Ten Lessons from the Haggadah for Jewish Activists

Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

  1. Fuel up to fight for freedom. The Passover Seder is modeled after a Greek symposium, a long discussion centered around a meal. The Greeks and the Rabbis knew that you can’t be present when your stomach is growling, so, they included appetizers (karpas, marror and matzah) to kick off this epic feast. Next time you organize, rally or protest for change, follow their example and make sure you have the fuel to focus on freedom.
  2. Generosity leads to justice. We begin telling the Passover story by pointing to the matzah and saying, “This is the bread of affliction … All who are hungry come and eat.” Although all we have is the meager matzah, which represents the deprivation faced by our ancestors, the first thing that we do is share it with others. Be generous with your time, resources and hope. This will bring freedom closer for all.
  3. Remember, we’re part of something bigger. In the Torah, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt; but in the traditional Haggadah, Moses isn’t even mentioned once. Instead, it stresses that God brought out the Israelites “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” The Haggadah teaches us that the fight for freedom is bigger than any one leader. When the struggle is hard, when we feel discouraged, we can gain strength by remembering that we are not alone. Look to a higher power or to fellow activists for inspiration to carry on.
  4. Meet people where they are. The Seder introduces us to four children, each of whom has a different relationship to the Exodus story. Just as the Haggadah addresses each child with an answer they can relate to, when you organize for social change, find out what motivates people and tailor your approach accordingly.
  5. Know who came before you. The Haggadah begins the Exodus story long before Moses said “Let my people go.” It begins many generations back, when Abraham went down to Egypt and came back out. Perhaps the Haggadah is telling us that Moses gained strength in his mission from knowing that Abraham succeeded before him. Follow suit by getting inspired by those who have fought these same fights before you.
  6. There’s power in numbers. According to the Haggadah, the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites because they feared the small tribe would band with others and become powerful. “Come,” Pharaoh said, “let us act cunningly with [the Israelite people] lest they multiply and … join our enemies against us.” The solidarity the Egyptians’ feared is one of our greatest assets: Join forces with others to amplify your power to bend the arc of history toward justice.
  7. Balance righteous anger with peaceful tactics. There’s a debate within every Seder about the use of force. The Haggadah revels in the power of the plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. And yet, when we recount these violent acts, we pour out some of our wine in remembrance of the suffering they caused the Egyptians. The lesson? Harness your indignation to influence others, but be careful not to do harm.
  8. Get moving. The Israelites didn’t have time to finish baking their bread, but the Exodus had begun! They threw the raw dough on their backs and began their journey. If they had waited for the bread to rise, they would have missed their chance to move from slavery to freedom. Taking a cue from the matzah-bakers, plan your campaigns carefully, but recognize when it’s time to stop planning and start taking action.
  9. Celebrate small victories—Dayenu! This famous song proclaims that we would have been satisfied even if God hadn’t taken our people all the way to freedom. Had God punished the Egyptians but not taken the Israelites out of Egypt—it would have been enough. Had God taken them out of Egypt but not brought them out of the wilderness, it would have been enough. But, of course, this isn’t so. What good is it to punish evildoers, without actually rescuing the vulnerable? What good is it to escape bondage only to wander without a home? In the spirit of Dayenu, embrace each small victory with gratitude, even as you continue working for the freedom of all.
  10. Believe that change is possible. The Seder celebrates transformation: the bitter marror is sweetened by the sweet charoset. The matzah, which begins as the bread of affliction, becomes the afikoman, the bread of freedom. As activists, the payoff in our work is the knowledge that we can transform the world. Just as we end the Seder with the taste of the afikoman on our lips, we must savor the feeling that we are making a difference.

Joseph Gindi and Leah Kaplan Robins co-authored the new social justice Haggadah by American Jewish World Service: Next Year in a Just World.

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