Sermon given by Jane Drapkin at the service on Erev
last day of Pesach. Jane is a career aid worker, and related the Pesach story
to the work she does amongst the poor and oppressed.
About 12 years ago, Seder night took on a new significance for me. Up until that time, I’d read the story of the Exodus from Egypt as an important part of our Jewish heritage, but little more than that. At best, I maybe read the opening prayer, where “we pray for all who are still fettered, still denied their human rights” thinking perhaps of individuals who are physically imprisoned for their political views, but other than that, it felt like an interesting, evocative, but slightly abstract story.
This changed for me dramatically when I first started working in poor countries and with poor people.
Now, when we ask that “all God’s children sit at His table, drink the wine of deliverance, eat the bread of freedom:
Freedom from bondage and freedom from oppression
I now think of the people I met in Zimbabwe who were working to bring about economic justice in the deteriorating situation under Mugabe, inspite of the personal danger this put them in, or the journalist in Azerbaijan, shot dead for daring to criticise the Government.
When we read
Freedom from hunger and freedom from want
I think of the Eritrean people who were dependent on sacks of wheat shipped in from Europe and the US, and the people in Liberia who were so desperate for fresh meat they sold roadkill – small fury animals run over by vehicles.
When we read
Freedom from hatred and freedom from fear
I think about the men, women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo that used to hide in the forest to avoid the armed militia who would regularly loot houses and rape women, not by exception, but as a way of life.
When we read
Freedom to learn and freedom to love
I think about the women and girls I met in Afghanistan, forbidden access to education, and I think about my Eritrean colleague, who now has been granted political asylum in the UK, but may never again see the woman he had hoped to marry, his little sister or his mother, all of whom stayed behind in Eritrea.
When we read
Freedom to hope and freedom to rejoice
I think about the faces of the Afghanis who had lost their homes, their livestock, their land and their loved ones in an earthquake, wondering just how they were going to rebuild their lives.
Bondage and lack of freedom are not only caused by physical chains of slavery. Poverty itself is also a form of oppression.
And so when we read
Soon, in our days
I think, yes, now, in our days, it’s still happening, it must end.
The World Bank carried out a survey a few years ago, asking 60 000 poor people around the world what poverty meant to them. The responses were wide and varied, but went way beyond the definition given by the ‘New Penguin English Dictionary’:
‘the lack of sufficient money or material possession for a life of moderate comfort.’
The World Bank survey found that:
Poverty is much more than income alone. For the poor, the good life or wellbeing is multidimensional with both material and psychological dimensions. Wellbeing is peace of mind; it is good health; it is belonging to a community; it is safety; it is freedom of choice and action; it is a dependable livelihood and a steady source of income; it is food.
And the voices of the poor people themselves illustrate this:
a poor woman in Moldova: Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one's dignity and drives one into total despair. —
— a young woman in Jamaica: Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free.
— Nigeria "If you want to do something and have no power to do it, it is talauchi (poverty)."
— Russia Everyday I am afraid of the next"
These are voices not of our ancestors, who were slaves in Egypt. These are the voices of people of our age, living at this time, in different countries. Physically on the same planet, but somehow in a parallel universe.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can not only pray that next year we will make our Seder in a world redeemed, when all mankind will live in brotherhood and peace, we can take actions to make it happen.
For me, one of the most interesting, and thought provoking parts of the Seder is a seemingly innocuous sentence which says:
“The Sea did not part for them until they had waded into it up to their noses. Only then did it become dry land.”
This says three significant things to me.
1) First of all, the slaves did not stand at the edge of the Red Sea and ask God to send them boats. Neither did they give up and abandon their fate to Pharaoh’s troops. Instead, they took control of their destiny, and took the plunge into the sea.
The poor people that I have met across the world similarly are not sitting and waiting with begging bowls asking for handouts to make their lives easier. Neither, generally, have they given up. But they do often feel like they are caught between Pharaoh’s troops and the Red Sea, or, as we would more commonly say nowadays, between a rock and a hard place. Poverty is often described as a trap – all ways out are up steep slippery slopes, or across oceans, and without some sort of assistance, there is no way out.
2) The second thing this sentence says to me that if they had to wade into the sea up to their noses, for some of them, the sea would have been over their heads before it parted. Working on the basis that the commentary is probably referring to the nose of an average male, the young, the old, the infirm, the disabled, and the short, most of whom would probably have been women, may have drowned before the sea parted.
The Haggadah doesn’t tell us this, so this is purely my own speculation, but to me this reflects the situation of many poor people around the world today.
When times are difficult, it is the most vulnerable that suffer the most. If they are not given some support, they will not get through the hardest times. They will not be able to start the climb up the slope out of poverty. They will drown before the assistance arrives. This is why sometimes, you just have to give aid. It won’t solve the problem, but it will keep people alive long enough for them to be able, at a later stage, to take control, to climb out of poverty, to walk across the Red Sea.
