Your challenge: hold a slavery-free seder

Dear Reader, what follows is a draft for submission to Occupy Judaism’s Haggadah supplement. It’s due tomorrow (Wednesday), but if you do get the chance to look at it in the next 24 hours I would very much appreciate your feedback.

At Seder we tell the story of our ancestors’ enslavement and escape from slavery. We tell it every year, because it’s such an important story, and it has clear relevance to any struggle for a better world. But do we actually rise to the challenge1 it sets us?

The Torah teaches mostly by example, and I think the relevant examples here are a contrasting pair. We have the Egyptian taskmasters2, who clearly provide the negative role model:

Exodus I:13-14 “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with crushing oppression3. And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; in all their service, wherein they made them serve with oppression”

And as the positive role model, we obviously have our hero Moses. As the leader who took the exploited out of slavery he’s an obvious role model for Occupiers, but this is not the only reason he’s a good example. The introduction of his character, well before the message of the burning bush, sets the tone:

Exodus II:11-12 “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.”

Exodus II:17 “And the shepherds came and drove [the Midianite women] away [from the well]; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.”

Between these vignettes and God’s call to service, Moses has time to be adopted by Jethro the Midianite, marry Jethro’s daughter Tzipora and have a child by her, so this is not an immediate prelude to his call. I see it as establishing the goodness of Moses: the example we are supposed to follow is one who before God has called him takes care not only of his brethren, but also of complete strangers in the foreign land of Midian. The example for us to follow is of someone who defied unjust authority as an individual in these early verses, even before he was put in the extraordinary position of instigating a great slave revolt. Few of us will get to be the Moses who leads an Exodus, but all of us can be the Moses who stands up for what is right in smaller ways every day. In some ways this is a more powerful calling: the world only needs a few Gandhis and MLKs, but it needs all of us to play some part.

But we must not forget the negative role model here. Our challenge is not only to be like Moses, but to be unlike the taskmasters. In the modern world this is much the harder challenge to meet. Let’s use our Seder meal as a test case. For the meal itself to be congruent with the message of the story we tell over dinner, it must cause no “crushing oppression”; no lives made “bitter with hard service”. It’s easy enough for each of us to not directly be slave drivers—I certainly wasn’t planning on going out to the wheat fields and flogging the farmhands—but it’s a real challenge to put on a Seder that we can be sure involved no products of oppression whatsoever.

I’ll use my own as an example. I’m pretty confident in the sourcing of the lamb & eggs we’ll be serving, so I believe they won’t have caused undue suffering to person nor beast4. But were the vegetables picked by children, or by adult immigrants forced to accept intolerable working conditions? Oppression-free vegetables are attainable with some diligence, but processed products are harder: what do I know about the conditions in which the wheat for these matzot, or the grapes for this wine was harvested? And then there’s the furniture: my guests and I are reclining to celebrate our freedom, but were the chairs we recline on made and delivered by freely enterprising craftspeople, or by trapped, abused workers and warehouse wage slaves? I’m not sure, but I know I’ve failed when I consider the laptop I’m typing on right now. It’s become an essential part of my Seder because my mother emailed me half the recipes I’ll be cooking, and I would never have found the Haggadah we use without it. And its production almost certainly involved crushing oppression of factory workers and miners; in distant lands to be sure, but I care about those far-away people no less than Moses cared about the Midianites.

Disappointed as I am with the realisation that my own Seder will have a slavery footprint, I contend that the deck is stacked so completely against us in the first place that the challenge is probably impossible. Whatever difference we can make with our individual choices our hands are tied by the larger economic system we live in. This is the message I believe Passover has for the Occupy movement. It is each of our duty to make the right choices in our own lives—to stand up for what is right as Moses did from the beginning—but this is not sufficient to create an oppression-free world. We must continue, as Occupy has done, to critique the whole system we have built and have no choice but to live in, and we must work to design and build the system that would serve people better. Only then can we have our Promised Land, the wealth of which everyone gets to enjoy.

There’s a followup to this post: Conviviality as a first step away from oppression.


[1] I am particularly indebted to Douglas Rushkoff for this conception of Biblical stories as a moral challenge. He sets it out clearly & concisely in the introduction to his Testament series of graphic novels, which you should get your hands on and read right now.

[2] An important strand of this story, often forgotten in the retelling, is that we are clearly instructed to blame only Pharaoh, his court and the taskmasters—ancient Egypt’s 1% and its enablers—not the mass of the Egyptian people, for our ancestors’ suffering. Exodus I:8-10 tells us that it was the ascent of a new King that started the trouble for the Israelites, Exodus I:15-17 recounts lower-status Egyptians refusing to follow Pharaoh’s genocidal orders, and in Exodus III:21-22 God commands the Israelites to give individual Egyptians a chance to redeem themselves, and to remember well those who take it (Exodus XII:35-36 shows that they do take it). The current Israel Loves Iran project is a beautiful instance of following this example.

[3] For all scriptural quotes, I’m using the Soncino Press Pentateuch & Haftorahs, edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz. It uses a rather old English translation, which is not ideal, but it’s the version I grew up with and I think it’s pretty standard in at least Britain’s Jewish community. Many of Dr. Hertz’s notes take issue with details of the translation, and where I find his case persuasive I’ve edited to the version he evidently prefers. This is an example: the translation actually says “…serve with rigour”, but he argues that “crushing oppression” is a better description of the suffering and inhumanity involved.

[4] The suffering of animals matters too. The example is set by the repetition, both times the commandment about having a strict weekly day of rest is set out, that “…in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.” (Exodus XX:10, repeated and expanded on in Deuteronomy V:14)

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