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‘I hate the Russians’

Can you blame a Ukrainian Jewish refugee for not singing ‘Kumbaya’?

A mural in Krakow, Poland, supporting the Ukrainian people and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — I met Alexa (not her real name) last week at the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, Poland, during the Hineini Trip, the mission of 30 Reform Jewish clergy to help Ukrainian refugees and to bear witness to the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since 1945.

Alexa is a young woman, perhaps in her 30s, vivacious and charismatic. She is one of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have walked through the doors of the JCC Krakow since the end of February.

This is her story — her haggadah, if you will.

She told us that at the beginning of February, she and her family were vacationing in Cancun, Mexico. They were an ordinary middle class family from Ukraine, enjoying their holiday together.

Three weeks later, they had gone into exile as refugees — with her husband staying behind to be part of the struggle for their nation.

Alexa told us she has Armenian roots on her mother’s side. “This is my family’s third genocide in a little more than a hundred years — Armenian, Jewish and Ukrainian.”

It did not take long for her to open up to us, and what she had to say was jarring.

You will know why I call this blog Martini Judaism.

Because this statement will probably shake you and perhaps stir you.

“I hate the Russians. I can no longer stand to hear the Russian language. When you think of what they are doing — the atrocities; the crimes against humanity; raping women and children. This is not just Putin! These are the soldiers! No one told them to go out and commit war crimes. I hate the Russians.”

We teach our children, and rightly so, not to hate. In particular, we teach them that it is forbidden to hate people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc. We teach them that it is forbidden to hate people because they are different. That is the x word in the list of Yom Kippur sins: the sin of xenophobia.

But, what about hating people — not because of who they are, but because of what they do? Is that permissible?

You do not need to go very far to find Jews who hate people who have done evil. Within a 15 minute radius of where I live in Palm Beach County, Florida, I could introduce you to any number of Holocaust survivors who would never dare to utter the name “Hitler.” For him, they reserve the very Haman-like epithet: Yemach sh’mo, may his name be blotted out.

All of which brings me back to Pesach, and to the Exodus from Egypt.

The Book of Deuteronomy is very clear about how we are supposed to feel about the Egyptians.

“You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land.” (Deut. 23:8)

On which RASHI comments:

“You shall not abhor an Egyptian,” although they cast your male children into the river. And what is the reason that you should not abhor him utterly? Because they were your hosts in time of need (during Joseph’s reign when the neighboring countries suffered from famine); therefore although they sinned against you do not utterly abhor him.”

Memory is always selective. We choose exactly what we want to put at the front of memory, and what we choose to let recede.

That passage from Deuteronomy is a later reflection on the Israelite experience in Egypt, and on Egyptians.

For the author of this passage, what was important? The initial hospitality the Egyptians showed to the Israelites.

What could stay on the cutting-room floor? Slavery.

But it took several generations to get to that emotional place. It took several generations to figure out the lesson of the Exodus was to not oppress strangers, to not create a society that would resemble Egypt, to reject civilizations that idolize power.

So, too, that oft-quoted legend, in which God rebukes the angels for singing as the Egyptian soldiers are drowning in the Red Sea: “My children are drowning, and you are uttering praises to Me?!?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b)

Yes, of course. But that interpretation happened almost a thousand years after the Exodus from Egypt. It took generations to work through those memories.

Or, the quaint and messy custom at the Passover Seder — spilling a drop of wine with the recitation of each plague, in order to lessen our joy at the suffering of others. That interpretation goes back at least as far as Don Isaac Abravanel, himself a refugee from the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

And yet, earlier interpretations of that practice state that the spilled drops of wine represent the suffering we were spared and that we hope will befall those who hate us. At a certain point, someone said: We have to revise the reason for spilling the wine.

The Torah tells us how the average Egyptian felt about the Israelites. Apparently, they liked them enough to give them farewell gifts of gold and silver and clothing.

But nowhere does the Torah say anything about how our ancestors felt about the Egyptians, and about Egypt, and about Pharaoh.

I suggest the answer to that question has disappeared from the text — and might not be pretty.

Which makes me wonder: Is it at all possible that when we slaughtered the paschal lamb on the eve of Pesach — that it was not only a sacrifice to God, a sacrifice of gratitude?

Perhaps when we slaughtered the paschal lamb — remembering the lamb was one of the Egyptian gods — that we were externalizing our anger against Egypt itself?

Last Friday evening, at the JCC in Krakow, I attended a Seder for Ukrainian refugees. There were about 50 of them there of all ages. Alexa was there. She served as the translator.

I looked deeply into the faces of those refugees.

I saw exhaustion.

But I did not see fear. I did not see anger. I just saw hope.

At the Seder, we taste two ritual dishes — the bitter maror, and the sweet charoset. Consider the paradox: The charoset represents the mortar that our ancestors used during slavery.

When you combine the two on the matzah, which do you have in the greater quantity? The bitter maror, or the sweet charoset?

Because, this is a choice. You get to choose bitterness or sweetness.

I understand the bitterness and the anger.

And yet, blessed is the One who redeems us from anger and points us on the journey toward hope.

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