Friday, March 16, 2012

Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi, and Pesah

I just purchased this afternoon a new haggadah, one that was published just in time for this Pesah. It’s called the New American Haggadah, put together by the authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander.  I have not had much time to review it yet, but I am struck by the cover art, which features the following quote:
בכל דור ודור, חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים, שנאמר

וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר:  בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם
In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5), as it is written, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'Because of what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8)
This is, truly, the organizing principle of the Passover seder.  Today we are free, but each of us individually was once enslaved.

On the way to the bookstore to pick this up, I heard on NPR that 20-year-old Dharun Ravi was convicted of hate crimes against his former freshman roommate at Rutgers, Tyler Clementi.  You may recall that Mr. Clementi killed himself by jumping from the George Washington bridge a year and a half ago, after he found that Mr. Ravi had used a webcam to spy on him in a compromising position.  Mr. Clementi was gay, and when he found out about the spying and what his fellow students were saying about him, he committed suicide.

The seder is not just a meal; in the fashion of the Greek symposium, it is food and discussion.  While most of us spend lots of time on the food, it is the discussion that is far more important.  

What we must tell our children on Pesah is the following: because we were slaves, we understand what it means to be oppressed by others due only to the unchangeable realities of who we are.  We may never take our freedom for granted, and where there is injustice, we are obligated to set other oppressed people free.

In every generation, each of us as individuals must acknowledge that slavery and oppression take many forms; these are as much personal as they are national, and they range from religious oppression to racism to the various forms of discrimination against women, other ethnicities, and of course those who are gay.  Dharun Ravi and his friends surely could not have predicted what happened.  But had they seen themselves as having personally come forth from Egypt, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

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