PASSOVER 5771: A TIME TO REFLECT ON THE FRAGILITY OF FREEDOM—CHAG SAMEACH!

 

 

 

PASSOVER 5771

THE HAGGADAH—A SCRIPT OF A LIVING DRAMA

Baruch Cohen

 

In loving memory of Malca z’’l

The Seder is rooted in the innermost of the Jewish heart.—The Haggadah Book

I love Passover because it is a cry against indifference.—Elie Wiesel, Forward, 1992.

Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is an undeniable right of every human being. By celebrating the Passover, we are learning about our past, and thus ensuring our future. The ideas that underline the feast of Passover are noble and humane: the idea of freedom, the idea of justice, and the democratic struggle for human dignity.

The Jewish sages have posited that liberty must be fought for and renewed in every generation.

During centuries of unending adversity, we Jews, have found renewed strength and hope in the Passover celebration, which unites today’s generation with its heroic ancestral past in the common struggle for justice, liberty and humanity.

The Passover festival has two basic messages whose poignancy and significance are true for all times: first, deliverance from bondage and suffering, and the drive to do away with ignorance; the second message of Passover is that deliverance is an ongoing process!

The Passover holiday teaches us that we triumphed over degradation and affliction. Our history gives us the confidence to carry on our struggle, against our old and new enemies; already, through that struggle, we achieved a glorious victory: our beloved state of Israel.

The Jewish democratic struggle is also one for all people for all nations; Passover represents the global desire for love to triumph over the darkness of hate. The basic human resolve to be free is clearly evidenced by the ongoing uprisings in the world against tyrannical regimes. Hopefully, this coming Holy day of Passover will be a holiday of freedom and liberation for all.

Hag Passover Sameach!

Happy Passover to the entire House of Israel and to all CIJR friends and supporters.

(Baruch Cohen is the Research Chairman at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.)

 

PHARAOH, THE TEN PLAGUES, AND IRAN
Editorial
NewsRealBlog, March 3, 2011

 

An antisemitic Jew I know, rather than seeing the Passover ceremony as the celebration of freedom (the world’s first and for a long time only successful slave revolt), and of justice and morality (the Ten Commandments), derides the whole ceremony as the unconscionable and immoral celebration of the genocide of the Egyptian people. What troubles him so much is the fact that, after each plague, when Pharaoh seems about to soften and let the Jews go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, leading to the necessity of yet another plague, culminating in the death of the first born.

I know that some people have tried to explain away this part of the story by saying that it is simply dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger of the Jew’s escape from Egypt. After all, if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. You know, Moses asks, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh answers “Sure.” That’s not a narrative with much punch or heroism, and God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, unexciting. It’s much more exciting to have an escalating series of plagues, with the audience on tenterhooks as to whether those pesky Jewish slaves will actually be able to make a break for it.

This reasoning is silly. There’s a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.

What Pharaoh discovered with the first nine plagues is that life can go on, at least for the ruler, despite an increase in the burdens placed upon his people. A blood filled Nile River may, at first, have seemed appalling, but the red receded and life went on. Pharaoh still held together his government. The same held true for each subsequent plague, whether lice or boils or wild animals or frogs, or whatever: As long as Pharaoh could maintain his power base, he was okay with the incremental decimation visited upon those he ruled.

Sheltered in his lavish palace, Pharaoh might worry about a populace starving and frightened, but that was irrelevant as long as that same populace continued to fear and worship him. The people’s suffering, ultimately, was irrelevant to his goals. It was only when the price became too high—when Pharaoh’s power base was destroyed because his citizens were destroyed—that Pharaoh was convinced, even temporarily, to alter his evil ways.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 3,000 years. Think, for example, of both the Nazis and the Japanese at the end of WWII. For the Nazis, it was apparent by December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) that the war was over. Hitler, however, was a megalomaniac in the pharaonic mold, and his high command, either from fear or insanity, would not gainsay him. Rather than surrendering, the Nazi high command was willing to see its country overrun and its citizens killed. Only when the death toll became too high, and it was apparent that nothing could be salvaged from the ashes, did the war on the continent finally end.

