Friday March 31, 2023 – ט׳ נִיסָן תשפ”ג
Why is this year different?
Because this year many of us who live in Israel, feel close to and invested in Israel, and champion the Jewish values of freedom – חופש, equality – שיוון, and justice – צדק, see the reality possibility that those values are threatened by the coalition’s legislative agenda.
Every year many of us sit around our Pesach tables and talk about spiritual and physical affliction – slavery, human rights, and the commandment to see ourselves as if – כאילו we actually came out of Egypt.
Most of us (and I apologize for the broad generalization) live comfortable lives and have not actually experienced slavery or real oppression. We may know people who are survivors of the Holocaust, experience antisemitism, and are connected to those who remember when we as a people were in dire straits. However, by and large, the elements of our Seder Pesach – welcoming all those who are hungry, recalling that ‘last year we were slaves but now we are free’, the hope to go/return to Jerusalem next year, and many more – are themes that largely reside in the realm of the theoretical and symbolic.
However, this year is different as for the past three months we have witnessed a very real threat to the protection of human rights and the attempt to dismantle the democratic institutions of the State of Israel. For many hundreds of thousands of Israelis, these threats became a tangible reality. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest to express their fears and concerns over what might happen to the democratic and Jewish State of Israel that they call home, and many more around the world expressed their concern and angst over this crisis.
The following are 4 thoughts on this current moment which you can incorporate into your Pesach seder as a way to bring more discussion on Israel as a Jewish and democratic State:
- As if.
The quintessential two words “as if” we ourselves have left Egypt is at the essence of the Seder. Tradition calls upon us to put ourselves in the place of those who were once oppressed even though we ourselves live comfortably and do not experience threats to our freedom and our human rights. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is our responsibility as Jews to ensure the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves – women, LGBTQ+, Palestinians (both Israeli citizens and non), non-Orthodox Jews, asylum seekers, immigrants, and anyone who does not conform to the ideology of the ruling coalition.
- By a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm
We are told that God took us out of Egypt with a “Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה.” (Exodus 6:6) This generally refers to God’s overwhelming strength and power and that it was through the prowess of the Almighty that our ancestors were saved from the evils of the Pharaoh. Now that we have power in a democratic and Jewish state, we need to use our ‘mighty hand’ to ‘stretch out our arms’ to those who see themselves as underdogs, second-class citizens, and insignificant in the eyes of the ruling class. This moment in the 75-year history of the State of Israel is about more than passing a legislative agenda and judicial reforms. It is about more than establishing and codifying an Israeli constitution. This moment is about battling for the identity of a large swath of the Israeli population, most likely a majority of the population, that feels marginalized and underprivileged. In addition to the street protests that included many segments of Israel’s population and the attempt to halt and reverse the legislation that would unravel Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances, what is needed now is outreach to bridge the deep divisions in Israeli society before there is violence.
- Our Savior:
“וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.”
“And it is this (the Torah) that has stood by our ancestors and for us. For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation, they rise up to destroy us. But the Holy Blessed One, delivers us from their hands.”
The Haggadah reminds us that in every generation we have enemies who seek our destruction and that we also must be strong and able to defend ourselves. Though the Haggadah text reminds us to rely on God for protection and salvation, we know that we cannot leave our fate in God’s hands alone.
In his book On Prayer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel outlines the importance of prayer in having a real impact on our lives:
“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision. The world is aflame with evil and atrocity; the scandal of perpetual desecration of the world cries to high heaven.”
In a modern democracy, we are called upon to be wary of those who claim to be the arbiters of the Holy Blessed One, and who use that argument and justification as an impetus to impose their understanding of the law on all of society.
- Next Year in Jerusalem.
Israelis are in a fateful moment today, and when we pray to be in Jerusalem next year, ours is a prayer for a Jerusalem that has restored balance between all elements of the State of Israel and maintained a balance between the different branches of government that reside in Israel’s capital. Next Year in Jerusalem is a prayer for an ancient city, and by extension, for the people of Israel, to reflect the diversity of all its inhabitants, and to not resort to ancient times when it was ruled by a monarch or tyrant, whose power was unchecked and lacked balance. Ahad Ha’am proclaimed that the Jewish State
“will send forth from this center the spirit of Judaism that will radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, to inspire them with new life and to preserve the overall unity of our people.”
That is a prayer sorely needed today.
I urge all of us not only to speak of these greater themes of the Pesach season together around our Seder tables, but to emphasize the importance of the unity of the Jewish people – Klal Yisrael – and that we are all part of an historic people that needs every one of us to remain whole, and that we, as North American Reform Jews and Zionist have a critical role to play.
Shabbat Shalom v’Chag Pesach Sameach.