Of Strangers and Slaves

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by

On this third day of Passover, I’m thinking a lot about strangers.

I have the great good fortune of being among the inaugural cohort of “community leaders” in the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS)’s year-long Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative. Earlier this month, as a part of this initiative, Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin did a workshop with the community leaders (there are about 25 of us, each of us an early- or mid-career non-profit professional who self identifies with one of the 3 Abrahamic faiths of the ICJS’s name) and then a public lecture. The title of both was “Imagining Justice in Baltimore: A Jewish Perspective.”

Bezalel style seder plate, silver plated brass with scalloped edge, purchased from Rabbi Benjamin Dinovitz of Ohel Yaakov Synagogue, c. 1930. JMM 1994.197.001

Bezalel style seder plate, silver plated brass with scalloped edge, purchased from Rabbi Benjamin Dinovitz of Ohel Yaakov Synagogue, c. 1930. JMM 1994.197.001

In the several hours I spent in Professor Gopin’s presence, he posited repeatedly that the most important commandment in the Torah is to “love the stranger as yourself.” He pointed out that this commandment appears more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible. In Gopin’s framework, the significance of loving the stranger (separate from the “neighbor”), is in connecting with the other, whomever that is. He talked about transgressing boundaries, meeting people where they are, honoring the other human being as a human being, regardless of their behavior. For me, his words gave new resonance to that oft-repeated phrase, “love the stranger as yourself.”

Interestingly, especially with this season’s Seders so recent in my memory, each time we are told to love the stranger in the Torah, it is followed by the reminder “for you were strangers in Egypt” (c.f. Leviticus 19:34 for an example). You were strangers in Egypt it says. But as the Seder artfully reminds us through all 5 senses, we weren’t merely strangers in Egypt. We were slaves.

JMM 1984.023.1047

JMM 1984.023.1047

I haven’t fully teased out this idea, but I am becoming more and more certain that the crux of my imagining justice in Baltimore is in the woefully short distance between “stranger” and “slave.”

I believe empathy is the catalyst through which true change comes to human society. The compulsion to comfort, heal, help the other is, in my view, the way the Divine intervenes in human events. That is why Torah reminds us we were strangers in Egypt. That is why the Haggadah enjoins us to imagine we ourselves left Egypt. We are commanded to remember what it feels like. We are commanded to have empathy.

Love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in Egypt. JMM 1995.201.11

Love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in Egypt. JMM 1995.201.11

This year, on the fifth day of Passover, the eight-day celebration of our liberation from the land in which we were estranged and enslaved, we will commemorate the anniversary of the moment when individuals and communities who for centuries have been estranged by the system and enslaved by racism, poverty, and mass incarceration, groaned in their suffering and cried out; that stretch of several hours, alternatively called Uprising or Rebellion, when grief and rage erupted in the streets of Baltimore.

As I think about the shifting identity of the stranger and the slave, I cannot help but be struck by the secular drama playing out in the season of our religious-historical drama. Right before Purim, with American electoral politics in mind, I wrote about channeling Esther to find the bravery to stand up to Pharoah. Now that Passover and election day are both upon us, I feel that need ever more strongly.

Photo from one of last year's rallies.

Photo from one of last year’s rallies.

Passover 5776/2016 falls in the middle of an election season in which fear of the stranger, fear of the other, has become a commodity. The lesson of Passover is that we cannot sit idly by while the stranger becomes the enslaved—we cannot allow the oppression we suffered to be meted out on another. And so we are commanded to repudiate the fear of the stranger and to replace it with love.

JMM 2002.111.118

JMM 2002.111.118

Tracie Guy-DeckerA blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.




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It’s Moses in a Landslide

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by

There are those occasions when the secular and Jewish calendars converge in an unusual harmony.  We all remember “Thanksgivukkah” and this year features the equally rare “Hanuyearsikkah”.  But this month my thoughts go to an exceptional April convergence.  Let me start with a question:

Q: When was the first time you could cast a vote for a Jewish candidate in a US presidential primary?

A: 40 years ago, in 1976, and the candidate was Gov. Milton Shapp

Milton Shapp

Milton Shapp

Well, of course, that’s if you lived in Massachusetts, Illinois or Shapp’s home state of Pennsylvania.  By the time the primary calendar turned to Maryland in late May, Shapp had dropped out, after taking less than 5% of the vote in his home state.  Another early favorite in the election season with strong ties to the Jewish community, Scoop Jackson, had also pulled out after the Pennsylvania primary.  In fact, out of the 16 candidates who had entered the Democratic race only a handful remained by the time voting took place here.  The winner, by a wide margin, was Jerry Brown.  But Brown and the ABC (“anyone but Carter”) campaign started too late to stop Carter’s momentum.  We may not have voted for the eventual Democratic nominee and president, but Maryland holds the distinction of being one of three states to vote for the only 1976 candidate who is still in public office forty years later.

