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Why do we do all this? Passover 5775 Message

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

Z’man Cheiruteinu
Time to be free!

The most widely observed Jewish ritual in America today is the Seder. What is the Seder’s purpose? Through the Seder, we fulfill the commandment, “You shall tell your child on that day, “Because of what G-d did for me when I went out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

The central truths of our faith are shaped by the Exodus. That is why the Rabbi felt that someone who denied the Exodus was a kofer ba’ikar, one who rejected our faith fundamentally. When we left Egypt, we perceived the true meaning of life. We understood that there is a G-d who cares, and that we can and should join G-d in morally perfecting the world.

How to do this? Our prophets and sages understood that dwelling on slavery and oppression would turn us into bitter, cynical and likely brutal people. Our shackles might be off, but we would remain mired in the rage and hatred of the slave. So, at the Seder, we tell a different story. It begins with Shibud/servitude “Avadam Hayinu! – We were slaves!”—but moves quickly to Ge’ulah, redemption.

We are still moving from Shibud to Ge’ulah. Seventy years ago six million Jews, one third of our people, were systemically murdered by the most culturally advanced society in Europe. Brilliant German scientists, philosophers, clergymen, even physicians colluded. The contract for the gas chambers at Auschwitz was awarded to L.G. Farben Petrochemical because they perfected the insecticide Zykon B which could kill 200 persons in less than 30 minutes, at a cost of 5 pfenigs each. Then they figured out that if they extended the dying agony of their victims to one hour, they could cut the gas in half and reduce the cost of each life to 2.5 pfenigs each.

Had the world protected this atrocity, we could say that Germany was an aberration, while humanity was decent. But others stood by. The Church was apathetic. Our own country, deeply suspicious of foreigners, sealed its borders. The British, sensitive to Arab feelings, blocked off Palestine.

And for all this loss, of your relatives and mine, the world seemed to learn nothing. The seven decades since the Shoah have witnessed one genocide after another, mass killings in the Soviet Union and Communist China, Cambodia ,Biafra, Rwanda, Yugoslavia. Some estimate that since the Shoah over 30 million people have lost their lives in campaigns of mass extermination.

This is the history we should have in mind when the child asks “Mah ha’vodah hazot lachem?” What is the meaning of all of this? In the midst of seemingly endless savagery, why persist with all of this ritual and prayer?
There is meaning, but it’s not in the slavery, not in the death marches or forced starvation, not in the mass rapes or child slavery. The meaning is not in the horror. The meaning is in the response. Over and over again we could have given up. Having experienced the abyss, we could have surrendered our ideals and our vision and retreated into a me-first, catch-as-catch-can existence. We could have responded collectively as did the parents of Madeline Albright, concealing our Jewishness from our children, raising them as Christians, and never speaking of grandparents who died in the camps and ghettoes.

We didn’t do that because we have Passover. We know that what we celebrate is not slavery, but freedom.
Every morning, I begin my prayers with a blessing: “Blessed are you, G-d, who restores souls to dead bodies.” Over the last seventy years, faced with a choice between remembrance or amnesia, gratitude or cynicism, vision or selfishness, we chose life. We created the State of Israel, where we have this holy opportunity to actualize the ethics of Torah in a real society. We have established a vast network of social welfare institutions in the U.S. and all over the world. Especially in America, we have founded an ideological rainbow of Jewish seminaries, Synagogues, community centers, day schools, adult learning programs, youth camps, Hillels and more.

No place in all of our Diaspora history has given us more freedom and opportunity than America. No place has given us more safety, privilege, affluence and power than America. There are anti-Semites here, but anti-Semitism no longer determines where we live, what degrees we earn, what jobs we get, or where we socialize or vacation.
What will we do with all of this power and privilege? Can we create Synagogues that will be spiritually elevating, morally inspired, caring and joyous? Can we offer all who enter there, from any background, of any age, ways to live life with meaning? Can we trust that for all of our enemies—real and at times imagined—we can still build alliance across religious, racial and other lines?

Or are we so twisted by persecution, so scarred by the Shoah, so demoralized by the fear and terror we see every day on our home page, that we can only talk about hatred, violence and death?

There are five symbolic foods on the k’ara, the Seder plate. Four of the five represent positive qualities: Freedom (matzah), deliverance (shank bone), Holiday joy (roasted egg), and covenantal love (charosset). Only one, the Marror (bitter herbs) is negative and recalls slavery.

When we raise the Marror, we recite “This is because of the Egyptians who made our ancestors’ lives bitter in Egypt….all the work they made them do was back breaking”. We recall other historical persecutions but then we quickly turn to G-d’s salvation, of our ancestors and of us: “It was we ourselves that He brought out of there, so that He might lead us, and give us the land that He swore to our ancestors” (Deuteronomy 6:23). We turn from the marror, cover the matzah, raise the cup of wine and say: “It is therefore our duty to thank, praise, be grateful, glorify, exalt, acclaim and sing out to the One who….led us from slavery to freedom, from bondage to redemption, from misery to joy and from mourning to a Holiday, and from deep darkness to great light. Let us therefore sing before Him Halleluyah, Praise G-d!”

May you enjoy a transformative, joyous and kosher Passover and may we find ways this year to bring the light of freedom to those who suffer from persecution and despair.

Chag Kasher V’smei’ach, A Happy and Kosher Passover,

Rabbi Weintraub

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