As we prepare to enter Pesach, let us not forget that our Ukrainian brothers and sisters are living the horrors of a modern-day Exodus. While many Ukrainians are courageously fighting for their freedom, for their democratic government, for their very lives, many more have been forced to flee their homeland in search of a safe haven.

Lucas Fain, a visiting scholar in the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University and the nephew of our members Stephen and Judy Fain and cousin of our members Peter and Jenn Fain, writes in his recent essay, Putin’s New Iron Curtain, that this horrific, contemporary exodus of innocent Ukrainians reminds him of the lessons of Emmanuel Lévinas, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher who was captured by the Nazis and lost his family to the horrors of the Holocaust. Fain cites Lévinas’ essay The Contemporary Relevance of Maimonides, published in 1935, in which the philosopher refers to Nazism as “an arrogant barbarism established in the heart of Europe,” a “pagan” barbarism that was “neither the negation of spirit nor ignorance of a unique God.” This barbarism, Lévinas writes, was as “a radical incapacity to break out of the world.” Sound familiar?

Lévinas uses the wisdom of the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, to compare the barbarism of the Nazis to the freedom of Judaism. Fain explains that Aristotle’s world was “pagan.” This world consisted of an “unchanging cosmos…of eternal celestial bodies rotating around the earth in perfect circular closure. Incapable of breaking out of itself, this paganistic closure defines an incapacity to see outside of itself.” This incapacity is the root of barbarism as it “leads to the denial and destruction of what is radically other.” This desire to eliminate the other lies at the foundation of Nazism. As Fain explains, Nazism “knew change only as geopolitical expansion, the brutal and narcissistic expansion of itself.” Putin is no different.

Fain details how Lévinas, through his understanding of Maimonides and others, saw Judaism as holding the power to counteract Nazism. Judaism embraces a God that creates and a creation process that is ongoing. For Aristotle, there was no ongoing creation process as the universe has always existed and will always exist as it is, in a perfect state. For despots like Hitler and Putin, it is easy to hijack this Aristotelian viewpoint, using it to justify efforts to purifying the world of those who seek to do things differently. Fain explains how Lévinas saw Judaism’s belief in a God that creates and a world that continues to expand as signifying our faith’s insistence that each day is a new beginning, an opportunity to recreate this world. “To radically remake the world requires…the possibility of the radically new…[D]ivine creation signifies the essence of freedom… to create entirely new futures…” The fact that tomorrow will hold a new future obligates us to accept that there will be new ideas, beliefs and practices. A world that can recreate itself will be filled with “others” and, according to Fain, in such a world, we must not only appreciate others, we must also take responsibility for them. Doing so is the Jewish way.

In Putin’s New Iron Curtain, Fain shares these words that I invite you to discuss at your seder table tonight:

“To remember Lévinas and to acknowledge the heroic fate of Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, let us recognize that freedom and democracy are both impossible if we do not take responsibility for the other. This is the call of ethics. It is required to imagine another future, to free the world from arrogant barbarism, to break out of the world in which we now find ourselves, divided by the fall of Putin’s New Iron Curtain.”

As we enter Pesach, let us commit to lifting up the other and ensuring that they have a place in the future. In doing so, let us appreciate that we will be ensuring the freedom and democracy that our ancestors who fled Egypt craved, that Ukrainians are being denied and that every single one of us deserves.

As I shared last week, Ramat Shalom is a partner in the Ukrainian Refugee Resettlement Project. Please click here to learn how you can actively join us. Note that in this link is information on how you can volunteer to help refugees who are arriving in the US right now and updated information on how you can financially support the project.

Remember, we are living through a terrible modern-day Exodus. This time, we are not the ones fleeing. Our job is to wait at the other side of the sea and comfort those who have made the harrowing journey. This is what Passover teaches us to do.

Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah, along with the Board of Directors and staff at Ramat Shalom join me in wishing each of you a meaningful Pesach. May we use these days to promote freedom and democracy for all.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

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