“12 Years a Slave” Meets Pesach
By Rabbi Sarah Freidson-King
The movie “12 Years a Slave” took home three Academy Awards on March 2 nd , including “Best Picture.” The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He remained a slave for twelve years, enduring back-breaking labor and horrific abuse. The film captures the atrocities of slavery: harsh labor, physical pain, merciless beatings, sexual abuse, and extreme degradation.
“In every generation all individuals should regard themselves as if they personally went out of Egypt.” This instruction from the Haggadah takes on a new resonance this year after seeing “12 Years a Slave.” The experience of slavery in Egypt plays a central role in Jewish tradition. During the seder, we point to the matzah, the symbol of our slavery, and declare, “This is the bread of our affliction.”
The Passover Seder centers around asking and answering questions. The Haggadah leads us to wonder, “What was the nature of our ancestor’s enslavement?” It provides two distinct answers. “ Avadim hayinu l’Paroh b’Mitzrayim /We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” declares the Haggadah. The answer is simple: enslavement is physical. We had no freedom, no liberty. In Egypt there was harsh labor, there were forced quotas, there were cruel beatings. Our infant sons’ lives were at risk of being drowned in the Nile. We were slaves until God’s miracles liberated us and we became a free nation.
The Haggadah provides another answer as well. “ Mit’chila ovdei avodah zarah /At first, our ancestors engaged in idol worship, but now we are drawn nearer to God’s service.” We began as idolaters and only later came to worship the One God. Enslavement does not need to be physical; it can be spiritual as well. We can be enslaved to false ideals and ideologies and meaningless values. We can lose our faith in ways both large and small.
The Exodus from Egypt freed us from both types of slavery. Our bodies were freed from the harshness of forced labor while our minds and spirits were freed from the false beliefs of idolatry and brought to realize and celebrate the existence of the One God. On Pesach, we celebrate both liberations. And yet, according to Jewish tradition, we are not meant to stop with merely remembering the miracles of liberation. In the words of Exodus 22:21, “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The reminders of the past are meant to inspire present action.
May our Pesach celebrations remind us of the many ways that we are free, point to the areas in our lives where we hope for liberation, and sensitize us to the needs of all those around us.