By Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman
Each Passover we are required to participate in a seder. We join our family, friends, and community to recount the horrors of slavery, and celebrate the miracles with which God delivered us from Egypt and into freedom. As we sing together, the ultimate goal of the seder is to arrive at the point where we all see ourselves as though we were the Israelites who fled Egypt in the middle of the night.
In keeping with the theme of the seder, we must ask a question: Why? Why must we relive the experience of slavery and redemption?
We must relive the experience of slavery and redemption because our collective memory of slavery in Egypt serves a critical role in defining our peoplehood. Throughout the Torah, God commands us to love and protect the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In parashat Mishpatim, this commandment is placed in the middle of a series of laws that God has given us to govern our society, sending us the clear message that our law and order is defined by our ability to recognize the vulnerability in others, and that we must embrace and support it.
The stranger often appears in our text along with the orphan and the widow. Together, these three groups form the trifecta of the most vulnerable members of our community. It is no surprise that these are the three groups that we are commanded to protect - in a patriarchal society, the widow and orphan lack a male figure to support them financially. The stranger does not have a familial and communal structure to offer him guidance and support. Because they lack these basic resources that the rest of us have, we are obligated to provide these resources for them.
The Rambam contributes a fascinating voice in this discussion. In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 6:10 he writes, “A person is obligated to show great care for orphans and widows because their spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed. This applies even if they are wealthy. We are commanded to [show this attention] even to a king’s widow and his orphans as [implied by Exodus 22:21]: ‘Do not mistreat any widow or orphan.’”
With this statement, the Rambam dispels a potential and likely misconception - that the commandment to protect the most vulnerable in our society only applies when those individuals appear to be suffering. We may think that wealthy orphans and widows do not need our care, but we would be mistaken. The commandment applies regardless, because we should never assume that individuals in our midst are thriving just because they appear to be.
This is a powerful lesson for us to remember this Passover. Many believe that domestic abuse has an obvious and detectable effect on its victims, and therefore unless an individual’s suffering is readily apparent, everything is assumed to be alright. Tragically, the opposite is often true. As we know, not all abuse is physical and victims of domestic abuse often are able to conceal their suffering and lead others to believe that they are fine. Learning the potential warning signs of domestic abuse is key to raising our own awareness and sensitivity to the needs of others. This Passover, let us remember the lesson of the commandment to care for the stranger, orphan, and widow in our midst - we must care for the most vulnerable people in our community, even if they don’t appear to be suffering. And as we celebrate the seder let us all see ourselves as though we were slaves in Egypt, and remember our obligation to support others in need. We wish you a meaningful and joyous holiday.