Each year, we revisit the same Torah portions but, while the words remain the same, our understandings change based on what is happening in our world or in our lives. The exodus story, the story of Passover, remains as relevant as ever, as people in many parts of the world are being oppressed, are stateless or are living amid war.
As Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, citizens of that besieged country are seeking refuge in neighbouring states. It does not appear, at present, that Jewish Ukrainians are suffering any more or less than any other citizens of that state. However, history has shown that whenever and wherever upheaval occurs, it almost inevitably affects Jewish people in some particular way.
The age-old question, “What does it mean for the Jews?” is an acknowledgement that events that ostensibly appear unrelated to Jewish people specifically will have unique consequences for Jews.
As Russia’s invasion has faced an unexpected reply from the Ukrainian military and people, the risk of Vladimir Putin being backed into a corner opens the door to worrying potentials. He has already made threatening noises about chemical weapons and, even more worryingly, nuclear weapons – the very suggestions being an untenable line to cross for any nuclear-capable world leader.
It should be remembered, but it has been too infrequently mentioned during this crisis, that Ukraine once had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, a legacy of the dismantling of the Soviet Union. In 1994, Ukraine was persuaded to transfer its entire arsenal to Russia to be decommissioned with the promise from the Western world that we would ensure that country’s security in return. As Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky continues his virtual global tour, prevailing upon the West to provide more military aid, we should remember that he is asking for the Western world to fulfil the promise it made to his country less than three decades ago.
We should also not need reminding that the existence of a Jewish state is a modern miracle that provides a place of refuge, mere decades after the absence of a homeland led to Jewish history’s worst cataclysm. There are some 200,000 Ukrainians who would qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, and planeloads of Jewish Ukrainians are making their way to Israel, fleeing a modern-day pharaoh.
Of course, the land of milk and honey is, in reality, a real-world country facing an enormous range of problems. Recent terror attacks have some people fearing a third intifada or, at least, a season of upheaval like we saw last year when violence erupted. In turn, that hostility spread worldwide, with spikes in antisemitic incidents around the world, including in Canada. While Jews are securely ensconced in the Promised Land, Israelis still seek liberation from the figurative enslavement by terrorists and their supporters. And, at the same time, Palestinians also do not have the freedom they desire and deserve. This latest violence does not serve either people’s dreams of peace or justice; it further enslaves us to cycles of justifications of more violence and pain.
Meanwhile, Jewish families in North America are excited to return to comparatively normal seders and celebrations after two years of pandemic. This is itself a form of liberation. As we reenact the ancient exodus at our seder tables, we will hope for and commit ourselves to a world where all who are oppressed find freedom. This is not a rote rereading and it is not a theoretical wish. In a world with so many challenges and dangers, the story of escape from bondage remains as relevant and urgent as ever.