In My Own Words: Drops of wine and Russia

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

For me, the most moving moment of the Passover seder is when we remove drops of wine – the wine that symbolizes joy and gladness – from our cups while reciting the plagues that occurred before the Israelites were released from slavery. We are reminded that, even in moments of celebration, we remember those who suffered for our freedom, for the sins of their leader. This has become even clearer to me as the years pass: it was pharaoh who refused to let the Israelites leave, yet it was every Egyptian who suffered. They were not to blame that pharaoh enslaved the Israelites. In fact, the average Egyptian may have been little more than a slave – slaves also subjected to pharaoh’s will.

This lesson of suffering is once again relevant this year, and not just for the Jewish people. I’ve been horrified by the war of aggression Vladimir Putin has waged against Ukraine. The disruption and loss of life is heart-breaking. Not everyone in Russia supports the war, and Russians have protested and signed petitions against the aggression. As one would expect in a country that is a dictatorship (its free elections are a farce), these protesters have been punished.

But it is not only the protesters who suffer. Think about the Russian soldiers: they are forced to fight a war of aggression or be punished, possibly with death. There have been reports of soldiers deserting or allowing themselves to be captured, although there are no statistics showing how many. New light has been recently shined on the reason some agreed to fight. According to interviews by The New York Times with captured Russian soldiers, at least five percent of those in the army are HIV-positive former prisoners who are fighting because they were promised life-saving anti-viral medications only if they joined the army. As one soldier described it, he was given the choice between a slow death by disease or a quick death by fighting.

The words of these soldiers just confirm the injustice the war has unleashed on both sides. I’m not forgetting the horrors the Ukrainian people are suffering, but there should be space in our hearts for all who suffer. Would I have considered what’s occurring in the same light had I not been preparing for Passover and thinking about the drops of wine that fall from our cups like drops of tears? I’m not sure I would have. 

At Passover, we were supposed to feel as if we, too, were released from slavery. Perhaps we should also look closely at those – in the past and in contemporary times – who suffer because of the actions of their leaders. The beauty of our centuries’ old rituals and traditions is that they can inspire us to view the world with different and clearer eyes.