Friday, April 22

Relevance of Observing Pesach Today

The Passover (Pesach) Season is upon us. The celebration of the Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt led by Moses is here. Most observant Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora will be sitting down to the Pesach meal or Seder with all its symbolism of freedom from slavery in Egypt. The Haggadah is read before the Seder meal. I feel that it is so archaic and lacking in relevance. The reading is rushed through rapidly as it becomes a tedious exercise in resilience.  

It should be a challenge to all of us as Jews to seek new meanings and learning new lessons as to how relevant Pesach remains today. It is not enough to celebrate the liberation of the Israelites, who to all intents and purposes, are our ancestors.

While very few even think of Pesach from a wider more modern spectrum and are so involved in outdated rituals as to what is Kosher for Pesach and what is not. The religious hair-splitting explanation over what is “kitniot” –“legumes” that are forbidden to be eaten by religious Ashkenazim.    

We should be giving more thought to those who are still not free in countries that deny their citizens' basic human rights.

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict still defies a solution. The occupation has taken on a different perspective. It is a moral dilemma. On the one hand, it is desirable that there should be a move to ending the occupation of the Palestinians by Israel so that the Palestinians do achieve an independent state with freedom coinciding with human dignity and democracy. On the other hand, even if Israel withdraws all the settlers from the occupied territories on the West Bank, there will be no desire on the Palestinian side to sign a peace treaty. The corrupt, wealthy Palestinian leadership have no desire to recognize Israel’s right to exist. It is their bread and butter.The terrorist activity coming from the Palestinian side is not conducive to any solution in ending the Israeli occupation.
The conflict does not appear to have any solution in sight. The moral idea of an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel is just not going to occur. It remains within the realm of the impossible. All we can do as Jews is to declare the desire for an independent, free, Palestinian State alongside Israel living in peace. It is a similar desire of “Next year in Rebuilt Jerusalem” at the end of the Haggadah reading which we know will also never occur.

Here is a thought that comes from Rabbi John Rosove,
J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, Co-Chair:

“As the festival of Passover approaches, we are all challenged, this year even more than most years, to reflect and act on the universal message it conveys -- especially in the light of very disturbing trends both in the United States and Israel.
The overriding message conveyed through the Haggadah is that it is our duty to experience the story of our liberation from Egypt as if it happened to us personally -- and not just a story that happened to our ancestors countless generations ago. As former slaves, our tradition teaches us to be sensitive to the plight of the oppressed throughout history and in our own time. Accepting our role as active participants in that drama, we realize that we have a hand in forging our own destiny and cannot allow ourselves to become mere bystanders.
"We’re taught as Jews despite cruelty levelled against us not to become cruel and hard-hearted ourselves. That is the key lesson of Pesach, and we ignore it at our moral and spiritual peril."
We are sensitive even to the pain of our enemies, taking a drop of wine out of our glasses for each of the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians, lessening our joy as we recall their suffering.
As our sages have noted, the one commandment in the Torah reiterated more than any other is to care for and love the stranger -- for we ourselves were strangers in Egypt. It is repeated no fewer than 36 times.
Perhaps the repetition is necessary because this commandment tells us to do something that is both counterintuitive and very hard to do. It goes against something that is very deep and fundamental within us. We’re hardwired to be loyal to our own tribe and to be suspicious of and hostile to “the other.” When we’re hurting or in distress, some of us blame strangers and pour out our rage on them. It’s happening again, right now, in Syria, Iraq and in sectors of America.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, some of the leading candidates have built their campaigns by exploiting the fears and anxieties of fellow Americans. They have cynically fomented an anti-immigrant, xenophobic, nativist feeling against Muslims, Hispanics and others.
In Israel, we see the same phenomenon in the very disturbing recent polls showing that a sizeable proportion of the Jewish population would favour depriving Arab Israelis of their democratic rights or even expelling them from the country. And tragically, Israelis and Palestinians have become strangers to each other, meeting in fewer and fewer places and not currently engaged around the negotiating table.
Yes, Israelis have been subjected to heinous terrorist attacks, rockets, missiles and constant psychological pressure -- and we must stand with them in upholding their right to defend themselves and our Jewish homeland -- but returning hatred with hatred is not the response our tradition teaches. We’re taught as Jews despite cruelty levelled against us not to become cruel and hard-hearted ourselves. That is the key lesson of Pesach, and we ignore it at our moral and spiritual peril.
This is not who we are as Jews -- nor who we can be and should be.
As individuals and collectively, working through organizations like J Street and its many American-Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian allies, we need to change this. We are called upon by tradition to pursue peace and justice and to love compassion. We must see that our neighbours are fellow humans with the same desires and aspirations as us -- and we must never abandon our goal of reaching a two-state solution to end the conflict.
That is the great challenge of our time and it is deserving of particular reflection this festival season.
As the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, has noted, “Judaism is God’s call to human responsibility. From this call, you can’t hide, as Adam and Eve discovered when they tried, and you can’t escape, as Jonah learnt in the belly of a fish. The first humans lost paradise when they sought to hide from responsibility. We will only ever regain it if we accept responsibility and become a nation of leaders, each respecting and making space for those not like us.”
"WE ARE TROUBLED when we see fear and hatred toward “the other” in Israel. In our beloved Israel, it is sadly common to encounter fear and loathing of “the other” with whom we share the land. Even in times of turmoil and insecurity, we must strive to empathize with our neighbours and treat all with dignity. We must commit ourselves to working together with Israelis and with Palestinians to realize a future of freedom, justice and peace. LET US 
STRIVE TO LOVE THE STRANGER and journey toward our Promised Land. Tonight, as we reenact our enslavement and celebrate our freedom from oppression, let us work toward loving the stranger, treating all with dignity and equal protection. Only then can we truly inhabit our Promised Land and reach the future we wish to see. 
WE REMEMBER when we were strangers. Tonight, at our Seder, we remember when we were strangers. We recall the Exodus from bondage and reaffirm our memory that we were once the dispossessed, the immigrants, those who fled from the lash in the hopes of finding our way to our Promised Land. We remember countless times in the Jewish story when we were pushed away, wandering, vulnerable, even hated. Why do we tell this story year after year? 
WE SEEK TO KNOW the heart of the stranger. The Torah explains: “Know the heart/the feelings of the stranger, for you once were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). We tell the story so that we remember to empathize with “the other,” so that we will not do to others that which was hateful to us. “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). At this moment, we seek to know the heart and feelings of those who are treated as “the other” today and dwell on what it means to love them.  
WE ARE TROUBLED when we see fear and hatred toward “the other” here in America. In the United States, we sit down to our tables at a time of unprecedented anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment, Islamophobia and the stirring of hatred towards those who look different than us. We remember tonight that once we were proud to call ourselves a nation of immigrants."

This Passover supplement was created by Rabbi Burton Visotzky and Sarah Beller Possible discussion around the table: As you think about the current situation in America and in Israel ask yourself: Who today is being treated as “the stranger” or “the other” in the United States? Who is being treated as “the stranger” or “the other” in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza? Drawing on the Jewish historical experience of being strangers, what action can I take to help alleviate the challenges faced by those who are treated as “the other” today?   

Chag Pesach Sameach!                                                                                                                                                                  שמח!                   חג פסח                                               

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