Obfuscating the particularity of Passover

April 20, 2022 by Ruthie Blum - JNS
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In an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on Friday, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai described visiting the Poland-Ukraine border, where he witnessed a “never-ending stream of refugees fleeing the savage war that has torn apart their lives.”

Ruthie Blum/JNS

The aim of his article, published on the eve of Passover, was to draw a parallel between Pharoah, a “brutal and rapacious tyrant, who put his personal and national interests above those of the people he oppressed,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The Passover message of freedom could not be more relevant to the current war being waged by Russia against Ukraine, which sees the forces of oppression and despotism arrayed against the ideas and values of liberty and democracy,” he wrote.

Shai is by no means alone in his use of the Israelites’ exodus from ancient Egypt to talk about current events. On the contrary, as soon as the holiday rolls around, pundits in Israel and abroad dust off the old analogies.

This would be fine if the literary device were employed to discuss the condition of modern-day Jews. It would be appropriate, for instance, to caution against collective amnesia in the face of contemporary anti-Semitism, Iran’s threats to annihilate Israel and Arab riots on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, where only Muslims are at liberty to pray.

A spiritual metaphor about freeing ourselves from internal chains and enslavement to all social-justice causes other than our own would also be welcome.

More often than not, however, the “freedom of bondage” mantra has the opposite aim: to warn Jews not to forget that the rest of the human race might need rescuing.

That’s in the best case. In the worst, it’s used as a rhetorical weapon to blame Jews for engaging in the very subjugation that we escaped in the past and stop to remember each Passover.

The manipulation of the theme isn’t new. The tendency of Jews to over-empathize with the plight of others has been around since time immemorial.

To justify the aversion to championing our own causes over those of outside groups, many of “the chosen” point to the Jewish people’s role as a “light unto the nations.”

This biblical phrase, mentioned three times in the book of Isaiah, has been distorted beyond recognition. The first reference is to God telling the Israelites that he has “called unto you in righteousness and have taken hold of your hand and submitted you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6)

Jewish worshipers reciting the Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Passover, April 18, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The second appears in chapter 49, verse 6. In it, Isaiah quotes God as saying, “It is too light a thing for you to be my servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob and to restore the scions of Israel, and I shall submit you as a light unto the nations, to be my salvation until the end of the earth.”

In the third passage (Isaiah 60:3), God explains to the Israelites that “unto your light, nations shall walk and kings unto the brightness of your rising.”

The prophecy here is that the tribes of Israel will unite, return to their land—Israel—and serve as an example for the rest of the world to emulate. Yet somehow, this concept long ago got lost in translation, even by native Hebrew-speakers.

Indeed, it has come to be wantonly applied to the “progressive” notion that Jews are responsible for all global problems, whether genuine crises or those concocted for political purposes and hefty research grants. That it’s most frequently invoked ahead of and during Passover is no accident.

The weeklong celebration marks our exodus from evil Egyptian bondage and deliverance to the Promised Land. It is a yearly reminder to thank God for the blessing and the privilege.

What it is not, or at least shouldn’t be, is an opportunity to bemoan the lack of fortune experienced—or imagined—by all human beings everywhere. No, Passover is not a universalist story. It is utterly particular to the Jewish people and must be honored as such.

As Israel’s diaspora affairs minister ought to know, it’s when we let ourselves shine that we are able to serve as a beacon for others. Minimizing what is specific to our past and present has the opposite effect.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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