Rabbi Michael Knopf
Among the lessons we learn from the Passover story is the critical importance of encountering, forming relationships with, and learning from people across lines of difference. The moment the Children of Israel settled in Egypt, they became concentrated in the Goshen region, fertile land in the Nile delta suitable for grazing and farming. This meant that, from the beginning of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt, the average Egyptian probably never met an Israelite; the two populations lived separately from each other. No wonder Pharaoh had such an easy time convincing his people that the Israelites were enemies to be controlled or destroyed. No wonder the Egyptians were unsympathetic to the enslaved Israelites’ suffering.
Today, most of us similarly live in economically, racially, and, increasingly, ideologically homogenous areas. We associate primarily with people who are most like us. But when we are isolated from people of different backgrounds, experiences, and situations, we become more likely to fear or vilify them, and risk becoming indifferent to their needs. We don’t need to necessarily get up and move to more diverse neighborhoods. But unless we deliberately encounter and engage with people across lines of difference, unless we strive to build communities where there is space for a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints, we might end up just like those ancient Egyptians.
Let us remember, during the plague of darkness, the Torah relates that “people did not see their siblings” (Exodus 10:23). A Hasidic master known as Or ha-Me’ir takes this to mean that the Egyptians refused to acknowledge they could learn from others. It is for this reason “no person could rise from where they were seated,” as the Torah teaches. The plague of darkness was in this sense the lack of progress that comes from an openness to learning from others. Redemption, the Passover story is reminding us, requires encountering, forming relationships with, and learning from others who are different from us, even and especially from those with whom we disagree.
May this Passover season herald redemption for each and all of us. Hag same’ah!