Rabbi Dr Michael Harris


Pesach is in a sense the most particularistic of the three Pilgrim Festivals, shalosh regalim, focusing as it does   on the redemption of our particular people from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people as a nation (although this particularistic narrative has long inspired many beyond the Jewish world, as discussed by the famous political philosopher Michael Walzer in his book Exodus and Revolution). Yet Pesach also contains universalistic themes. One famous explanation for the recitation of Half- rather than Whole-Hallel for most of Pesach is that the Egyptians, God’s creatures like ourselves, drowned at the Red Sea.  Similarly, one explanation for spilling a drop of wine at the Seder when reciting each of the plagues is that we acknowledge the suffering of others, even our oppressors and enemies.  

The universalistic dimension of Pesach is particularly resonant this year. There are many people in the world who are suffering terrible deprivations of freedom. One thinks especially of the Uyghurs in China, and much closer to home, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, our West Hampstead neighbour, still held captive by Iran after having completed a five-year jail sentence on trumped-up charges. 

There is a deep irony here. The oppressors in these two instances, namely the Chinese and Iranian governments, are in their own way equally unfree. The Talmud, Tractate Succah 52b, records a teaching of the great sage Rava:  Amar Rava: Bitchila kera’o holech, ulevasof kera’o oreiach, ulevasof kerao ish. “Rava said: At first, the Evil Inclination is called ‘wayfarer’, then it is called ‘guest’, and finally it is called ‘master’”.
This, as Rabbi Sacks points out in Covenant and Conversation, is what happens to Pharaoh in the story of Pesach. As is often noted, the text of the Torah indicates something very significant. Initially, when the early plagues strike, Pharaoh hardens his own heart and refuses to release the Jewish people from slavery – “vayechezak lev Paro”.  Ultimately, as the later plagues descend, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart – “vayechazek HaShem et lev Paro”. Maimonides, in the sixth chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah (The Laws of Repentance) explains that God took away Pharaoh’s free will as punishment for all the sins that he had committed when he had free will. According to the line of thought suggested by Rava, however, there is no mystery about how God takes away Pharoah’s free will. It’s not a punishment. Rather, Pharaoh becomes caught in a downward moral spiral, a slave to his own previous actions and attitudes. He becomes so used to defiance of God and indifference to Israelite suffering that no other mode of behaviour is possible for him any longer. He is in his own way as unfree as the Israelites he enslaves – indeed more so, because he is unfree internally, inside himself. 

So this Pesach, we pray for freedom for the Uyghur people and for our neighbour Nazanin.  But perhaps we should find it in our hearts to pray also for their Iranian and Chinese oppressors, that they somehow become able to extricate themselves from their own self-imposed enslavement to evil, and that they too become free.