Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 13, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Bereisheet, the Israeli space rocket that was headed for the moon, only the fourth nation in the world to reach it, crashed on landing this past Thursday. Which seemed like an apt metaphor for many as to the political direction of Israel after this week’s elections.
While almost half the country voted against Netanyahu retaining the premiership, and his party only gaining 27% of the vote, it is still not hard to see why he remains prime minister with the most right wing, anti pluralism, and racist government in Israeli history. As Michael Oren, the former US Ambassador pointed out, the economy is doing well, Israel’s international relationships are the strongest in a generation, terrorism is sporadic and Israel is one of the leading nations in the world in science and technological advancement. Despite the growth of world wide anti Semitism and Anti Zionism, the world needs Israel.
To me though, the success of Israel’s most openly corrupt, coercive and bullying government in maintaining power simply follows a world wide trend in ethno-national states. Last election, Netanyahu spread lies about Arabs voting in droves to oust a Jewish government, this time his supporters proudly intimidated Arab voters by putting up over 1000 cameras in Arab polling places. He used social media to spread lies about his main opponent and his own corruption. But Netanyahu is simply following the script of other “presenting Democracies”, that is nations that purport to be democratic but whose ruling powers abuse the system so that they will never be voted out of power. Turkey, Russia, Venezuela these are all supposed democracies but they don’t demand accountability for government, protect minorities, support the objective rule of law, or permit a robust and free press. Many of us worry that our nation is moving in the same direction.
Globalization, social change, world economic stability, social media all of these have heightened psychological fears in many nations with majority culture societies and encouraged citizens to retrench into comfortable ethnic, religious, and national definitions. Social media and technological advancement of surveillance techniques has also allowed the powerful to maintain control. Power rather than justice seems to be the rule in the world today just as in most of human history.
Thus there has never been a time in my life when the values and meaning of Pesah have been more significant and necessary. For Pesah is the counterbalance to this world wide trend. Pesah teaches us that what has passed for the norm of human existence is really a deviation of how the world and society should be. Today is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat the precedes Pesah and in anticipation let us share some thoughts about the meaning of Pesah.
Pesah is our Jewish master story and as our master story it embodies key values that promote a Jewish vision of how humans should relate to others and to nature and to transcendent reality. Most of what I am sharing this morning can be found in Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s chapter on Pesah in The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.
First and foremost, Pesah informs us of our relationship to God. Judaism understands that the only absolute power in the universe, the ultimate arbiter of morality, of right and wrong, is a Source that is beyond Nature and Human Existence. No human can be the ultimate source of power, nor an object of veneration. God is independent of human control and all human power is relative.
Another aspect of belief in God is marked in the opening statement that God makes to Moses: “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.” God is concerned with humanity. It may seem that the Torah’s focus is on God’s concern for the Jews. However, later Biblical authors saw the Exodus story as a paradigm for world redemption. God saves the Israelite slaves from Egyptian domination but ultimately as we read in the haftarah from Isaiah on the last day of the holiday, there will be a greater Redemption in the future in which nature itself will be affected and universal harmony will reign.
True the conclusion of the Exodus story is not about removing evil from the world but it sets up an alternative conception of life. Human beings are meant to be free. Humans do not serve or owe allegiance to human masters. In fact the opposite is true – Just as God saved the Jewish people from enslavement, persecution, domination by fellow humans, so Jews are now commanded to create a society in which unfairness and injustice must be rejected. Thus we Jews are constantly reminded throughout the Torah – “Because you were outsiders in the Land of Egypt” therefore you are to treat the outsider, the weak, the vulnerable and the disenfranchised with compassion, generosity and love.
Love is an essential element of Pesah. As the saying goes, Spring is the time a young man’s fancy turns to love. Rabbi Greenberg points out that in this case biology and psychology coincide. The rising sap evokes the renewal of human libidinal energy. The Rabbis chose the biblical book of love poetry, Song of Songs to be the special text read on the holiday of Pesah. Human love is the most apt metaphor for the human –divine encounter. A monogamous union is the most basic experience of unity. The Exodus paradigm is driven by love. Divine love validates the value of life and drives the engine of redemption. Human love provides the basis for a society grounded in the intrinsic dignity and equality of each human being.
Pesah occurs in the spring and the entire arrangement of the Jewish calendar is set up so that Pesah will always fall in the spring. As a lunar calendar made up of 12 28 day months, over a relatively short time the holidays would be in different seasons. But Pesah has to fall in the spring so 7 times in a 19 year cycle we add a whole month to the calendar, as we did this year, to make sure that happens. Why spring, besides that was when the original event occurred? Because spring is the time of rebirth and resurrection and Pesah gives encouragement to those living in Exile and those living under persecution, that winter will not last forever, freedom and restoration will return.
Finally, the Pesah experience was what set the Jewish people apart. Before the Redemption, the Jews were a clan based on common ancestry. But the Redemption experience creates a unique people. We are anchored in history and our future redemption as a people depends on redemption through history. Personal salvation is not enough, global salvation is the dream. This of course puts Judaism into tension with the normal operations of the world. Our prophets taught us that we must not compromise with the realities of an unredeemed world and must constantly work towards a society of ethical excellence. This makes us Jews outsiders and may be reason why we are objects of fear and anger by such disparate political forces.
Observance of seder is a family event. In ancient times one did not celebrate Pesah alone. The requirement was for havurot, families small and large would gather to make sure that the Paschal sacrifice was completely eaten. This gathering of community would bind the individuals through their shared history and sense of meaning and push forward this Jewish vision of a redemptive future through the transmission of these ideals to the children.
It is the creation of our Jewish peoplehood that results from our observance of the seder. Rabbi Greenberg concludes his chapter on Pesah in this way: “For the seder ritual, the family acts as the transmitter of memory. The past is not excised but becomes an active part of the lives of the participants. Parents tell the story to children. At the same time the children are not merely dependent. They ask questions and participate in the discussion. They must become involved for it is essential that they join in the unfinished work of liberation…(T)he Exodus is not some ancient event however important; it is the ever recurring redemption. It is the event from ancient times that is occurring tonight ; it is the past and future redemption of humanity. The Exodus is the most influential historical event of all time because it did not happen once but recurs whenever people open up and enter in the event again.”
May it continue to be an influence in our lives.