Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pesach Thoughts: Our Freedom, An-Other's Pain

On the holiday when we went out from slavery to freedom, we have to know how to safeguard that freedom, and not allow anyone else to dictate how much and where to build (MK Tzipi Hovotely, during Pesach rally in Hebron)

My children are drowning, and you want to sing praise? (God to Angels, Sefer HaAgadda)

Remember always that beneath every cry of freedom on Pesach lurks an Egyptian cry that does not find its place. (D'yo Ilu Yamey blog)

Last week's 20,000 strong rally in Hebron reminded me of an argument I had a few months back with a friend.

She had planned a trip to the divided city for the weekend of Parshat Chayei Sarah, the ‘anniversary’ of Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah.

I had felt uncomfortable with it.

She had argued that all Jews have a right to go, that we have a religious and historical connection to Hebron, and that the heightened weekend curfew over the Palestinian inhabitants was a ‘proportionate price’ for them to pay.

I had countered that not everything which is right in theory should be acted upon in practice, and that we should always remain sensitive to how our actions affect others.

Exhausted by several days of arguments, we ultimately agreed to disagree.

Another disagreement - although far less emotional - takes place annually around our Seder table regarding whether we should dip or pour out our wine while discussing the 10 plagues.

Apparently such controversies originated in disputes between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, but I never really paid much attention. Guided more by my davka-nik streak than my Hasidic stock, I decided to join my father in pouring.

At work, the Reut team just brought out a paper about the Delegitimization of Israel’s existence in the international arena. All in all, the document received pretty good media coverage and led to various meetings with government officials. Those less content with our analysis were those marginal groups - primarily centered in academia, campuses, and civil society in general - who view Israel as a colonial racist implant which practices apartheid.

(I guess we shouldn’t have expected anything else. Delegitimizers rarely see their own actions as problematic.)

Meanwhile, in preparation for my weekly Tuesday Tel Aviv Torah Shiur, I found a Midrash I’ve been mulling over ever since.

The text relates a discussion in the heavenly court as to whether to drown the Egyptians in the sea. At stake is whether God should prioritize His characteristic of justice (by drowning them) or mercy (by sparing them). The coup de grace condemning the Egyptians comes when God is brought a brick from Egypt that an Israelite child had been immured in.

While the image is disturbing, it deftly sums up the subjugation the Israelites suffered (if in recent times, our children were turned into soap, in Egypt they were turned into bricks).

If the Midrash ended there we could satisfy ourselves with the importance of destroying our enemy.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, the text describes God criticizing the angels who want to mark the Israelite’s escape by singing His praises. ‘My children are drowning’ God tells them, ‘and you want to sing?’

Strangely enough, while I had learned both parts of the text before, I had never realized that they were part of the same story.

There are two main views I often hear in discussions about Israel-Palestine. The first – primarily prevalent at the Friday night dinners I frequent and indicative of the argument over visiting Hebron – says that because we have a right to independence, we need not be overly bothered by the suffering of the other (we suffered more than them anyway).

The second – now prevalent on the campuses I used to frequent – says that if one’s independence comes at the price of another’s pain, it is inherently illegitimate.

I believe the Midrash suggests something different.

Sometimes pure justice and pure mercy clash.

Sometimes (perhaps always), a people’s battle for independence causes pain and suffering to the ‘other’.

That doesn’t make their freedom ‘born in sin’ or undermine its legitimacy.

It doesn’t mean we should apologize for our national aspirations, for our state, for the dream of becoming an Am Chofshi Be’Artzenu.

But nor does it mean that just because we suffered greatly, we can ignore the suffering of the other side.

It doesn’t mean we can forget the cost of our independence, or let our justified cry of freedom completely drown out the cry of the Egyptian, the ‘other.’

The least we can do is to make that cry more, rather than less heard.

If not by dipping or pouring our wine, then at least by thinking about it more often.

Chag Sameach

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