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Chief Rabbi's Pesach Message 5763

Last updated: 2003-04-07

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks has sent the following Pesach message to communities across the Commonwealth:

The story we tell on Pesach, of the going out from Egypt, is the oldest and greatest in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that it kept Jewish identity alive through almost two thousand years of exile and dispersion, a phenomenon that has no parallel in the history of any other people. What is it about the story that gave and continues to give it such power?

The sages of the Mishneh laid down a rule about how the story is to be told. They stated it in four words: matchil bigenut umesayem beshevach, “Begin with the shame, end with the praise.” Begin with the bad news, end with the good. To be sure, there was an argument about what exactly was the bad news, and what the good. Some said it meant beginning with “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .” Others said it meant, “At first our ancestors [meaning Terach, Abraham’s father] were idolaters . . .” To keep the peace, we do both.

But everyone agreed on the basic principle. On Pesach we do not close our eyes to the bad news. Our ancestors were slaves. At many points in history, Jews suffered. They were no strangers to exile, insecurity, ghettoes and pogroms. We still taste the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of persecution. But though we begin with the bad news, we end with the good. That is the basic structure of a Jewish story.

To this day, I wonder whether we fully understand the significance of this fact. Ancient Greece gave the world a particular kind of story. Its great practitioners were Aeschylus and Sophocles. In a later age Shakespeare used it to write some of his greatest works. It is called tragedy. Tragedy is the story you tell when you believe in a universe blind to our dreams and deaf to our cries. That is why there is no word in classical Hebrew that means tragedy in the Greek sense.

Our ancestors told, and we still tell, a story that is the opposite of tragedy. Its key word is hope. Hope is the principled rejection of tragedy. The universe is not blind. Our dreams are not destined to end in disillusionment. Not by accident, when Jews began a new exodus from places of persecution to the land of Israel, they called the national anthem of the old-new state, Hatikvah, “the hope.”

These are not easy times for Jews. Last Pesach, in a hotel in Netanya, as the guests were getting ready to begin the seder, a suicide bomber struck, killing twenty-nine people and injuring hundreds of others. There were firebomb attacks on synagogues throughout Europe. One, in Marseilles, was burned to the ground. That such things still happen – that after 54 years Israel has still to fight a battle for its survival, and that less than 60 years after the Holocaust we still witness antisemitism in Europe – is nothing less than appalling. What, at such times, are we to think or say or do?

The deepest answer lies in Pesach itself. The ancient Greeks and their Jewish contemporaries both knew that there was suffering and injustice in the affairs of mankind. But they interpreted it in different ways – the difference between tragedy and hope. Ancient Greece declined and fell; Jews and Judaism survived. That was no accident. Hope is not naïve. It knows the bad news. But it also knows that the bad news is the beginning of the story, not its end. Hope is what gave our ancestors strength. We were and remain the people of hope – and such a people cannot be defeated. This year, as we pray for peace and security for the people and state of Israel, let us reaffirm the great principle of the Pesach story. The Jewish people kept hope alive. Hope will always keep the Jewish people alive. Wishing you a chag kasher vesameach.”

For more information on the Chief Rabbi, visit www.chiefrabbi.org