So what makes this Maryland primary night different than all other Maryland presidential primary nights?  Well, by my count it is the first time that Passover and presidential primary elections have converged in this state.  From the 1960’s through 1984, Maryland Primary Day was in May, too late for Passover.  From 1988 through 2008 Primary Day moved around between mid-February and early March, too early for Passover… even in 2012 when it was pushed back to late March it was still too early to overlap that year.

But this year the match between the Jewish festival of freedom and the secular exercise of liberty is “just right.”

Now Moses did not need to run in a primary, this didn’t mean he was immune to politics.

One of the earliest references I could find to political selection was in the Parsha Yitro in the Book of Exodus.  In that section, Moses in the wilderness is overwhelmed by the burden of adjudicating every dispute in the community.  He gets advice from his father-in-law Jethro (the first political consultant?) that he should appoint a system of judges to handle lesser cases.  Jethro goes on to tell Moses “But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.”

I make no claim to Biblical scholarship, but I find it interesting that the subject of the appointment of judges comes one chapter ahead of the delivery of laws on Mt. Sinai.  This sequence – officials first, laws second – suggests to me an awareness that even the most noble and principled law can be perverted by unjust or corrupted men.

Today each of us plays a bit of the role played by Moses in selecting leaders for our community.  The scale may be different, but as we go to the polls to choose a leader for the three hundred millions, I think Jethro’s advice about seeking people of substance, humility, honesty and financial integrity still applies.  Let’s follow the example of Moses and choose wisely.

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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A Matzah Memory

Posted on March 22nd, 2013 by

MarvinA blog post from Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

Somewhere along the way in my twenty-five year journey in the museum world, I asked me the question “Can you remember the first exhibit you ever saw?”.  I thought for a moment and answered “Sure I can, I was at a long dinner table and someone held up a plate of matzah and asked mah zot?”  It had all the elements of an exhibit – an artifact of historic significance, label copy in the Haggadah, it was interactive and at least when we got to the Hillel sandwich – multi-sensory.

I share this by way of confession that while I have a theological appreciation for other holy days, none holds a place in my heart like Passover.  I have so many fond memories of seders spent with friends and family that its easy to wax nostalgic about all of them.

There is one seder in my past, however, that truly stands apart.  A night unlike all other nights.  It was 1978, 35 years ago this season.  Passover fell late that year (April 21).  I was in Seoul, Korea serving as a “Junior Officer in Training” with USIA.  At age 25, I believe I was the youngest American officer serving at the post.  So I was somewhat surprised to receive an invitation to the Ambassador’s residence…it was highly unusual for a junior officer to share a social occasion with a senior ambassador.  Nonetheless, as there were only five Jewish American officers in Seoul at that time – the Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission, the administrative assistants to both the Ambassador and the DCM and me – I was invited to seder at the residence.  I can’t remember all the details but I’m sure my wife gave me some helpful coaching on dinner table manners for such a fine event.

The seder began as expected, but shortly after the first cup of wine, an embassy official entered the room and whispered something into the Ambassador’s ear.  Ambassador Sneider rose abruptly and exited the room.  I strongly suspected this was more than a second washing of the hands.  He returned a few minutes later.  After another few prayers and songs, he left the room again, suggesting that we go on with the service.  The up and down pattern continued all the way to the cup of Elijah.  My recollection is that at about this point the DCM may have revealed what was going on.  That afternoon (Korean time) a Korean airliner that had strayed off-course on its way from Paris to Seoul had been fired upon by Soviet aircraft and forced to land on a frozen lake.  The 107 surviving passengers had been transported to Murmansk.  The Russians were refusing to release the passengers.  When the Ambassador left the room he was actually on the phone trying to secure their safe return home.  So on that night, “let my people go” had ceased to be an echo of an ancient exodus, but rather a contemporary reality that had made its way to our seder table. It took two days but the passengers did reach their destination (a much happier ending that the second shoot-down incident five years later).  I’m sure that any American Ambassador would have made the liberation of the passengers a top priority, but for all these decades I have thought that the fact that a Jewish American Ambassador was a part of this effort on the very night of our own people’s commemoration of freedom was very special – a reminder of the universal resonance of our story.

This year I’ll be headed for Boston, as the torch of making seder passes for the first time to my daughter.  Once more I have a feeling it will be a night different from all other nights.

Happy Pesach!

Note:  Please respond to this blog to tell us about a seder that you found particularly memorable.  It’s one more way to share our history!


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