Beyond Oppression: Passover Lessons

The Exodus story is not an obvious tale of oppressed and oppressor peoples learning to jointly create a more equal society. Instead the Israelites leave Egypt, taking Egyptian riches with them, and are chastised by their leader whenever they look back; the Egyptians suffer many plagues before Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go, and they endure further disaster when Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the Sea of Reeds. How can we use this violent and permanent parting as a model for overcoming a history of oppression and division to learn respectful coexistence?

I posed a Facebook query to this effect and was impressed at the range and depth of ideas in the off-the-cuff responses I received. I thought many seder tables might benefit from these suggestions for learning and discussion, and I wanted to post this before Passover in a way that others could access. Apologies for lack of citation and other sketchiness. All errors or failure to communicate friends’ brilliant thoughts are mine.

Failure to Dehumanize
Vision and Action
From Privilege, Activism
Maybe We’re All Riff Raff
Rabbis, Rome and Slaves
“School for Freedom”

Failure to Dehumanize

One idea, based on a study session of Kol Isha at Temple Micah (Washington, DC): The opening of Exodus suggests a network, however small, of women who were not defined by edicts intended to dehumanize either class.

The midwives, Shifra and Puah, resist the order to kill babies, thus failing to participate in Pharaoh’s plan to dehumanize the Hebrews. Moreover, the very existence of Egyptian women who help at Hebrew births would indicate some degree of mixing across class lines. (The expression introducing Shifra and Puah is ambiguous but is often interpreted to mean “[Egyptian] midwives to the Hebrew.”) This mixing, however limited, could have

  • promoted among Egyptians the view of Hebrews as individuals suffering enslavement rather than a faceless class of “slaves”
  • suggested to Hebrews that Egyptians were not all a faceless class of “oppressors”
  • offered Egyptian and Hebrew women — and through them, men and children — views of the other contrary to whatever was coming from the palace.

Vision and Action

At least one Hebrew, Yocheved, launches her child into the Nile to evade the death-order for male babies. This evinces some degree of faith — or hope — in her Egyptian neighbors, assuming that someone will rescue the child.

At least one Egyptian, Pharaoh’s daughter (named Batya, in midrash), does in fact rescue a child from the Nile. This, too, is an act that refuses to dehumanize the other — recognizing the humanity of the baby and his family.

Perhaps there were more Hebrews launching babies into the river and more Egyptians rescuing them. But even if these two women were unique in their world, their example teaches that some on either side of a class-divide or conflict can see humanity in the other…. and that such vision is necessary for the overturning of oppression.

In contrast, Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster did nothing to overturn oppression in the long run and instead illustrates one danger of dehumanizing of oppressors.


As mentioned above, the grammar introducing Shifra and Puah is ambiguous: m’yalleldot [midwives] ha-ivriyot [Hebrew] could be Hebrews who are midwives or non-Hebrew, presumably Egyptian, midwives helping the Hebrews. Both possibilities have been followed in midrashic threads. Judy Klitsner argues that there is an important lesson here, no matter how the phrase is parsed.

The word “ivrit,” Klitsner notes, probably comes from the root for “crossing over,” and the midwives, whatever their background, live up to that name:

…it might be said that no matter their origins, they were in their essence Ivriyot. These courageous women were at odds with their surroundings much as Abraham and other Ivrim in the Bible were at odds with theirs. As we have seen, the prevailing culture in Egypt imposes its conformity among oppressors and oppressed alike. The oppressed are cowed into a state of silent suffering, and the oppressors become gradually inured to the degradation and ultimately to to the murder of unwanted foreigners. The midwives stand as Ivriyot, steadfastly resisting the corrupt conventions that have taken hold of their society. p. 58, Subversive Sequels in the Bible.

In contrast, Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster did nothing to overturn oppression in the long run and instead illustrates one danger of dehumanizing of oppressors.

From Privilege, Activism

Here is a lesson from organizer/educator Marshall Ganz, which comes via Joelle Novey. Joelle says she, while still in college, asked Ganz how people raised in privilege could hope to be good activists. The response: “Wasn’t Moses raised in Pharaoh’s house?”

Maybe We’re All Riff Raff

Another DC-area friend suggests that the “mixed multitude” (AKA “riff raff” or “erav rav”) who leave with the Israelites present another model: Were the Egyptians in this group “former oppressors” or fellow oppressed folk seizing this opportunity for escape? Among the few people identified in midrash as part of this group is pharaoh’s daughter Batya, who obviously comes from privilege but chose to throw in her lot with the former slaves.

In addition, Rebecca Boggs notes, we get out of the ban on Ammonites and Moabites becoming part of the people of Israel by declaring that we no longer know, with any certainty, who’s an Ammonite or a Moabite. Therefore, she says: “at least over time, the fixity of group identities of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ need not be a permanent barrier…”

Exploring these two ideas together might yield a sort of theology of the riff-raff: In some cases, we don’t know anymore whose ancestors benefited from acts of oppression and whose ancestors suffered harm — probably most of us come from both realities. In other cases, even where the oppression is a fresh memory and the harm obvious, maybe we need to learn to treat everyone as though they’re part of the riff-raff — a sort of desert version of “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”

Rabbis, Rome, Slaves and Moses

Rabbi Alana Suskin suggested that it would be helpful to explore Talmudic views of friendship between Romans and rabbis. Christian friends add that Jesus often spoke of issues related to power and slavery.

