Passover and the Importance of Remembering and Honoring Pain

I write this post on the first day of Passover, an annual commemoration of the Exodus story, when the Israelites escaped their slavery in Egypt, traveled through the parted waters of the Red Sea, spent forty years in the Sinai wilderness, and crossed the Jordan River (again through parted waters) into the Promised Land.  God’s favor was bestowed upon God’s  people, a blessing that is ritualized every year by following the instructions God lays out to Moses – eating unleavened bread, roasted lamb, and bitter herbs; and putting the lamb’s blood on the lintel of doorposts — so God will know which dwellings to pass over. (Exodus 12: 1-27)

God’s commitment to the Israelites begins much earlier in the Exodus narrative, when God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush and reports that he has observed the misery of his people, heard their cry – and knows their sufferings.  (Exodus 3:7)

God both hears and responds to human pain.

There is a growing number of people around the world who doubt the existence of a God who would see misery, hear cries, and know suffering.  I have lots of doubts in my ongoing journey of faith, but the existence of God is not one of them.  While there are various fault lines on whether or not there is a God, there is universal acceptance that pain exists.  Most people I know feel overwhelmed by an ongoing tsunami of pain that seems to be coming at us from every direction – or up from within us from the head, heart, and stomach all at once.  A cpmmon acceptance of pain is where people can connect with one another.

A shared despair inevitably emerges.  Psychic and spiritual paralysis often follow.  And there is then a temptation to either shut down the pain, or somehow deny it altogether.  One of the things that effective despots learn early on is to forbid people to share their pain.  Suffering is denied, cries are not heard, and misery is presented as self-inflicted – or is not seen at all.   And in despotic regimes, a malevolent system gets developed which targets a group as the source of distress and pain, and seeks to marginalize, if not exterminate them (Jews in Nazi Germany, Uighurs in China, Tutsis in Ruanda, the educated in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and on and on).

The world is awash in pain:  migrants at borders; wars in Ukraine, Sudan and Yemen; terrorist violence on nearly every continent.  But what seems to get the most attention, and appears to inflict the most heartache, is the war in Gaza.  To my mind, what is unique about the conflict is that so many of us can observe the misery, hear the cries and know the suffering – on both sides. In most of the other conflicts across the world the line between oppressor and victim is clearly delineated, which usually means that the pain is acknowledged on just one side.   Not so in the Mideast.  The suffering of the Jewish people dates back to the Exodus story – and includes centuries of oppression, deportation and genocide (pogroms, the Holocaust and the October 7 attack).   That accumulated pain has been written into history books, memorialized in museums, and continues to be shared at the Passover Seder table.  The Palestinian experience of pain goes back further than the founding of Israel seventy-five years ago, which was exacerbated when they were denied re-entry to the land they had previously occupied, an event called Nakba in Arabic. And today it is nearly impossible not to see and hear the pain of Palestinians in the wake of bombings, gunfire, and scarcity of food and medical supplies.

It is mind numbing and heart wrenching to sort through all that pain.  And so we often don’t.  A friend who recently returned from Israel and listened to the pain of both Israelis and Palestinians, remarked that several people could conceptually acknowledge that people on the other side of the conflict were suffering, but their own feelings of trauma, fear, anger and despair were so consuming that they had no space to absorb any more.

A time-honored method for sorting through pain is through the protesting of policy.  This can be tricky, because the pain which fuels the protest often ends up becoming an exercise in demonization. The pain of the other side can be ignored, denied, or denigrated in the process of elevating one side’s narrative over the other.  Last week the President of Columbia University ordered the arrest of students who refused to vacate a stretch of campus, which was in violation of University policy.  The students were protesting the US government’s and the University’s support of Israel.  An Us vs. Them dynamic, which was already present, immediately escalated, and reports of verbal and physical acts of anti-Semitism from the protesters and their proxies increased as a result.  And blamesmanship has ratcheted up; and attempts for mutual understanding of each other’s narrative comes across as a fool’s errand.

Suffering can cause us to lash out, act out, create emotional and spiritual distance – and transform  neighbors into strangers, if not an enemies.  We already have too many forces and voices urging us to readily identify enemies and render neighbors as strangers; we don’t need any more.  What we do need are spaces and opportunities for people to hear each other’s pain. acknowledge each other’s story, and to bear witness to each other’s suffering.  This releases a different kind of power, a power of empathy and love – a power that can heal hearts and expand horizons.























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