On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away…
You are not wrong – yes, the words are indeed from Pink Floyd.
This is my Pesach song. Pesach preparations are always complicated and this song is playing over and over again in the background. Leil HaSeder is around the corner and just like on any other holy day, the question is echoing in the back of my mind – what can we learn today from the wisdom of the past? How can we find contemporary meaning in the ancient narrative?
Pesach encompasses a few narratives: an agricultural holiday that marks the beginning of the spring in Israel. One of the Regalim, a pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem, Z’man Yetziat Mitzrayim – the time of the redemption from Egypt and Pesach Dorot, the world-wide redemption to come or in the Jewish term Yemot HaMashiach, the time of social utopia.
Nowadays, two pillars of our culture are emphasised in Leil HaSeder, the pursuit for freedom and the pursuit of knowledge.
One of the Pesach mitzvot is to tell our children about our past, the story of people who once were slaves but now are free, a free nation. While other nations and religions sanctified stories of heroism and conquest, we chose to sanctify the story of the downtrodden minority who become a free nation, to tell the story as if we were there.
How can we tell a story about an ancient past “as if we were there?” One of the most beautiful answers was given by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
…My father was God and didn’t know it. He gave me
the Ten Commandments not in thunder and rage,
nor in fire or cloud, but with softness and love.
And he added gestures and good words,
added Please and Welcome and intoned Remember
in one incantation, and pleaded and wept
between one commandment and the next.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,
Thou shalt not take, in vain, please
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
And he held me tight and whispered in my ear,
Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not commit adultery,
Thou shalt not kill. And he placed his open palms on my head
in the Yom Kippur benediction, Honour, love,
so that thy days may be long on the land.
And my father’s voice is as white as his hair.
Then he turned his face to me for the last time
as he did on the day he died in my arms and said:
I want to add two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “You will not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Change, you will change.”
So said my father and turned from me and went
and vanished into his mysterious distances.
(Excerpt from My parents’ motel, translation by Tsipi Keller*)
As for freedom, I have struggled with myself for many years about the question: What can we do about it today?
This year, there is a very unique answer that we probably won’t see on the news: the freedom from fear of war.
During a period of two weeks, tens of thousands of pictures and messages were posted on Facebook by Israelis, sending a clear and loud message to the Prime Ministers of Israel and Iran – Our people love your People, don’t drag us into war.
Whether it will have the much needed effect on the politicians, we do not know. It is the first time that so many young people in the Jewish world have raised their voices in unison, saying: Give peace a chance!
Living my peaceful life in New Zealand for the past year, it would be easy to become judgemental about Israel and what is called there HaMatzav, “the situation”.
This Pesach, I wish for us all to find the seeds of knowledge and freedom in our past, and support and nourish them in our life today.
Chag Sameach ve Kasher!
Wishing you a happy and kosher festival!
Rabbi Adi Cohen
* from Poets on the Edge, An anthology of contemporary Hebrew poetry, selected and translated by Tsipi Keller, SUNY Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture, SUNY Albany, 2008.