The same held true for the Japanese. Truman did not decide to drop the bomb just for the sake of it. Even the fact that it would impress the Soviets was an insufficient reason for doing so. What swayed Truman was the fact that his advisers told him (credibly as it turned out) that the Japanese Bushido culture would not allow Japan to surrender even when surrender had become the only reasonable option. Instead, the military warned Truman that, although the Americans would inevitably win the war, if Truman didn’t take drastic action, victory would take another year, and cost up to 100,000 American lives and at least that many Japanese lives (including Japanese civilians).

Truman therefore had two choices: another year of war, with the loss of 100,000 Americans and many more than 100,000 Japanese; or an immediate stop to the war, with no more American casualties and at least 100,000 Japanese casualties. Put that way, the choice was a no-brainer. The outcome would be the same for the Japanese, but Truman would save the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, British, Australians and Dutch. The Japanese high command was Pharaoh. No amount of smaller plagues could stop the command from its chosen path. Only a large plague would swiftly lead to the inevitable conclusion.

But what about the innocent lives lost as a result of Pharaoh’s, the Nazi’s, and the Japanese high command’s intransigence? As the Japanese tale shows only too well, the innocents were always going to die.… The same holds true for the Germans, whom the Nazis had long ago designated as cannon fodder to support their intensely evil regime. That’s the problem with an evil regime.… Pharaoh will let you die of plagues, and the Nazi and Japanese leadership will let you be bombed and burned—as long as they can retain their power.

Iran is no different. Although the people bleed and cry under the brutish regime, no plague, including rioting in the streets, has come along that is bad enough to break the back of that tyranny. The people continue to die by inches, and the regime threatens everyone within bombing distance.

[Some] believe that it is immoral to impose serious consequences against the Iranian regime because there are innocents who will suffer from those consequences. What these liberals fail to understand is that, when power doesn’t reside in the people, but resides, instead, in a single group that is insulated from all but the most terrible strikes, imposing small plagues against the country (freezing a few bank accounts, public reprimands, vague threats) is utterly useless. These small plagues, no matter how much they affect the ordinary citizen, do not affect the decision-making process in which a tyrant engages. The only thing that will move the tyrant is to destroy his power base. Everything else is theatre.…

 

FROM EXODUS TO HOMECOMING
Rafael Medoff
Haaretz, April 15, 2011

 

The famed investigative journalist I.F. Stone undoubtedly took part in some interesting Passover seders in his time, but he had never spent one with Jews whose lives particularly connected them to the events in ancient Egypt—until 1947, when he participated in a remarkable seder with Holocaust survivors in a detention camp on the island of Cyprus.…

“This is being written 3,000 feet up over the blue Mediterranean,” began Stone’s dramatic account in the pages of the New York City daily newspaper PM. “I am in a tiny four-passenger two-motored mosquito plane bound for Haifa from Nicosia in Cyprus, where I have just spent the first two days of Passover in camps established by the British to intern ‘illegal’ Jewish immigrants seized in Palestine.”

They were tumultuous times, to say the least. Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors still crowded the displaced persons camps in Allied-occupied Europe, clamoring for the right to immigrate to Palestine. The British, bowing to Arab opposition, had almost completely shut the gates to the Holy Land. Palestine itself was in flames, as Jewish underground forces waged guerrilla warfare against the British authorities. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Truman administration wobbled back and forth on the politically controversial issues of Jewish immigration and statehood.

In a desperate race for the Promised Land, survivors were boarding Aliyah Bet (unauthorized immigration ) ships bound for the Palestine coast. More often than not, they were intercepted by British naval patrols and taken to Cyprus. That’s where I.F. Stone’s story began.

