Rabbi’s Review – March 2018

Moses the Advocate

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin


When Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” he initiated one of the earliest, if not the first, form of advocacy known to humankind. After ten tries, Pharaoh relented and the Israelites began their journey toward freedom. We mark this extraordinary moment every year when we gather at our Seder tables, retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is a story that is timeless and whose themes continue to resonate loudly today.

If the story of the Exodus can be seen an expression of activism and advocacy, and a demonstration against the corrupt and brutal society from which Moses freed the Israelites, I wonder if Jewish activists today point to the Seder table as the place where their passion for justice was ignited?

When we retell the story from the Haggadah, we explore themes of slavery and freedom. We discuss how Moses, a man of few words, was able to advocate for his people and agitate Pharaoh until he relented and set the Israelites free. The Passover Seder inspires creativity and DIY thematic Haggadot—we are no longer limited by the old Maxwell House Haggadah (I might be dating myself with that reference). This year you might go to a Seder that explores LGBTQIA rights and protections, immigrant rights, or the criminal justice system through the lens of the Exodus story. A generation ago many Haggadot explored themes of Jewish feminism, nuclear disarmament, and the plight of Soviet Jews.

What do these thematic Haggadot share in common? They bring attention to people and communities that are spiritually or psychologically enslaved, and even sometimes literally enslaved. They are trapped in a narrow place, and yearn to experience the wide expanse that freedom, safety and security offer.

When we advocate today, especially through our work with the Religious Action Center or Reform CA, it’s not because we are being political. We are simply drawing upon our ancient history as a people, amplified most loudly in the Exodus narrative. Moses advocated and agitated on behalf of his people; the Prophets were great agitators, speaking to the ills of the society in which they lived. Throughout history Jews have raised our voices, from a place rooted in our tradition, speaking to issues that are particular to the Jewish people and to all of humankind

When you gather around your Seder table, go off the page. Discuss immigration reform within the context of the Passover story. Discuss hunger and homelessness through the lens of our master story. This is how we keep an ancient text relevant today and how we build up a future generation of active Jews and Jewish activists.

May you experience a liberating Festival of Freedom.