Rabbi Joseph Polak

A Passover ritual for all enslaved peoples

By Rabbi Joseph Polak
April 19, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

TWO WEEKS ago, a student found me doing some last-minute packing.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To the Sudan,” I replied.

A little silence followed, and then she said, “Oh, that’s that new bar in Cambridge, right?”

Some days and hours later, far from the opulence and innocence of America, I found myself deep in the southern Sudan, interviewing recently liberated female slaves who showed me how their limbs had been maimed by their masters’ machetes, who described how their genitals had been mutilated, and how these masters had taught their own children to be contemptuous of their concubine mothers.

In Sudan’s civil war between the Christian south and Muslim north, millions of southern Sudanese were killed and displaced from their villages. Many were forced into wandering for years on end; many were taken back to the north for slavery and concubinage. My interviews were in the context of a celebratory gathering of a large group of recently freed slaves. Christian Solidarity International, a nonprofit that finances and organizes such ventures, invited me here to conduct, of all things, a seder for the slaves it had recently worked to free. My role was to introduce to them some of the practices that Jews have instituted rather successfully these past 3,000 years to celebrate our own freedom from Egyptian slavery not that far north of Sudan.

So there I stood in the equatorial sun, sheltered by a huge mango tree, addressing 160 freed slaves seated on the ground, who, at first, just glared at me in suspicious silence. They spoke only Dinka. Men and women chose to sit separately; many dressed beautifully, others in deplorable tatters, drinking a little wine with me, eating a piece of matzo and a boiled egg. Slowly I prevailed on them to sing with me as a form of celebration familiar to both our peoples; slowly it became clear that we were eating together for the same reason.

I am here, I told them through translators, because my people too were liberated from slavery; like you, we were remembered by God, and there is no greater experience in life than being remembered.

I also told them that more recently my people had again been enslaved; this time we worked 12 to 14 hour days, for Daimler and BMW, for I.G. Farber and Siemens — for no pay, no medicine, no sleep, with a slice of bread per person per day. Millions of us died of typhoid, of malnutrition, and exhaustion; unlike the first time, no one came for us.

Fortunately, the former slaves I met had been delivered to freedom. Say a blessing, I pleaded with them, acknowledge the greatness of this day. If all God had done had been to remember your plight, dayenu, that would have been enough. If all that had happened after that is that you were brought back to your people, dayenu, that would have been enough. But you were also brought back to a land that in July will be fully yours for the first time in history; dayenu — that surely is also enough.

Someone arose and asked four questions meant to provoke them into the key task of the seder — the telling of the story. Five former slaves told their tales of horror and humiliation. The youngest was a 17-year-old blind boy called Kir, who had managed to lose a cow from his herd. The master hung him by the feet, lit a fire underneath him, and rubbed his eyes with hot peppers.

This suffering may finally be ending. After 23 years of war, the Bush administration brokered a peace settlement in 2005. In a referendum in January, the south voted successfully for partition, and is expected to declare its independence in July.

With independence, most of this sorry chapter in Sudanese history will be over. I hoped to persuade my listeners to fix this day of liberation into their national memory, and make a festival of it. Every year since our own great liberation, I told them, we gather in our homes to mark the occasion, in gratitude to God and man.

Rabbi Joseph Polak, a child survivor of the Holocaust, directs the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University, where he serves as university chaplain.