Easter! Passover! Ramadan! Liberation! part 2

Two ideas in the Passover festival are central:
  1. It is a celebration of freedom. Passover is known as “The Season of our Liberation.” It commemorates the escape from enslavement in Egypt.
  2. It is a call to hospitality.
The two phrases that echo most loudly through the Passover Seder Haggadah are: (1) "In every generation let each one feel as if he or she came forth out of Egypt"; and (2) “Let any who are hungry come and eat.”

These are interrelated and intertwined. The human psyche has three basic categories: ME, US, and THEM. Exodus tells about the liberation of an US. As a story initially and primarily told by Jewish people to Jewish people, it’s the story of how WE were enslaved. Physical needs for food, clothing, shelter, or sleep were often inadequately met. Worse, human needs for respect, autonomy, trust, dignity, worth, and self-expression were systematically and extremely denied – through regular use and constant threat of inflicting great pain and humiliation, typically the lash, applied in a way sometimes punitive and sometimes simply random, though always ostensibly punitive. It was an utterly miserable existence.

That’s the miserable existence WE were stuck in. But WE got out of it. WE, as a people, as an US, achieved political liberation – a system of some modicum, at least, of rights and liberties. It was not at all a democracy, and a read through the books of the prophets illustrates how the Israelites struggled constantly for centuries with issues of oppressing each other. But the oppressors were US now – we shared a bond of culture and of worship -- and their cruelties were less systematic, less extensive, and usually less extreme. So we were free. Or at least, "free."

When political liberation happens – when a people enjoy some rights and liberties, when physical needs can be met and those human needs -- respect, autonomy, trust, dignity, worth, and self-expression – are not systematically denied, people become susceptible to different kind of bondage. We are likely to want to guard what we have. We can become, essentially, enslaved to self-protective habits and desires of the moment. Life can come to feel bereft of meaning, even though we have autonomy.

The tradition of liberation that begins with political liberation from external oppressors must then turn to personal liberation from our own internal oppressors. When US is no longer oppressed by THEM, ME may still be oppressed by ME-self. The internal voices of self-protection and of satisfying desires of the moment drown out the voices that want our life to mean something more than its own security and gratification.

Thus the Passover Seder tradition, the Haggadah text, addresses this liberation, too. “Let any who are hungry come and eat” is as central a message as “we escaped our enslavement in Egypt.” To liberate US, we get away from the THEM that oppresses. But then, to liberate ME – that is, liberation from internal voices of self-protection and desire – we must turn toward THEM, turn toward those who are other, turn with an open heart toward those, whatever their culture, who we can help. We make our lives meaningful – liberated from the abyss of meaninglessness – by reaching out to help, to share with, any THEM that is need.

Rabbi Hillel said it succinctly: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” Yet another way to say it is that gratitude and generosity are intrinsically linked. The Seder exercise of imagining yourself as personally coming forth out of Egypt is an exercise in gratitude. It fills us with thanksgiving for the freedoms we enjoy. And the concomitant of gratitude – the action that confirms and solidifies and sustains gratitude – is generosity. So the gratitude of escaping slavery very naturally segues into the generosity of “let any who are hungry come and eat.”

Inspect your own experience. What does being ungenerous – being stingy – feel like? Does it not feel like a kind of ungratefulness Isn’t the miser necessarily also an ingrate (whether in the form of your own inner miser, or someone else)? To turn toward generosity, toward radical hospitality, toward open-heartedness toward THEM who are not US – this gives our lives richness and meaning. It is liberating.

Political liberation without radical hospitality becomes personal bondage. Hospitality to the other is what you can do right now for collective liberation. And the Passover message is that what you do for collective liberation serves also your personal liberation.

It’s a message also found in Ramadan, to which we now turn. For Muslims, all scripture was revealed during Ramadan, and it is to the celebration of scripture, or Mohammed’s revelation of that scripture, that this holy month is dedicated. It’s a time of fasting and prayers – which highlights the personal liberation of connecting to the ultimate. It’s also a time of community and heightened charity – which highlights the linkage of individual liberation to engagement with the welfare of others.

During the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims are enjoined to read the entire Quran, which is divided into 30 parts – so, one part per day. Believers are called to stand up for justice and bear witness to the truth, as the Quran says, “even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives.” The Quran says to never allow “hatred of others to lead you away from justice.” It tell us to “be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong.” It tells us “to free the slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those believe and urge one another to steadfastness [in doing good] and compassion.” It prescribes almsgiving for the poor and needy (9:60) and an ethic of charity that affirms and restores the dignity of socially neglected people (2:261—274). It tells us to defend the oppressed even if it means putting our own lives at risk.

This is the social justice message of the Qur’an. The Quran also includes prohibition of usurious loans, giving short measure in one’s business dealings, exploiting orphans, acting like tyrants, or spreading corruption. There’s a recognition here, as in Judaism and Christianity, that our own liberation is tied up with the liberation of others.

Emma Lazarus, writing in 1883, said: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Fannie Lou Hamer put the point a tad more pithily: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Our own personal liberation is bound up with ending all systems of domination.

We come again to what would appear to be the Catch-22 alluded to earlier: You can’t be free unless you free others. Yet you can’t free others unless you yourself are free. But this conundrum dissolves when we simply observe that liberation is not all or nothing. We are part-way liberated.

We are part-way liberated as individuals – though still held in some thrall to our addictions, attachments, habits, fears. We are part-way liberated as a society – we have come a long way from the absolute monarchies in which no one had rights or a vote but the king – though still held in some thrall to white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, generational wealth, meritocracy.

Such personal liberation as we have can be used to advance collective liberation. Such collective liberation as our society has lays the groundwork for us to take the next steps on our personal liberation journey. So bring out that festal bread and sing songs of freedom. And may we, along with the Earth in springtime, awake again.

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