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Rosen on Pesach

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-04-22

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Pesach is the festival of freedom. The Talmud says ‘Every person has to imagine that he or she was a slave and has now emerged from a personal Egypt.’ And this phrase occupies a central place in the Haggadah, the special text we read on the Seder Night, the first night (and in the Diaspora, the second night) of Passover.

It is one of the amazing features of our tradition that in addition to being encouraged to question and challenge as part of religious ritual we are also asked ‘play act.’

Imagination is a powerful tool. It can release our minds from straight jackets. It gets us to play a part, to act someone totally different to our normal selves, to get into another person’s skin, to feel someone else’s joy and pain, to live vicariously another life. We do it all the time through literature, cinema, television and endless trivial pursuits. It is therapeutic and I believe therapy was what the Torah intended us to go through.

Why, 36 times, does it hammer away with the phrase or a variation of it  ‘remember the stranger because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.’ Is this just meant to be a literary foible? I don’t think so. But somehow or other two thousand years of exile and suffering have taken their toll. Fifty years of constant tension, fear and death in the Land of Israel have whittled away at our sensitivities. Too many Jews are so crippled by hatred that they cannot see beyond their own navels. Don’t we say that God is the father of all creation? Didn’t Rabbi Akiva declare that ‘man is fortunate that he is created in the image of God?’ He didn’t say ‘Jews.’ And Ben Azai declared that the most important phrase in the Torah is ‘This is the history of humanity’ (Genesis 5) all of humanity, not just me and my dog! And when Hillel said ‘What is hateful to you do not do to others’ he wasn’t only talking about rabbis.

There is an amazing Midrash that tells us that after the Egyptians pursued the fleeing Hebrew Slaves and ended up drowning, the angels wanted to sing a song of joy but God said ‘No! My creatures are drowning in the sea. How can you rejoice?’ And we do not say the full Hallel Prayer of Rejoicing on six of the days of Passover precisely because our liberation came at the expense of other human beings. And we are commanded despite everything not to hate the Egyptian.

Yes, the Children of Israel celebrated their deliverance. It is true that Jewish law requires us to fight to protect ourselves and encourages us to go and live in the Land of Israel. But it never commands us to hate! Not even in the case of the dreaded Amalek, the symbol of anti-Semitism, does it say we should hate. Besides the Mishna in Yadaim says that it is impossible to identify any group as Amalek ever since Sennacharib mixed up all the tribes of the area 2,700 years ago (so much for George Steiner and others who accuse the Jews of biblical genocide. Stopping 2,650 years before the Geneva Convention is pretty impressive). It is totally mad and dangerous rubbish to suggest as some misguided fanatics do that Arabs are Amalek.

It is true we Jews are under constant threat, from enemies of all kinds. It just won’t go away and goes through waves and tides sometimes rising and sometimes falling. Currently it is rising beyond logic. If the Academics of Britain were boycotting countries with no human rights, no free speech, murder, rape and genocide tolerated by its authorities, I could hardly object to their championing the Palestinians. But of all the countries in the world, to select Israel for a boycott is pure, irrational hatred. If Muslim extremists were excoriating anyone who oppresses Muslims around the world and wanted to include Israel, I could understand. But to single out Jews, is primitive vindictiveness.

People often argue it is Christianity that turns the other cheek. And we are not required to let a guy who slaps us on one side of our face have another go on the other. That is why we must fight irrational hatred wherever and whenever it raises its filthy head from whichever body. And particularly in Europe where Jews tend, unlike in America, to want to hide, slip below the radar screen, not make waves, do it subtly behind closed doors, leave it to ‘us’ to do it ‘our way’. Fat lot of good that has ever done. That attitude is a hang over from the days of the Court Jews, the Shtadlanim, three hundred years ago who invariably feathered their own nests until they got caught up like everyone else. Just read Leon Feuchtwanger’s ‘Jew Suss.’

But this does not mean loosing our sensitivity to the pain of others wherever they might be. Yes indeed ‘Aniyey Ircha Kodmin.’ The poor of your city take precedence. But precedence doesn’t mean ignoring everyone else. The Talmud does indeed have the equivalent of ‘turn the other cheek.’ ‘Of those who do not seek redress even if they deserve it, it is said ‘ And they shall be like the sun at its Zenith’ ( Yoma 23a and Gittin 26b) and  ‘ Whoever does not insist on his rights God forgives his sins.’ ( Brachot , Yoma and six other places) and again  ‘ God takes care of those who are harmed and do not respond.’ This is advice, not law. But it makes a point.

There is a time to fight but also a time to desist. I believe peace is coming closer and I am more optimistic than in many years. But in the meantime we must redouble our efforts to be sensitive to others, build bridges, to try to heal, to be creative in ensuring that where two Rights conflict there needs to be compromise. We must combat irrational hatred as much as they have an obligation to. Particularly when it is directed towards Muslims. Let’s go for Omar Bakri Mohammad. Let him be deported back to his Saudi Arabia that will not tolerate him, him and all those other Muslim hate mongers. But we must not dare not assume that all or the majority of Muslims are Bakri Mohammad or agree with him!

Pesach demands of us that we experience suffering in our gratitude for freedom. Liberation Theology is a Christian idea but it originated in the Torah, just as black slaves used the model of Moses in Egypt as a symbol of hope. We must reclaim our own imagery and try to make the world a better place. If we don’t set an example who else will? Have we no learnt from our own history that whenever we think we can manage by ourselves and on our own we have brought destruction upon ourselves?

Passover is the festival of redemption, Geulla. If we really want it, we must do something about it, not just put out a cup for Elijah.

We are commanded to rejoice on the festivals, be happy, be grateful, enjoy. But still we must remember those less fortunate than we are and determine to do something about it and thus to thank God for whatever we have but others do not, yet.