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Fear and Pharaoh in the Promised Land

My written reflections of my Sabbatical trip to Israel have not come with the frequency I intended or promised.  However, with Purim just behind us and Passover just ahead those experiences still hover prominently at the forefront of my consciousness.  One day during my trip I spent chasing around Jerusalem with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the General Secretary for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR).  RHR by way of its own description: “… seeks to prevent human rights violations in Israel and in areas for which Israel has taken responsibility, and to bring specific human rights grievances to the attention of the Israeli public while pressuring the appropriate authorities for their redress.”  The very existence of an organization like RHR in Israel is a reminder that we Jews are as human as anyone else.  One only needs to look at their projects to see the ways that we Jews – just like everybody else – still need to work hard to create a just and compassionate society.

My day with the energetic and passionate Rabbi Ascherman focused on the work in Jerusalem that RHR does to promote fairness and justice in the matter of Palestinian home and land ownership.  We spent part of our day in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.  Silwan sits just adjacent to the Old City.  In the early 1990’s the Jewish National Fund (Yes, JNF – the tree people!) began to carefully acquire properties in this neighborhood using a 1950 law – called the Absentee Property Law.  This law was used to transfer the property of Palestinian refugees to the state of Israel followed the war in 1948.  With the support of the government’s ethnically prejudicial take on this law (that hindered Palestinians claim to Palestinian owned lands land and favored of the Israeli Settlers claim to it) – the JNF hoped to evict Palestinian families and hand over land to Eldad – a pro-settlement organization whose goal is to ‘Judaize Palestinian neighborhoods over the Green Line’.  Rabbi Ascherman took me to the home of the Sumarin family – whose property butts up against the City of David archeological site and museum.  I met this family who – with the help of organizations like RHR – must regularly stand up to a powerful governmental authority and defend their freedom to own and live in their home.

As Purim came and went, I thought about the part of the Book of Esther that we never tell – the part where the Tanach tells how the people of Shushan felt Pachad Hayehudim – the Fear of the Jews. (Yes, that phrase is really in the Hebrew Bible!)  At the end of the book, after Mordechai and Esther succesfully stood up to the King and Haman’s initial (but irreversible) decree to destroy the Jews they were given the power and authority to bear arms and defend themselves.  In their new role of holding power and authority and under the leadership of Mordechai in his new ministerial post – the Book of Esther tells us that the Jews killed 75,000 people.  In turn, the people of Shushan felt the Fear of the Jews.

This year’s Seders beckon and we look to the experience of retelling/reliving of our liberation from slavery in Egypt.  In doing so, we demonize Egypt (the constricting ‘Narrow Place’) and Pharaoh (the personification of Egypt’s life-suffocating authority and power).  We also acknowledge the blessings of our own freedom and the responsibilities towards others inherent in such a gift.

Through the spiritual lens of each festival – I could not help seeing this family of Silwan whom I saw with my own eyes and touched (in greeting) with my own hands.  I wonder uncomfortably about how and where they fit into these stories.  Their physical lives are not in immediate danger, but they are not safe and secure in their own homes.  Do they live each day knowing Pachad Hayehudim – the Fear of the Jews?  The Sumarin family are not slaves, but they live a narrow and constricting life in a setting that restricts some of the same basic freedoms that we celebrate around a Seder table.  Do they feel like they live in an ‘Egypt’ and yearn for redemption from it and its Pharonic government?

I worry that when we ingest our Hamentaschen (literally ‘Haman’s Ears’) we internalize more than one of Haman’s less endearing physical qualities, but also some of his more nefarious spiritual ones.  I worry that when we endeavor to eliminate Chametz (literally ‘that which inflates or swells’) from our physical diet, we are forgetting to eliminate those anxieties and fears that inflate our egos to dangerous and destructive proportions.  I worry that we have forgotten why we retell our stories each year – not simply to feel connected via the tradition of what has always been done or enjoy the culture of tastes we associate with these stories.  We tell our stories to remind us of our sacred charge – to confront the Hamans and the Pharaohs of the world – no matter where we might find them.

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