year we have changed, hopefully we have grown and society around us has also changed. Each year because our circumstances are different, we can identify a current reality that in some way oppresses either ourselves or others. And if we are not still oppressed ourselves, then the purpose of engaging in this exercise is to create empathy for the group that is oppressed and to develop a commitment to assist in their liberation.
The Gemara verse and indeed the entire haggadah is calling on us to identify what is the Mitzrayim, the narrow place that is still oppressing people who need liberation.
Many families have the practice of adapting the traditional text with new material to help them apply the call to make the effort real for becoming conscious of where oppression still exists.
This approach had its highest profile example in the first Freedom Seder Haggadah used 50 years ago Pesaẖ this month on the first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That year the focus was on the civil rights struggle for African Americans in the US to finally win equality promised to them through the 15th amendment to the US constitution following the Civil War.
One special haggadah that you may be more familiar with was the one created to address the desire of Soviet Jews for liberation.
There are many haggadot that apply this approach to try and address social concerns more current in our lives. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency—the JTA—recently had an article on their top ten. One haggadah that you may find cute is called the Liberated Lamb and deals with a call to become vegetarians.
I want to identify one area of oppression that may not have been the subject of your seder discussions during the last two evenings—that is abuse of women in domestic relationships.
There is a myth that domestic abuse does not occur in the Jewish community. Unfortunately this is not the case. Israel’s first Prime Minister is reported to have said “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we'll be a state just like any other”. In a similar vein, we are a community like any other, with our share of people engaging in anti-social behaviour, wife abuse being just one example.
The following are some statistics to clarify the prevalence of abuse in the Jewish community and society at large: Domestic violence in Jewish families occurs at about the same rate as it does in other religions—about 15 to 25 percent. The difference being that Jewish women take 7 to 15 years to leave abusive relationships vs 3 to 5 years for other women. In a study on domestic abuse in the British Jewish community, it was found that 26 percent of the 842 people surveyed had personally experienced domestic abuse, despite a third of the respondents admitting that they thought that abuse in the Jewish community was less prevalent than in other communities. In this particular study the number of Jewish women who were being abused was two percent higher than the national average!
In Canada... Out of the 83 police-reported intimate partner homicides in 2017, 67 of the victims—over 80 percent—were women. On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn't safe at home.
The National Council of Jewish Women sent a delegate to the recent meeting of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and asked us to speak from the pulpit on this issue. I felt that Pesaẖ was an appropriate time to take up their call.
It is true that not all abuse in domestic relationships is “male on female” abuse, but that is still the overwhelming dominant situation. Moreover, the range of abuse is quite broad.
I set out shortly a narrative for the four daughters from the seder ritual. For the men, however, I ask a more sensitive question. In the same way we are obliged to consider b’chol dor vador our own need for a yitzi’yat mitzrayim, we need to ask ourselves what part of that release is the need for us to liberate ourselves from the oppression we impose on women. How are we being coercive in our relationships with women?
One of the songs in the haggadah is Dayenu. It would have been enough for us. If we pay attention to the text however, Dayenu is really more of a question as opposed to a statement. If God had only taken us out of Egypt but not split the sea to enable us to escape Pharoah and his army, would that really have been enough for us? The answer is clearly no.
So a Dayenu in a seder focussing on the need to end domestic violence would contain the following verses:
- If he only stopped beating me, would that be dayenu?
- If he only stopped threatening me, would that be dayenu?
- If he only stopped using the children against me, would that be dayenu?
- If he only stopped treating me as a sex object, would that be dayenu?
- If he only stopped isolating me, would that be dayenu?
- If he only allowed me to work, giving me sufficient money for family needs and access to family accounts, would that be dayenu?
- If he had only begun to apologize and promise not to repeat his conduct, would that be dayenu?
- If he had stopped imposing coercive control and asserting male privilege and instead, accepted me as a full partner, THAT—could be Dayenu.
The four questions in such a seder could consist of the following:
- Why even on this night, have I had to do all the household work including serving the food and cleaning up, so that the only item to be eaten remaining on the table when I can finally take a break, is the hard tasteless matzah.
- Why even on this night when everyone else is celebrating, do I only experience bitterness
- Why even on this night do I only have salty tears and no access to the sweetness of ẖaroset.
- Why even on this night when everyone else is sitting and relaxing, am I limited, if I can eat at all, to grabbing a bite while on the run.
