The Jewish People and Humanity

April 29th: Conclusion of Pesach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As we well know, after experiencing the Passover Seder year after year, our Festival of Liberation speaks to us about both the joy of liberation and the empathy we should feel for all humans—especially the ones who are suffering or oppressed.

Indeed, with the symbolism of Elijah and our prayers that he will come soon and announce the Coming of the Messiah and the perfection of the world, our focus on Passover should be twofold:
     (1)   The unique destiny of our people and how our rescue from Egypt was for the purpose of receiving the Torah.
     (2)   God’s love for and interest in the whole world because our selection and holy mission is to bring godliness to all of humanity.

We are certainly taught that God loves us—that there is a special relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is our tif’arah, our glory. But, lest we think that we are the only people God loves, our Prophets remind us of God’s universal interest and affection. In just two weeks, the Haftarah from Amos (9.7) will proclaim:
“To Me, O Israelites, you are Just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord.
True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt,
But also the Philistines from Caphtor
And the Arameans from Kir.”

The Midrash makes a similar point in commenting on the location of Mount Sinai and why God chooses that place for the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Mount Sinai is out in the middle of nowhere, in a place owned by no one. This is so that the nations of the world will not think that God’s word is only for Israel. The Ten Commandments and the Torah’s holiness are given in a public place so that everyone will know that it is God’s gift and hope for everyone in the world.

The result is that universalism is as important a theme for Passover as is Israel’s particular good fortune (in being freed by God from Egyptian slavery) and destiny (being God’s messengers of Torah). One can even link this thinking to a Midrash on the Hebrew word for Egypt.

In Hebrew, Egypt is known as Mitzrayim, a name which can be translated as the Narrows. This makes geographical sense because the habitable part of Egypt is quite narrow—just a strip on the two banks of the Nile. Other than a few oases, the rest is desert. So, if Egypt is the narrow place, one way to look at the Exodus is as an escape from narrowness. It was not just slavery we left; it was the narrowness of thinking that allowed a sophisticated people to enslave and oppress other human beings.

Are there other kinds of narrow thinking from which we need to escape? A few come to mind: bigotry, intolerance, close-mindedness, penuriousness, arrogance and self-centeredness. The message of Passover’s liberation can remind us that we need to break the bonds of narrow thinking if we want to appreciate the world and if we want to perceive the world fairly and with understanding.

In our day, one of the great projects is learning to live with people who are different from us—different in re nationality, culture, religion, and even gender orientation. It’s one thing to affirm the value of different people, but the experience is not complete without actually getting to know these other individuals who, though quite different, are also created by God in the image of God.

For many generations, in America, we Jews were the different ones, and our leaders worked very hard to show the Christian majority that we are decent, law-abiding, God-fearing, and constructive people who can take on the responsibilities of American citizenship as well as its privileges. The Jewish community has spent a significant amount of energy on this work—and, in an interesting way, this public relations work has informed our own process of Americanization. We have been affected by the expectations of American citizenship, and our fulfillment of civic standards has helped to make us part of the social fabric of this country we love and celebrate.

As a result, we now have the opportunity to help welcome people who are different and who are trying to find their place in America. I am speaking now of our local Muslim citizens and visitors, people who are trying to figure out how to be true to their cultures and religions while also becoming a part of America. Fortunately, State College has had, for the last several years, an excellent organization that reaches out to Muslims and makes them a part of our religious community. Started by Dr. Sarah Malone (a member of the University Baptist and Brethren Church), the Interfaith Initiative Centre County has put together a variety of programs in which people of different religions meet, discuss religious issues, and get to develop relationships of respect and understanding. Some of these programs are formal presentations—some of which we have hosted here at Brit Shalom, and some are more informal.

Just this week, Sunday May 1st, the Interfaith Initiative is putting on its annual Spring Interfaith Picnic, and you are invited! It will be at Sunset Park from 1:00-3:00 PM, and everyone is invited. A good portion of the food will be donated by Pita Cabana, and participants are invited to bring something to share. If you do bring something, please make sure that it is vegetarian (or that the meat is Kosher).

I’ve been to several of these picnics, and they are always a treat. Join us as we manifest the lessons of Passover and share culture, food, and good will. “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”