Not long ago in an Arabic lesson I was teaching about the plural pattern fi3aal, we were looking at the example of baHr / biHaar — sea / seas. As a prompt to get my students to use the word in context, I threw up this image:
“man huwwe?” I asked. Who is he?
Students stared. “Noah?” offered one tentatively.
I was surprised. The demographics of my students are constantly shifting, but recently, including in this class, I’ve encountered a relatively higher number of students identifying themselves as Jewish, including some pretty fluent Hebrew speakers. I waited, and it took them longer than I thought to come up with Moses.
“wa-aynaa-hu?” I prompted. Where is he?
Two lessons earlier, we had studied masculine and feminine colors, but again, it took them longer than I expected to come to al-baHr al-aHmar — the Red Sea.
It’s the nature of many Unitarian Universalists, especially the rarified 10% of us who grew up in and remained in the faith as adults, to be fascinated by other people’s religions and what they can teach us about the human condition. It’s one explanation for how, about a year ago, I found myself in a surreal work situation.
“What’s a Haggadah?”
We were in a team meeting at my Jewish refugee resettlement organization, and the question caught me off guard. Though it’s not the kind of thing you ask a coworker ordinarily, I knew that at least some of my team, including the one who asked the question, were at least culturally Jewish. And in our open office, where everyone is privy to everyone else’s phone calls, I had been hearing about the HIAS Haggadah for weeks. The whole public affairs division was hyped about it, and so was I.
So, when no one else spoke up, I did. Haggadah, I explained, is what we might call an “order of service” in my tradition, a script for a special Jewish occasion. In this case, we were talking about the Haggadah for the seder, a traditional family meal held in the week of Passover.
This Jewish holiday celebrates how the Hebrew tribes, living as slaves in Egypt, were “passed over,” or spared from the plagues G*d visited upon Egypt until the Pharaoh finally heeded Moses’ call to “Let my people go!” It also celebrates their escape from Pharaoh’s armies (i.e. the parting of the Red Sea), as well as the forty years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert until they were delivered to the Holy Land.
Essentially, the Jews were refugees, though the term was not coined until after the Second World War, also a significant period of refugee crisis for the Jewish people, among many others. For us at HIAS, then, the Passover season and seder holds a particular resonance. No less than six times, the Torah exhorts the Hebrew people,
You shall not oppress a stranger and the refugee, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt
This is where HIAS gets its slogan: Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee. Or, as our CEO Mark Hetfield always says, “HIAS used to help refugees because they were Jewish; now we help refugees because we are Jewish.”
More recently, in another department gathering, this time via Zoom, each from the confines of our individual homes across the country, someone joked, “I think we can all just agree that Passover is canceled for this year?”
“Are you kidding?” responded another. “This is Passover!”
She was referring, I’m sure, to the Plagues of Egypt that were visited in succession on the Pharaoh and his people — blood, frogs, lice, flies, boils, locusts…. — until the tenth and final plague, in which G*d kills the first-born son of every household.
Well, almost every household. First, G*d warned Moses, who told all the Jewish families to smear the blood of a lamb above their doorways. Those families were “passed over” by the curse, their first-born sons allowed to live. This is when Pharaoh finally tells Moses to take his pesky Hebrew people and go.
Many in the world today, often half-joking, have dubbed COVID-19 “the plague,” and it has been compared extensively to the bubonic plague or Black Death of medieval Europe.
But Passover represents more than just a plague, pestilence or great death and destruction. It also marks the beginning of the forty years of wandering across Sinai and Jordan and eventually to what is now Israel and Palestine. It marks a testing of the Hebrew people, who faltered in their faith, and needed the intervention of G*d himself to keep themselves alive as strangers in a strange land, and refugees in the desert.
We, too, will face a long period — hopefully not forty years! — of trials and tribulations, when our faith in ourselves and each other is tested, and few of us can make it without the intervention of our communities. We face a long road back to the way things were … or perhaps, even, to a Promised Land where we are better than we’ve ever been at welcoming the stranger and protecting the vulnerable.
So, in the spirit of the Passover holiday and today’s current crises, I’d like to leave you with the following invitation from HIAS:
Passover invites us to imagine ourselves as though we experienced the Exodus from Egypt as we retell the Passover story — the Jewish people’s original refugee story. While we usually perform this sacred ritual around the table with family, friends, and community members, this year is going to be a bit different amidst the reality of the current global health pandemic.
This moment of uncertainty calls us to resist the urge to turn inward and, instead, turn outward and remember the 70 million displaced people around the world who are made that much more vulnerable in this moment. Download the HIAS Haggadah below to include a deeper exploration of the global refugee crisis in your Seder this year.