“There are two sets of camps on the sweet-smelling ancient Greek Isle of Cyprus for 11,300 refugees now held there,” Stone explained. “Both are being enlarged to meet the expected Spring rush of Aliyah Beth boats which will probably boost the Jewish population to 20,000 before the end of June.…”

On Passover eve, “unexpected and unannounced,” Stone and a friend, Alex Taylor of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, dropped in on the Efrati family: Moshe Efrati, 35, “a laundryman by trade,” his wife Rachel, their 15-year-old daughter Miriam and 12-year-old son Eliezer. Despite the lack of an invitation, the visitors “were at once made welcome.”

“Father Efrati sat at the head of the table, reclining on a pillow as is customary for the seder,” Stone’s account continued. “On his right, sat his bright-eyed son of 12, already a student in the yeshivah organized by religious Jews in the camp. On the father’s left sat his good wife and daughter. Alex and I were given haggadas (Passover service books ) and the seder went on.”

“It was no hop-skip-and-jump affair, as is customary in most American Jewish homes,” Stone noted. “Efrati left nothing out. We rose to drink our wine with blessings, partook of the bitter herbs and first matzohs. Efrati sang the parts with relish and explained and translated as he went along.…”

Stone, himself a secular Jew, was clearly moved by the warmth and religious devotion of the family in the midst of such difficult surroundings. “The mother looked on as if she didn’t know how one man could be so bright,” he wrote, “and the daughter was fascinated while the son’s eyes shone.”

What struck Stone the most was the connection between past and present. “The Passover has a deep personal meaning for these Jews.… For them the ancient cruel taskmasters were no fable: They had been in slave labor camps under German occupation. For them, the God who smote the Egyptians was the same God who brought the Third Reich low.”

Stone was profoundly impressed by the vibrant life he saw among the Cyprus exiles, as he strolled around the camp the next day. “Life flows on strong, and vigorous babies are being born at the rate of 30 to 40 monthly,” he reported. “There have been almost 600 weddings since the camps were established last August, and there were 135 nuptials during the two weeks before Passover. “There are schools and synagogues, camp newspapers, an art exhibition, and workshops,” not to mention “several soccer teams which often play the British guards and boast they have never been beaten.”

What did the future hold? The seder at the Efratis’ offered a clue. “Were [the displaced persons in Cyprus] not like the Jews under Moses?” Stone asked. “Moses went through one kind of wilderness or another to the promised land. And as Efrati explained in his own running commentary to the service comfortingly, ‘We had to go down into Egypt for 400 years, but we need only be six months or so in Cyprus.’”

Stone thought Efrati’s prediction too optimistic. Given the severe British restrictions on Jewish immigration, he observed, “it will take 18 months before the latest arrivals get their chance to go to Palestine.”

But British rule in Palestine did not last another 18 months. That autumn, in the face of the Jewish underground’s military assaults and sharply escalating international pressure—generated in no small measure by sympathetic journalists such as Stone—the British surrendered. Seven months after Stone’s Passover with the Efratis, London accepted the United Nations vote on partitioning Palestine and announced it would withdraw. Four months later, the first British troops began leaving, and two months after that, on May 15, 1948, the British withdrawal was completed.

For the Efratis and thousands of other displaced persons whose plight I.F. Stone helped publicize with his impassioned prose, the exodus was over and homecoming was finally at hand.

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

 

THE STORIES WE’RE OBLIGED TO TELL
Daniel Gordis
Jerusalem Post, April 15, 2011

 

We read it so often that we hardly even notice it anymore. It’s that famous line from the Haggada, which Jews around the world will recite in just a few days: “And even if we were all wise, filled with understanding, all elders and all learned in the Torah, we would still be obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.”

Why, though? If we were all so deeply learned, what possible need would there be to tell a story? The message is clear—there are truths that emerge from stories that cannot be gleaned from “mere” study. There is knowledge to which the heart can lead us that the mind cannot. As much as Jews take the intellect seriously, we understand its limitations. There is a sort of knowing that can come only through telling—or hearing—a story.

It is the difference between great philosophy and profound literature. As critical and even world-changing as some of the great philosophers have been, for many of us, it is the broken heart and the soul laid bare that we encounter in great literature that touches us more deeply.

