On the first night of Passover, the festive meal is preceded by the Seder, which chronicles our emergence from bondage into a nation and recounts the miracles associated with the Exodus from Egypt.
The central theme of the ancient Haggadah resonates powerfully with the contemporary Jewish condition. In the turbulent times in which we live, with the barbarians at our gates and the betrayal of Israel by much of the world, it is with a feeling of awe that we repeat the verse that our ancestors recited for over 1,000 years:
“The promise made to our forefathers holds true for us. For more than once they have risen against us to destroy us; in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”
Other recurring historical analogies appear in the Haggadah. What was to become the template for Jews in Exile for over 2,000 years – anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion and attempted genocide – was initially experienced by our ancestors in Egypt.
We are told that while in Egypt, the Hebrews prospered and multiplied and “became very strong and numerous.” This led the Egyptians to consider them as aliens, as a fifth column, raising the specter of dual loyalties – that “when war occurs they will be added to our enemies and fight against us.” What started as discrimination was followed by the appointment of taskmasters in order to oppress them – “and Egypt made the children of Israel labor rigorously” – and was ultimately extended to attempted genocide when Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Jewish males be killed.
This is the sequence that we effectively endured throughout our Exile with cycles of toleration, discrimination, physical persecution, and exile or murder.
The most horrific experience was the Nazi era culminating in the Shoah, which to this day no theologian or philosopher can possibly rationalize. It remains enigmatic that on Tisha B’Av, we lay almost all the emphasis on mourning the destruction of Jerusalem which resulted in our exile but barely acknowledge the persecution and suffering that the Jewish people underwent subsequently and in particular the greatest disaster of all, the calculated murder of 6 million.
One can raise the same question about Passover, our festival of freedom. It is a reflection on our religious leadership that when we review our origins as a nation and marvel at the wonders associated with the Exodus from Egypt, we do not rejoice at and highlight our privilege to be the generation who are living witnesses to miracles no less profound.
On this festival we should be giving thanks that – notwithstanding the turbulent and barbaric region in which we are located, the exponential growth of anti-Semitism, and the manifold challenges facing us – we are undoubtedly the most blessed and privileged generation since the Exile.
We have witnessed the miracle of the rebirth of Jewish nationhood after 2,000 years of dispersion and persecution. In the entire history of mankind there is no remotely comparable example of a people in all history which experienced a renaissance after such a lengthy interlude.
In 1947, at the height of the Cold War, in an unprecedented occasion, the United States and the anti-Semitic Soviet Union voted together, to endorse the creation of a Jewish state. Indeed a miracle.
Even more extraordinary was the ability of the fledgling Jewish state to militarily overcome a combined effort by a far more powerful combination of Arab states to destroy it.
But the greatest miracle of our time is the ingathering of the exiles that has taken place since Israel was created. Jews from all corners of the world have returned to their homeland. These have included those from diverse origins ranging from survivors of the Holocaust to Jews persecuted in Arab countries, from the developed world of the United States and Europe extending to Jews fleeing primitive societies such as Ethiopia.
What stands out is the miracle of the aliyah of a million Jews from the Soviet Union – an exodus we should surely be celebrating when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. We must recall that many had previously dismissed hope for rescuing these Jews, regarding them as assimilated and lost to the Jewish people. Furthermore, this exodus was launched by a few hundred heroic Soviet Jews from assimilated backgrounds who overnight discovered their Jewish identity and amazingly stood up against the most powerful totalitarian government in the world. With the support of world Jewry, they achieved their goals and in fact became a major contributing factor in the ultimate collapse of the Evil Empire. Nothing short of “miraculous” can describe these extraordinary events.
And the incredible success in molding these Jews – most of them refugees from oppression – into a rejuvenated nation state based on Jewish culture and tradition and the resurrection of Hebrew into a spoken language, is surely a miraculous event.
After attaining nationhood, the people of the book, powerless for 2,000 years, almost overnight succeeded in creating the most powerful regional army which, despite its small size, would be classified as one of the strongest military powers. Israel demonstrated an incredible capability of deterring aggression and defending the Jewish people.
It is thus regrettable that as we gather around and recite the Haggadah dealing with our emergence as a people, as a rule, our rabbis fail to highlight the link with those events and the privileged and miraculous status that we have achieved in our lifetime.
During the Passover Seder, atheists and agnostics should offer thanks “to Whom it may concern.” Those of us who believe that there is a Divine presence should express joy and thanks to the Almighty for engineering our miraculous rebirth and pray that He continues watching over His people.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom