This may well seem severe to us, but the Torah reserves the penalty of ‘being cut off from one’s people’ for those who do not observe the festival of Pesach. I’d given this no thought until someone told me that, prevented by sheer distance from joining any Jewish community, cut off from his people was precisely how he had felt.
Preparations for Pesach naturally draw our attention to our own kitchens and homes, to our own family and dinner table. Yet it is no less important to be mindful of others, near and far, in the communities around us. We begin the Seder by saying ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’; this inclusive invitation goes back to the Talmud, to Rav Huna, whose custom it was to open his door and say these words before every meal.
What live in different circles of connection. They begin with family, neighbours and close friends. Is anyone not able to hold a Seder this year? Can we invite, help out, send a ‘Seder box’ – at least with some charoset – to the hospital where they are (and maybe some matzah, as the Jewish mystics do call it ‘the bread of health’!)?
Beyond are many Jewish people who do not have the wherewithal to celebrate the feast of freedom. It has always been the custom for Jews to contribute to kimcha depischa, a ‘matzah flour’ fund, as it is a slight upon the dignity of us all, if any of us lack the means to share in the festival.
Then come other circles. I was just contacted by a journalist from Ha’aretz to comment on the Refugees Seder being held in downtown Tel Aviv, and in which Nic Schlagman, Oliver Joseph and others from our community have long taken a leading role. Such events are a profound expression of the meaning of Jewish experience, using our own experience of being the victims of persecution and exclusion to change the world.
Something about the Seder
It sometimes seems to be that the way the Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus is also like a series of concentric circles. At their heart is the narrative from the Torah itself. The Haggadah quotes in full the brief potted history of the Jewish People from Deuteronomy ((26:1-9) which, while the temple still stood, was recited by grateful citizens of the Land of Israel when they brought their first fruits as offerings to Jerusalem. This core text is succinct, and would once have been known by virtually everyone.
Around each phrase the Haggadah weaves rabbinic interpretations. This is the second layer of the narrative. It presents what scholarship now calls ‘intersecting texts’; other verses which help to develop the meaning of the first, central passage. Thus, to explain the words ‘The Egyptians treated us badly’ it brings Pharaoh’s first words in the Book of Exodus, ‘Come let us deal wisely with them (the Hebrews) lest they grow many, and should there be a war, join with our enemies…’ Persecution, it seems, begins with fear. Or is it rather that there are ‘too many of these foreigners’ and that they’re ‘over here (taking over our country and our jobs)’. I sometimes think of Pharaoh’s speech is the earliest example of a Party Political Broadcast, in this case on behalf of the National Front of the time.
By now we’re already engaged in the third layer, when the text leaves the page and speaks directly into our own reality and we find ourselves commenting on it with stories of our own.
The Seder become most real when we’re on the page of the Haggadah and off it in the issues it provokes us to think about in our own realities at the same time.
Something to ponder
What about God in the story of the Exodus? It is often noted that Moses isn’t even mentioned once in the entire Haggadah. On the contrary, it is repeatedly stressed that God and God alone brought us out from Egypt: ‘Not by means of an angel, and not by means of a messenger’, but God brought us directly in God’s power and glory.
What then happened to this interventionist, reach-down-from-heaven, I get involved in history, deity? Was God like that once, before resolving to leave us to ourselves to get on with it here on earth, with all our wars and genocides. How, after all, does one answer the question: ‘If you intervened back then in Egypt, why did you fail to do so again in Germany in 1933?’
There are other questions too: did the Egyptians all deserve those ten plagues? Is it ‘collateral damage’, or collective punishment for the fact that not only Pharaoh but the whole of society benefited from the decades of efforts of the Hebrew slave-worker class? But is this fair? Couldn’t God have just killed Pharaoh? After all, he was chiefly responsible.
This drives some to the radical conclusion that God’s role is simply a fiction invented by those who set down the story. For myself, I prefer to think about the matter in the following terms. The ‘myth’, the collective narrative of the Jewish People, begins in the experience of injustice and slavery, in our liberation from which we affirm the fundamental values of the Jewish faith: dignity, justice, compassion, hope and faith. These are sacred values; in seeking them we seek the presence of God in this world, in all humanity and in all creation.
Did the Exodus happen just the way we tell it, with God doing everything we are told God did? This is not the most important question for me; the answer, I believe, is bound up with the way we tell our stories. Was God present back then in Egypt, and in the struggle for liberation? Is God on the side of the oppressed, of those who seek justice and practise compassion and find the courage to defy tyranny? These are to me the most important questions and the answers, affirmed repeatedly through the strength and endurance of the spirit, are ‘Yes’. However, they are answers we have not simply to declare, but to live.