3) And the third thing this sentence says to me is that it was the combination of external support (the parting of the waters) provided to people that were helping themselves (by already entering the water) that led to the safe crossing of the slaves. One without the other would not have led to the same result. If the waters had not parted, the slaves would have drowned. If the slaves had not taken the plunge first, before the waters parted, the troops would have caught them.
It is this combination of external support to a locally driven initiative, that can make development assistance so powerful. And Fair Trade does exactly this. The producers of the tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, honey, wine and other goods that we consume are not sitting waiting for the equivalent of a boat to cross the red sea, and they are not waiting to be caught by the troops either, but they are caught between their current situation of poverty – unable to afford to feed their families, educate their children, treat the sick or invest in their livelihoods, - and the barrier of world markets that blocks their way, as effectively as an ocean, to trading their way out of poverty. Fair Trade, provides an opening in this ocean, a parting of the waters, that enables poor people to journey out of poverty. Many of them are already up to their noses, countless more have already drowned, but we have the power, through fair trade, to help some make the journey to dry land, and to a better future.
People often ask me if development aid makes any difference. I’m going to give a couple of examples of how aid can enable people in poor countries to make this journey to a better future. I have recently started a new job, with an organisation called the International Rescue Committee working on Governance and Rights. My role now is to enable poor people to be empowered to take control over their lives. Particularly people affected by conflict – that have lived through wars, been displaced by wars, lived as refugees – and communities that are rebuilding after conflict.
I have just returned from a trip to Liberia. I worked in Liberia in 1999 with Merlin, and then the country was in a terrible state. There were several different armed factions, all fighting each other and with other groups across the borders in Sierra Leone and Guinea. The President, Charles Taylor, was only concerned with lining his own pocket, with no concern for the welfare of his people, and the international community generally either stood idly by, or developed business links with Taylor and his cronies. The situation was grim, and it was difficult to see a way out.
But 7 years later, I am very pleased to report that the country has turned a corner. It is a long way from being ‘developed’ – but there are significant changes. First of all, there is peace – people feel secure. The only men with guns that you see on the streets are blue hated UN troops – and you don’t even see many of them. Their presence is felt way beyond the extent that they are visible. This blanket of security, this dry land after the ocean of conflict, is enabling people to rebuild their lives. For some, this is literally rebuilding their houses – everywhere I looked in Monrovia I saw piles of bricks and wheelbarrows of sand and cement. For others, this is restarting their livelihoods – small businesses, growing crops, finding work with aid organisations – and for the children, a chance to start, or return to, education. There is still a long, long way to go, but there is hope – and with the combination of international support, UN peacekeepers and the determination and will of the local people, there is chance for the three million people of Liberia that have lived through a decade and a half of civil war and countless years of neglect before that, for a better future.
My favourite example though is the first ever development project that I worked on. This was in Eritrea, during the mid 1990’s. I was working with war veterans who had been disabled during their war of independence – they were mainly amputees missing part of one or both legs. I was working at a vocational training centre where the veterans learnt wood work and metal work skills. But even though they were gaining skills, there was little prospect of them getting work – it seemed that everyone – the government, the war veterans, their families, and society at large, felt that it was the duty of the state to look after them, and that they couldn’t work because they were disabled.
Their future looked bleak as the only way the state could look after them was to leave them in a tented camp, in cramped conditions with nothing much to do for the rest of their lives. So, with an Eritrean colleague I helped to set up a work experience programme, placing the students in small businesses where they could practice their newly acquired wood work and metal work skills. Well, the fact that these people that were missing part of a leg could actually produce a table or a chair came as quite a surprise to many people, including the students themselves.
At the end of the three month work experience programme we carried out an evaluation, and asked the students how they had found the programme and what their plans were next. The feedback was quite humbling. Although they expressed thanks and gratitude for the money that paid for the programme, what they were most grateful for, was the opportunity to demonstrate to themselves and to others that they could make a meaningful contribution to society. I found it very hard to keep back the tears of emotion when one of them told me that although he had not been offered a job at the end of the programme, he now had the confidence to take control of his future, to go back to his family, and to take part in the life of his community.
This project was funded by Oxfam. To borrow from an advert for a well known credit card, the cost of providing materials, equipment and board and lodging for 150 war veterans to take part in the first ever work experience programme for disabled people in Eritrea for 3 months was 17 000 pounds. The parting of the Red Sea for 150 people, and all their associated families and members of their communities, and for others like them around the world, is priceless. But it is achievable. Maybe not by next year’s Seder, but now, soon, in our days.