Oppressor and Oppressed

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Rev. Martin Luther King used to teach that the liberation from racism was not just for Black Americans, but for white people as well. The religious leaders in the Civil Rights movement had the vision to understand that redemption is not just for the victim, but for the victimizer as well; not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressor too. This level of wisdom can help us understand the Purim and Passover stories as well as current events in our troubled world. In classical rabbinic commentary, Pharaoh was portrayed a stubborn despot whose heart was redeemable. Haman, on the other hand, is the archetype unredeemable evil whose name must be drowned out with shouts of protest. Why was Pharaoh redeemable and Haman not? Because as Pharaoh kept changing his mind between each plague he displayed doubt – an expression of humility. Haman (like Hilter, Stalin, Mao, Osama, and Sadaam) never even doubted his right to order genocide.

The job of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam was to liberate the Jews – this is obvious. But a closer reading of the Torah reveals that God wanted to be worshipped by the Egyptians too. God proclaims in Exodus 14:4 that “I will be honored over Pharaoh, and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.” There is a Midrash that postulates that Pharaoh repented in Exodus 15:11 after he saw his army drowning in the sea. He cried aloud “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?” Judaism teaches that world redemption does not mean that everyone will be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Rather, everyone will follow the same high standards of ethical behavior: no murder, no terrorism, no suppression of minority rights, no lies about another’s history, no theft of truth. As God says in Exodus 9:16 “I have raised you up, to show in you my power that my Name may be proclaimed throughout the earth.”

This was a difficult notion for Christians to come to grips with, beginning in the eleventh century when they crusaded through Europe destroying Jewish and Muslim communities on their march to “liberate” the Holy Land from the infidels. They believed, as some still do, that the whole world must convert or be damned. At that time Islam was in a golden age of moderation, intellectualism, and tolerance for its minority subjects. Sadly, today Muslim extremists believe exactly what the Christian crusaders used to believe – that the whole world will eventually submit to Islamic law. They believe in their own form of violent, totalitarian exclusivity, and teach a twisted, anti-Semitic version of Jewish history in their schools. For example, they teach that Joseph was really a Muslim.

They have rewritten Torah stories and teach that Abraham brought Ishmael to Mt. Moriah, and not Isaac. A Muslim friend of mine actually was taught that our Torah is a “distortion” of an original Torah. These fundamentalists teach that their never was a Jewish Temple built by Soloman, and that if there was one it was a mosque. Finally, many people in the Muslim world are actually taught that the Holocaust was a hoax. Moderate Muslims, of course, reject this kind of twisted history, but too many citizens in Muslim lands believe it.

I heard this kind of distortion first hand just a few weeks ago from two wonderful Muslim students on my son’s tennis team. One nineteen year old girl from Bangladesh told me Jews were really Muslims at a lower level of spirituality. Another exchange student, who never met a Jew before he met Ari, told me that all of Israel (not just Gaza and the West Bank) is “really” Muslim land. Tragically, just coming to agreement about simple facts has become an obstacle to peace. Nevertheless, the goal of the Passover story is to liberate both the Jews and the Egyptians, and this should not be forgotten. I was honored to speak gently but clearly to the kids on the tennis team about a Judaism and a history they were never told about.

The world is at a tipping point: Will more nations move toward freedom and pluralism, or hold onto antiquated systems of governance, xenophobia, and sexism? As Americans we can hardly imagine what it must be like for a great people like the Iranians to live without the right to protest. We can hardly imagine what it must be like for Tibetans to realize that they are now a minority in their own homeland. We can hardly imagine what it must be like for Kurds and moderate Muslims who want democracy in Iraq to live with the fact that the insurgency is not just against the Americans, but against pluralism. We can hardly imagine what it is like for a Palestinian worker to be stopped at Israeli checkpoints everyday – checkpoints that were never needed before the terrorists became so active after Rabin made peace with Arafat. Pharaoh is the archetype of dogmatism, stubbornness, and short sightedness. But he is also the archetype of negativity that can be transformed. The prophet foresees the day when their will be a highway connecting Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It is written in Isaiah 19:25 “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” May we each blessed in our work of drowning out the name of Hamen, redeeming Pharaoh, and preserving Israel’s pluralism, security, and gratitude to God.