Passover in 2016: reflecting on the current refugee crisis

As we approach the Jewish festival of Passover in 2016 we are witnessing in the millions an exodus of refugees from war torn countries in the Middle East. Having survived unspeakable violence, this present day exodus leaves Europe with many strangers in our communities and untold more hoping for food and shelter.

Many are looking for a new ‘Promised Land’ and are wandering in a wilderness of borders and razor-wire fences, where there is little ‘manna’ from heaven, to help them along the way. The waters of the Mediterranean have been swallowing up families much like the ill-fated Egyptians in the biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea. The modest amount of water between these isles and mainland Europe is figuring as prominently in the hopes of many confined in the jungle camp as it is in the rhetoric of those who consider it a symbol of national security and independence.

In an age of global connectivity with hub airports and high speed trains, families are on the move on foot, facing perilous waters. In a parallel universe we travel in some comfort while consuming the images of their plight on our smartphones.

Others have reflected on Passover in the context of the refugee crisis from a confessional and a humanist perspective. Like many Jewish festivals, it began as an agrarian harvest festival, but was subsequently associated with key events from the history of Israel, in this case the Exodus from Egypt. Moses and Aaron invited the households of Israel to sacrifice a lamb and use some of its blood to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes. That night the Lord would strike the firstborn of the Egyptians and ‘pass over’ the households of Israelites marked with blood. 

What started as a family observance later became a pilgrimage festival to be observed annually in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy’s account of the centralised pilgrimage festival included, in addition to family members and slaves, strangers dwelling in the midst of the community, as well as orphans and widows (Deut 16:11). The offering of the animal sacrifice ceased for Jews with the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. But it is still practiced to this day by the Samaritans, a religious community that shares Pentateuch with Judaism as their holy scriptures and views Mount Gerizim, forty miles north of Jerusalem near today’s West Bank city of Nablus (biblical Shechem) as the holy place chosen by God. If the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is to be believed the number of pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover in the period shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple ran into several millions.

Many Europeans need not look back more than a generation, rather than centuries and millennia, for personal (his)stories of displacement and loss. We witness yet again humanity in camps and behind barbed wire, no longer individuals but a mass of people reported by their number and described as ‘swarms’ – a modern day plague. In a record that gives us little to be proud of, so far there are fragile signs of hope as we approach the start of Passover.

Dr Charlotte Hempel

Department and Theology and Religion

College of Arts and Law

University of Birmingham