Friday, April 03, 2015

Pesach Thoughts 5775

I have been thinking about Pesach, looking for a new angle, a fresh thought, and this is what is running through my mind at the moment. 

Traditionally, Pesach is זמן חרותינו the Season of our Freedom. We focus on themes such as persecution and survival; slavery and freedom, and the like. This year, I would like to focus our minds elsewhere by sharing two recent encounters.

The first encounter was at a university campus on the East coast of the US, a college with a large Jewish community (and a somewhat smaller Orthodox one.) I sit with a student who studied with me in Israel 3 years ago. I ask him about the vibrancy of the Jewish community on campus and particularly the religious challenges that he faces. He tells me that out of the fifteen Orthodox students who entered college with him, he is the sole student who remains Shabbat observant. And I am astounded that these Orthodox students, after 12 years of Jewish schooling, many of them spending a year in Israel, choose to reject or ignore something as fundamental and central as Shabbat. Is the allure of 3 years in secular college so irresistible? Why did the commitment to traditional observance prove so tough to uphold?

A second story. I recently visited Perth, Australia to teach at an incredible seminar for Akiva school's 11th and 12 Grade. The school and its students are impressive. Their knowledge of Judaism and its practices are extensive and the Jewish atmosphere is pervasive. 

And yet, when we came to discuss questions of intermarriage, the predominant attitude was: "If I fall in love with someone who shares my values, isn't that more important than whether he/she is a Jew or not?" And in this small Jewish community, intermarriage amongst the non-observant can soar higher than 70%. Apparently if there is little Jewish observance at home between one traditional Friday night dinner and the next, then truly, one can have just as much in common with a fellow non-Jewish student as with a Jewish one. And it is deeply tragic that this incredible school, with talented teachers and an amazing campus and 12 years of Jewish schooling still may not ensure the future of the next Jewish generation.

Where are we going wrong?


And my mind comes back to Pesach. It is not persecution that threatens us at the moment throughout the Jewish world in the West; it is assimilation. If Egypt represents a society that saw us as alien and sought to control the ancient Hebrews, enslaving us as a people, now in the 21st Century, we are "free" to be part of any Western society. The story of national subjugation is not our story in 2015. We have absolute freedom as Jews; and precisely because we have that freedom, we are worryingly susceptible to assimilation, running the danger of losing our very status as Jews. How absurd!

Back to the Seder.

In the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) Rav and Shmuel famously debate the manner in which the Pesach story be told. The Mishna instructs us to see the story as a process, "start with shame and end with praise – מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח" but the mishna fails to define what the "shame" and "praise" are. 

Shmuel says that we relate the dramatic tale of our slavery and our freedom: "עבדים היינו" -  starting with the "shame" of our national enslavement and persecution, and culminating in our release from Egyptian domination. This is a political story. 

Rav disagrees. He suggests that we talk about a very different process of transition: "מתחילה" – "In the beginning, our ancestors were idolaters, and now God has drawn us to His service." According to Rav, we narrate a religious journey. Pesach symbolizes the manner in which the Jewish nation were discovered by God; the manner in which they repudiated the faith and religious practice of other nations. It celebrates Israel's religious uniqueness. Whereas Shmuel's Seder is celebrating our ability to overthrow foreign control and emerge as a free nation. Rav's Seder is celebrating an inner process of Israel finding its God and its discovery of its unique religious path.

For years, I have always related to Shmuel's story and absolutely ignored Rav's. after all, isn't Pesach the festival that celebrates our physical, political freedom? On Shavuot we celebrate the Torah! 

And yet, I wonder whether we have to be telling our children's Rav's story. Possibly we need not focus upon the universal message of freedom from despotic and cruel oppression, the narrative of national emancipation, but instead to rediscover and artciculate the uniqueness of our Jewish faith, the imperative of Jewish self-definition! Could it be that our students still do not appreciate that they are the recipients of a remarkable, world-changing religion, a heritage that they should cherish and cultivate, that can ennoble their lives and improve society, a birthright that they should desire to pass to the next generation? We are failing in telling our children this story. If we were telling it better, then possibly they would appreciate this special gift, and never let it go.


If I have highlighted the importance of Israel's transition to becoming a distinct faith community, a second point should be stated.

ויהי שם לגוי – מלמד שהיו מצויינים שם
"They became a nation; this teaches that there [in Egypt], they retained their distinctiveness." (Haggada shel Pesach)

Were the Jews acculturated in Egypt, or marked by society as a group of Pariah's? What was the social status of Hebrews vis-a-vis Egyptians? We frequently imagine Jews incarcerated in Egyptian work-camps of one sort or another, labelled and branded, but the truth may be quite different. God had to "pass-over" the homes, jumping over the Israelite homes that were interspersed amongst the Egyptian homes. Jews and Egyptians lived together! Exodus talks of the Hebrew's borrowing valuables from their Egyptian neighbours! After centuries in Egypt, it seems that Israelites were well acculturated; to leave Egypt, Israelites were told to differentiate themselves. 

In fact, many see the test of the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb as an attempt to have Israel repudiate an Egyptian value system. Egyptians venerated the lamb, especially under the zodiac sign of Aries. Lambs were not slaughtered at this time of year. To engage in mass-slaughter of lambs and to roast them so their smell pervaded the air was a fundamental rejection of an Egyptian identity.

Furthermore, the Israelites first instruction was to daub their doorways; they were instructed to separate their homes, to mark themselves. Creating an understanding that we are distinct, that from the Exodus on, we represent a distinct people – this is part and parcel of the Exodus story. 

One midrashic tradition suggests that the Israelites were distinct because they preserved their distinctive "names, language and clothing," in other words, because they did not assimilate; they remained distinctive.

So in short, we have a fascinating task and it is difficult because we live in an era of multiculturalism. How we persuade young Jews to remain distinctive? They know the tranditional lessons of Pesach - Freedom from oppresion, but they are not convinced that they want to stay as part of the Jewish people? How do we ensure that they will have Jewish children and grandchildren? Maybe parents need to ask their children at the seder: "How will you ensure that your children will be Jewish?"

And we Rabbis and teachers, shul-goers and affiliated Jews, need to ask oursleves whether we are presenting Judaism as something unattractive, off-putting? Whether we are sending mixed-messages - Do we suggest that one can entirely acculturate, and give up nothing, and still retain a powerful Jewish identity? If we sell this message, is it really honest? Maybe we need to say that one cannot have it all!

"It is this that has stood for our fathers and ourselves." Judaism makes us special; it is a remarkable system of laws, intellect, social responsibility, spirituality, history and tradition. Pesach symbolizes our beginnings as a people. But we are a people distinguished and shaped by our faith. Maybe this story should be at the centre of our Seder this year.

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