From there, we glean our most profound insights about what matters, to what we hope to dedicate our lives. The notion that we can create real allegiance only through minds and without touching hearts is foolish. That is why the Bible contains no rigorous philosophy, but many stories. And that is why the more we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Haggada tells us, the more we are to be praised.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column (“Of sermons and strategies,” April 1) about American rabbinical students who feel distanced from Zionism, some of whose critiques of Israel seem to me to have crossed red lines. Since that column appeared, I’ve had numerous meetings with students studying in Israel for the year. Some I met in groups, some alone.

Politically and religiously, they represented a broad spectrum. They were smart, sensitive and genuine. As we spoke, some shared their most basic worry—that Israel would not be decent.

And I shared mine—that Israel would not survive.

Obviously Israel’s decency is critical. But a country that does not exist cannot be decent. And as we spoke, memories began to emerge. I shared with some of these students my earliest memory about Israel. It was June 1967, and I was almost eight years old. We were in the kitchen, in Baltimore, having dinner. But this dinner was different from all other dinners.

My brothers and I ate, and our parents served us. As on almost every night, our little black-and-white television was tuned to Walter Cronkite. But on this night, my parents didn’t eat—they didn’t even sit at the table. All they did was feed us, watch TV—and pace across the kitchen.

The next evening, when that odd scene unfolded once again, I finally asked them, “Aren’t you going to eat?” “We’re not hungry,” they said. I was dumbfounded. How could you not be hungry at dinner time? And two days in a row? When my own kids ask what it was that led us to move here, I say nothing about lectures I heard or books I was given to read. It was, I explain, the simple fact that with Israel seemingly on the very precipice of destruction, my parents simply couldn’t eat.

Some of the students then shared their own earliest memories of Israel. One recalled the day that all the students in his Orthodox day school were summoned together for an assembly, and how the whole school watched as Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. For another, it was the intifada, and the images (again, on television) of helmeted IDF soldiers with rifles chasing young boys who’d thrown rocks.

My formative memories were of Israel on the verge of extinction, while theirs were of Israel being recognized by its neighbor or of the seeming imbalance of Israeli-Palestinian power. And that makes all the difference.

None of us knows with certainty how widespread the alienation from Israel among these students is, but no one ought to deny that it is there. And it is obviously even more widespread among college students at large. What Pessah is designed to remind us is that a major part of our response has to be memory creation.

Many American rabbinical students go to Bethlehem each year, on a program designed to expose them to the feelings of the “other” side. But there’s passion to be felt on this side, too. Go to Bethlehem, fine. But why not also visit Ein Prat and witness the meeting of Western civilization and Jewish tradition in a beit midrash populated by post-army secular and religious Israelis together? Speak to people in Bethlehem…but then go to the student-run villages of Ayalim, where a new, socially aware, politically diverse, largely non-religious Zionist activism is taking root precisely among young people their age. Those are the sorts of memories we have to add to the hopper.

What’s shaping these students? It’s fine to assign books on human rights and on the problematics of Israeli democracy. But I’d have them read Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness, too, so they can see the non-negotiable love for Zion with which a staunch leftist writes. I’d have them read Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers, and “visit” the offices of Eshkol, Meir, Rabin and Begin—“relive” moments when life here hung by a thread.… True, they won’t have actually lived through it—but the Seder night suggests to us that we can remember even things that we did not experience.

A student dropped me a line after one of these meetings. “It may sound strange,” he said, “but for some of us, the most memorable idea to come out of the meeting is that Israel might actually not survive.” For someone of my generation, what is shocking is that that was surprising. But it’s not a matter of anyone’s “fault.”

It’s a matter of what we remember, and what we don’t. That’s the business that we’re in this coming Monday night. The Seder is the moment for reminding ourselves—and each other—that the next generation of Jewish leaders will join us not if we beat them into intellectual submission, but if we can bequeath to them new memories—and thus, at the same time, our aspirations, as well as our foreboding awareness of the fragility of freedom.

(Daniel Gordis is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.)