Passover is rich in social justice themes. It is impossible to study the Jewish story of redemption and not feel compelled to eradicate injustice in the world today. Among the primary social justice themes found in the Exodus story and in the Passover observance are hunger, homelessness, oppression, and redemption.
At Passover, we are reminded of a time when Jews were once restricted to eating only matzah, considered the “bread of affliction,” due to the hasty retreat from Egypt. This experience with hardship following the exodus from Egypt is an inspiration to consider those who eat the metaphorical “bread of affliction” in present times.
Passover also serves as a painful reminder that the Jewish people were seen as strangers in the land of Egypt and spent 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness without a home. These elements of the Passover story remind us of current issues of immigration and refugee concerns, and the memory of being displaced instills in us a desire to eradicate homelessness in the modern era.
You can incorporate social action themes into your Passover observance in the following ways.
Update Your Seder Plate
Alongside the traditional items on the seder plate, try some of these modern additions.
- Orange: Many families have begun adding an orange to
their seder plate as a way of acknowledging the role of women in Jewish life. Professor Susannah Heschel explains that in the 1980s, feminists at Oberlin College placed a crust of bread on the Seder plate, saying, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate.” Heschel adapted this practice, placing an orange on her family’s seder plate and asking each attendee to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with gay Jews and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. They spit out the orange seeds, which were said to represent homophobia.
- Potato: In 1991, Israel launched Operation Solomon, a covert plan to bring Ethiopian Jews to the Holy Land. When these famished, downtrodden Jews arrived in Israel, many were so hungry and ill that they were unable to digest substantial food. Israeli doctors fed these new immigrants simple boiled potatoes and rice until their systems could take more food. To commemorate this at your seder, eat small red potatoes alongside the karpas. Announce to those present that this addition honors a wondrous exodus in our own time, from Ethiopia to Israel.
- Fair Trade Chocolate or Cocoa Beans: The fair trade movement promotes economic partnerships based on equality, justice and sustainable environmental practices. We have a role in the process by making consumer choices that promote economic fairness for those who produce our products around the globe. Fair Trade certified chocolate and cocoa beans are grown under standards that prohibit the use of forced labor. They can be included on the seder plate to remind us that although we escaped from slavery in Egypt, forced labor is still very much an issue today.
Ask the Four Questions of Modern Day Slavery
This modern social justice take on the Four Questions can be inserted at the reading of the Four Questions during your family’s seder:
- “Why on this night are some people still enslaved today?”
- “Why on this night do so many remain hungry in the world?”
- “Why on this night do we invite the hungry and lonely to share our meal?”
- “How can we eradicate hunger and homelessness tonight and every night?”
- A fifth question can be posed: “Why is this night no different from other nights? Because on this night millions of human beings around the world still remain enslaved, just as they do on all other nights. As a celebration of our freedom, we remember those who remain enslaved.”
Philip N. Bazeley