Tonight at our Passover seders, Jews and friends of Jews all over the world will sit down to reenact the freedom struggle of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
But what does it mean to retell a liberation story in an age of Mass Incarceration with more than 2.3 million people in the United States (including 35,000 children under the age of 18) behind bars? What does it mean to recall with four cups of wine the sweetness of justice in an age of mass criminalization when nearly 1/3 of all Americans will likely end up with some sort of criminal record? What does it mean to reenact our own liberation when so many others are not free?
The Haggadah begins by reminding us “L’dor v’dor, in every generation every person is obligated to see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.” In other words, it is not enough to remember, or even retell, the Exodus story – we must actually project ourselves into liberation. We must physically, morally, and dare I say – even spiritually, journey together out of bondage. Because liberation is not a destination we arrive at – as our 40 year sojourn in the desert shows – but a process. So this year:
1) I invite you to ask new questions, like those in the T’ruah Haggadah supplement. It features the “four questions we must ask ourselves” about mass incarceration, including: “Why does the U.S. have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world?” and “Why are so many African-Americans, as well as other people of color, being treated like criminals?”
2) I invite you to remember that the Passover story is one that unapologetically highlights the narratives of the oppressed. Too often, history records the stories of the Pharoahs and too often we believe the acceptable narratives of those in power over the uncomfortable stories of those crying out in bondage. What would it look like to re-center and re-tell the narratives of those who are still living in Egypt – that narrow place – like African-American communities being over-policed or the women incarcerated in the prison in Shakopee, Minn.?
3) I invite you to read the story from a new perspective. This year, what would happen if we imagined ourselves not as the Israelites, but instead as the Egyptians living under a system that enslaves others, supposedly for our benefit? Who are Pharoah, his daughter, Moses, and Aaron then? What do the plagues mean in this context? And how can we be transgressors against power like Shifrah and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who hid the Hebrew male firstborns?
4) I invite you to find hope in liberation. When so many problems seem so intractable in our society, we can find ourselves immobilized by cynicism and fear. But how many times did Moses and Aaron return to press against Pharoah’s hardened heart? How many times did the Israelites prepare themselves to go into the wilderness before being held back? By the end, Miriam and the women celebrated their freedom on the shores of the Red Sea with dancing and timbrels. What will it take – and would will it look like – to be able to truly celebrate our freedom?
5) And finally, I invite you to join Jewish Community Action (JCA) on our criminal justice reform campaign to stop prison expansion and end mass incarceration in Minnesota. Because reenacting the story alone is not enough – to fully re-enact it and fulfill the mitzvah – we must enact it. In the words of Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” The Passover seder can be our instruction guide to liberation, but we have not truly gone out of Egypt until there is no one left in Egypt.
So let us make the exodus from slavery true again in our generation, l’dor v’dor.
Rachel English is a community organizer with Jewish Community Action focusing on criminal justice system reform. She first realized the power of community organizing after volunteering with a self-described “poor people’s organization” in her hometown in central Missouri. She has worked as a farmer at ADAMAH, as an educator at Eden Village Camp/Jewish Farm School, and as an organizer at the Chelsea Collaborative City-Wide Tenants Association in conjunction with a fellowship from JOIN for Justice. You can get in touch with her at [email protected] or 651-632-2184.