The narrative of the four daughters could be expressed as follows:
- The chachama—the observant one could ask “how can I challenge my oppression. Won’t my rabbis state that it is my fault and it is my duty to better obey my husband.” That daughter can be responded to by pointing out the halakhah “ein maftirin” that we do not exempt husbands in Jewish law from the prohibition on mistreatment of other human beings and we don’t exempt rabbis from their responsibility to pursue a comprehensive shalom bayit peace, addressing the power and control dynamic in the house. We go back to the creation story where God said it is not good for man to live alone and created eizer k’negdo, zacha eizer, lo zacha k’negdo, if the husband is worthy, he will merit a partner, if he is not meritorious, he will have an opponent.
- The rasha—the alienated one could state “there is no point in rebelling, the system is fixed and corrupt, the authorities will always side with the husband”. That daughter can be responded to with the phrase “hakhei et shinav” we refute her claim by pointing out that we are all created in God’s image, male and female we were created. It is not the architecture of creation that is corrupt. The flaw comes from not resisting tyranny.
- The Tam—the naïve one will ask “How am I oppressed—he isn’t beating me.” That daughter can be answered “b’chozek yad hotzi’anu”. It is not enough for the hand not to strike out, the hand has to be an instrument of liberation. The yad has to be connected to a “z’ro’a netu’ya”—an outstretched arm of support.
- The she’eino yoda’at lishol, is the one who is so overwhelmed by the trauma that she cannot even begin to communicate the details of her oppression. The haggadah identifies the proper response “Aht P’tach la”, You create the opening for her to find her voice with a range of supports including testifying for her in court, writing letters of support, etc.
In order for the seder to be an uplifting experience, there needs to be some tikvah—some hope for relief for redemption. The four cups could be expressed as follows:
- V’hotzeiti I will take you out—The first step in your redemption is to remove yourself from the location of the abuse. There are women’s shelters that can provide an immediate refuge for you and your children. Friends/family may be willing to step up and allow you to stay in their home, which is much more hospitable than having to stay in a shelter.
- V’hitzalti I will save you—once you are located in safer accommodation, you can be provided with the care and support you need, whether to heal the wounds of physical violence or to heal your soul with love and counselling.
- V’ga’alti I will redeem you—You will be provided with access to legal representation to pursue protections you need to live independently, whether restraining orders to bar the abuser from contacting you, to representation for divorce to enable you to start over and for custody orders to protect your children.
- V’lakachti—Literally, I will take you. The Hebrew letters of the source of this word are Lamed Kuf Chet which also means a lesson. You will have learnt a lesson in re-learning how to be kind to yourself and have a positive self-image.
Most haggadot mention a 5th cup, the cup of Elijah or the cup of Miriam, V’heiveiti—I will bring you—this cup talks about a future redemption. This hope is reflected in the statement L’shana Haba’a B’yerushala’yim next year in Jerusalem.
In this case however there is no need to wait for next year. There already is a helping hand ready to bring you towards your new promised land. Project Lisa staff have “doulas” who provide support and referrals for all client needs including food, shelter, accounting.
This sermon concludes with the guidance from the haggadah on how the process of liberation starts.
- Va’afilu kulanu chachamim—whether we are wise and have avoided oppressing others or being oppressed ourselves
- Kulanu z’keinim or whether we are worn out from being oppressed or from efforts to challenge oppression
- Mitzvah aleynu l’sapeir bi’y’tzi’yat mizrayim—It is a mitzvah to begin and to continue telling the story of oppression and to outline the path for escape.
- V’chol hamarbeh l’sapeir harei zeh m’shubach and the one who engages at length in this conversation is blessed.
Opening up and acknowledging our situation is the first step in our redemption.
Here at Beth Tzedec we are trying to facilitate the opening of such conversations. One step we have taken is to put signs in the women’s washrooms in the shul from Jewish Family and Child Services letting women know that if they are being abused, that there is help available.
The starting point for community leaders and allies is to create an environment where people suffering abuse can have the courage to speak out, to open their mouths and find their voice to become conscious of, to express and to validate their reality and say no more. Dayenu.
Then we will merit the bracha of the haggadah—Harei zeh M’shubach to be praised and in the words of one of the last songs of Nirtza in the haggadah—B’nai Veitach B’karov—you will soon be enabled to build a new home and get a new start on life.
We should leave with the lesson of this Yetzi’yat Mitzra’yim on a hopeful note for as it states in the haggadah at the end of Maggid.
- Lo et avoteinu bilvad ga’al hakadosh baruch hu, not only did the Holy One redeem our ancestors
- Ela af otanu ga’al imahem—even us in all our situations were given the ability to be redeemed.