“School for Freedom”

My study partner, Amy Brookman, suggests viewing Passover as a kind of fire drill, so that we are always “ready for lifesaving actions.”

I’ve been playing with a similar idea, treating Passover as something akin to Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School: We take time to gather with others to explore “Leaving Egypt.” We consider possibilities and pitfalls in the story, in preparation for our own organizing. The “Leaving Egypt” model may not fit the exact circumstances outside the “School for Freedom,” but going through it helps refine our thinking, hone our skills… and equally importantly, it gives us a community similarly committed to the essential, perhaps dangerous, work ahead.

Now we are all slaves. Soon may we all be free.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

4 thoughts on “Beyond Oppression: Passover Lessons”

  1. thank you for posting this virginia. excellent food for thought as we leave our personal mitzrayim and with faith and hope, walk through the parted sea of reeds to a wide open, and somewhat scary, freedom. chag sameach pesach. bd

  2. Another fire rescue story…in the pivotal scene from Paul Haggis’s movie “Crash” there is a depiction of an extremely dangerous fire rescue after a multiple car crash. The officer who arrives to pull out a woman trapped in her car is also the same person who harmed her and her husband earlier in the story. He had pulled her over for a driving violation. The officer hated and looked down on people unlike himself because of ethnic background. So he used the opportunity to humiliate the black couple wearing expensive evening clothes by submitting her to a curbside body search in front of her husband. The officer used his job to oppress others, not to serve justice. Pinned in the car after the crash she recognizes him as he tries to free her. She begins to struggle and scream for someone else, anyone else, not him. There is no one else there yet who can get her out. And then the gasoline pooled around them is about to ignite. He tells her he won’t hurt her and asks her permission to touch her to cut her safety belt. When flames start spreading from another car’s spilled gas tank the other rescue workers try to pull him out without her. He breaks free to dive back into the car to hold on to her and yells for them to pull his legs out so they will both be saved. He risks his life to save her. The car is engulfed by flames just as they are pulled free. Both them are shocked to find themselves able to choose life in this situation. It doesn’t seem possible that an oppressor could become an ally. The whole movie is a series of interactions between people who are divided because of hate, fear, anger and many other problems, and how they become transformed by compassion for each other.
    YouTube – Crash – Trailer – (2004) ( This trailer is rated suitable for all audiences)Trailer for Paul Haggis’s film starring Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Michael Peña, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub, Ludacris, Daniel Dae Kim, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Keith David, Tony Danza, Bahar Soomekh, Beverly Todd, Nona Gaye,

  3. For the full text and meaning of the article, which is the source of the following quote, read “Initiation Onto the Path of Love,” by Rabbi Shefa Gold at
    “One year I sat around a table at a Passover Seder with a group of women. It was during the war in Bosnia, and we all felt helpless, knowing that the tragedy of genocide was unfolding while the world stood by. As Jews, imprinted with the history of the Holocaust, we felt particularly despairing. As we re-counted the foundational story of our people, the Exodus from Egypt, we were sensitive to its violence, the fact of all those Egyptians suffering from the plagues and the tragedy of their final drowning in the sea. Someone asked, “Don’t we have any other story? Whenever we win, someone else loses. Do we have to win our freedom at the expense of another people?” We were all reminded of the same tragedy playing itself out in the Middle East where both Israelis and Palestinians claimed their autonomy at the expense of the other, where one people’s victory meant the others defeat. “Isn’t there any other way to Freedom?” we asked. “Don’t we have any other story?” As this question hung in the air between us, the silence felt like a great weight, and then the answer dawned.

    “We do have another story!” I shouted. I explained that the Tradition calls us to read and study and sing the Song of Songs during Passover. While the Book of Exodus tells the story of our outer journey from slavery to freedom, the Song of Songs tells the inner story. Rabbi Akiva hinted at this when he called the Song, the “Holy of Holies.” Just as the Holy of Holies occupied the very center of the Sanctuary, the Song of Songs stands at the center of the mystery of Freedom.”

  4. Shirana – had gadia, Alla Fiera dell’Est
    Arab & jewish women’s choir “Shirana” from The Arab-Jewish community center in Jaffa, Israel.
    by Angelo Branduardi (based on the Passover Haggadah), Translation & additional lyrics: Chava Alberstein
    …Then came the Holy One
    Blessed be G-d
    And destroyed the Angel of Death
    That killed the butcher
    That slew the ox
    That drank the water
    That quenched the fire
    That burned the sticks
    That beat the dog
    That bit the cat
    That ate the little goat
    My father bought for two zuzim

    On all nights, on all nights
    I questioned only four
    Tonight I have one more:
    How much longer will the circle of horror persist
    Striker and stricken, beater and beaten,
    When will this madness, when will it end,
    And what is different for you, what is different?
    I am different this year
    I used to be a lamb and a peaceful goat
    Today I am a tiger and a preying coyote
    I was a dove already, and a ram
    Today I dont know who I am
    (My father bought for 2 zuzim)
    And once more, we start from the beginning

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