The Haggadah begins with a declaration inviting all those in need to join in for the Seder meal. This welcoming the stranger is not only a display of sensitivity and welcoming the hungry is not simply an expression of charity. Regard for the vulnerable among us at the Seder is closely linked to the theme of the Passover holiday; the Exodus from Egypt.
“You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This sentiment is repeated in the Bible not less than 36 times. In several passages, God makes it clear that God heeds the prayers of the stranger and similarly disadvantaged members of society, explicitly including the “widow” and the “orphan.” The biblical claim that the Jewish People are God’s “chosen” is as familiar as it is fraught. That God is the God of the oppressed is an equally familiar trope. Sadly, throughout much of our history there has been considerable overlap between the concepts of “God of the Jews” and “God of the oppressed.” Either way, our God has been God of the underdog. What if we are no longer the underdog?
The Ramban (13th century) had a novel approach to the connection between our regard for the vulnerable and our remembrance of Egyptian servitude. God rescued us from Egypt not so much because we were Hebrews who were enslaved but because we were the enslaved who happen to have been the Hebrews. The admonition is meant to warn us against indifference to the oppression of the weak by informing us God’s solidarity is with them. Ultimately, God’s saving grace responds to powerlessness, not to privileged ancestry.
The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. The traditional form of this prayer invokes the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Outside of Orthodoxy it has become commonplace to regard the omission of the matriarchs as problematic, and to repair this deficiency by including “The God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” There is robust debate over the propriety of making any changes to this section of the prayer. That aside, it is at least intriguing to consider: What if we prayed to the “God of the stranger, the God of the widow, and the God of the orphan”?
Have a liberating Pesach,
Rabbi Mitch Levine