Every year on Passover, Jewish people recall that "once we were slaves and now we are free." We dip celery in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites in captivity. We eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. We hold up a humble piece of matzah and say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat."
Passover is like one giant lesson in social action. It employs all of our senses to instill empathy and the desire for justice. Passover calls on us not just to be grateful that we were liberated, but to be liberators. It tells us we should not just be thankful we survived suffering but to relieve the pain of others. The Exodus is not over.
This challenge is not just with us at this season but every day. Every year, I am faced with a new group of teenagers in my synagogue in my social ethics class. What is inspiring is that they have not yet become cynical adults. Most still have hope for the future and a certain amount of idealism. Yet, as we study the world's problems and our role in them, inevitably someone says, "But Rabbi, this is too big. What can we really do?"
There is an overwhelming amount of suffering in the world. When we see the amount of hunger, violence, indifference, and appeasement of evil that goes on into "doing business as usual," it is easy to give up and give in. Passover is in danger of feeling like an exercise in wishful thinking.
In order to not be overwhelmed, I realized what my students needed was a straightforward plan to say, "This is what I can do. And if I discover cannot do this, then at least I can do that." Ultimately, I never want my students to say, "There is nothing I can do." Passover is supposed to be a prelude to action.
Here is what you can do to relieve suffering in the world and make it a better place:
Give - Choose where you feel is the most need that is personal to you and give thoughtful philanthropy/tzedakah. Be generous. Every little bit makes a difference. We are not the owners of wealth; we are the caretakers of our shared home. "Open your hand to the poor and needy" (Deuteronomy 15:8).
Advocate - Speak up for justice and compassion. Lobby lawmakers, march, demonstrate, write op-ed pieces, and protest when you see something is wrong. Don't be afraid to be in the minority. Someone will hear you, and it will matter. "Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20).
Change - Look in the mirror. How do your actions or attitude - as a consumer or a citizen - enable a system of suffering? You may not be able to change other people's behavior or solve a problem, but at least you can try not to be part of the problem yourself. "Amend your ways" (Jeremiah 26:13).
Stand With, not By - Even if nothing else can be done, it is enormously powerful when people know they are not forgotten or alone. Let those who suffer know you stand in solidarity with them. "You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds" (Leviticus 19:16).
Be Hopeful - The easiest way for positive change to die is for people to give in to despair or cynicism. Hope and faith have to be constantly renewed. You have a soul; it needs to be taken care of. Pray, sing, connect with others, be inspired, and ask for help. "I called for help, and You heard my voice" (Jonah 2:2).
Don't just sit and eat. Do something.