Torah from Around the World #214

Recent Issues

by Rabbi Mark Leonard Winer MBE, former senior rabbi at the

West London Synagogue

, and chair of the World Union International Interfaith Task Force

We Jews have often become the scapegoat for whatever crisis arises.  In the recent Ukrainian conflict, Vladimir Putin justified his policies toward the Ukraine with his claim that the leaders of the Kiev revolution are fascists and anti-Semites.   At the same time, some pro-Russian anti-Ukrainian activists in the Crimea blamed Jews for the crisis and insist that the Kiev revolution leaders are all Jews.  Happily, our Progressive rabbi in Kiev Alexander Dukhovny assures us that the Ukrainian leaders openly embrace Jews as full participants in their emerging pro-European, pluralistic, democratic government.  A few Jews indeed are in key positions of leadership, although representatives of all segments of Ukrainian society are included in the governing coalition.   Three different perspectives – the world hopes that Rabbi Dukhovny is correct.

On this Shabbat HaGadol, we prepare our homes and ourselves for Pesach’s celebration this next week.  On Pesach, we commemorate our liberation from an Egyptian bondage imposed by a Pharaoh who scapegoated our ancestors for the problems of ancient Egypt.

We Jews have suffered such scapegoating, bigotry, and persecution in large part because of our Covenant with God, which instilled a sacred mission within our People.  We are and were chosen, and we still choose to affirm this Covenant, and so we sometimes – or often – suffer.

This week’s Torah portion places the origin of scapegoating in an ancient ritual practiced by Aaron.  According to our text (Leviticus 16:8-10), Aaron casts lots upon two he-goats, one offered as a sin-offering to Adonai, and the other, for “Azazel.” This second goat would literally become the “scapegoat,” carrying the sins of the people on his back, driven into the wilderness, or over a cliff, in later interpretations.  The Biblical scapegoat ritual projects an enticing fantasy.  Imagine placing all of the sins of the people on a single scapegoat, and then throwing him over a cliff, or driving him into a wilderness.  Would that we could be Aaron…

Bigotry is a universal characteristic of human nature.  Despite the wishful optimism of “you have to be taught to hate” in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, the tendency toward scapegoating and prejudice seems to be much more deeply rooted in human nature than we might wish.  Among many other complex qualities, human beings are as much “bundles of prejudice” as we are “bundles of neurosis.”

Religious bigotry has historically combined a nasty misuse of the power of religion and the in-grown tendency of our species to scapegoat others for what we don’t like in ourselves or in our society.  Within the last hundred years, religious bigotry has been a root cause of much of the world’s worst violence.  We Jews think instantly of Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  But Myanmar (Burma), Darfur, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Belfast provide many other examples of religious bigotry, in which there is virtually no Jewish component.  So much of the bitter division in the Ukraine stems from the thousand year conflict between the Catholics in Western Ukraine and the Orthodox Christians in Eastern Ukraine.

Pesach calls upon us to remember that “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  Recalling our slavery in the past becomes the Jewish ethical Shofar call to act on behalf of all of those enslaved to whatever degree in whatever place by whatever tyrant.  Abraham Lincoln underscored this Jewish ethical teaching, basic to Pesach and all of Judaism.  “As I would not be a slave, so would I not be a master.  This expresses my idea of democracy, and whatever differs, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

Pesach and the Haggadah’s re-telling of our Egyptian bondage and God’s liberation, call upon all Jews to experience personally both the degradation of slavery and the exhilaration of freedom.  The power of our festival and its story and message, resonates in the teachings and experiences of so many other peoples, precisely because the Exodus rings so true to human history, to the very worst and to the very best in the story of every segment of humanity.

In recalling our Pesach story next week, let us remember how we were scapegoated by Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, and by so many other tyrants of history.  To be sure, in our celebration of Pesach in the Twenty First Century, we rejoice in the freedom to be Jews in our restored State of Israel, and in North America, and in Europe, and in Australia, and in South America, and in South Africa, and in all of the lands of expanding freedom and democracy of our world.  Never in Jewish history have there been such a high proportion of our People Israel enjoying such freedom to be Jews, such freedom from the ravages of historic scapegoating and anti-Semitism.

And yet, we are not yet free of the threats to our freedom.  Let us remain forever vigilant against those who would persecute and oppress us as Jews.

Let us use our historic recollection of our suffering in the past as an ethical wellspring to root out religious bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head.  First of all, in ourselves, let us use this Pesach season, to confront our own prejudices toward others.  How often during the year do we scapegoat others and stereotype others and express hatred of others, to avoid looking at our own failings and weaknesses?

Let us use this Pesach season to examine the world around us, to confront all of the ways in which others are still enslaved.  Let us find the paths to becoming their liberators, responding to the Commandment of Adonai Elohenu and our sacred Covenant with God made at Mt. Sinai.  As much as we rejoice in our freedom, so do we commit ourselves to God’s service.  As Moses declared to Pharaoh, quoting the Commandment of God, “Let My People go, that they may serve Me.”

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