Pesach, or Passover, is the Jewish festival of freedom

opening sea phillip ratner  Sculpture by Phillip Ratner . This past week my wife and I had the surprising pleasure of encountering  Rabbi Sacks and his wife while we were walking on the Tel Aviv promenade .  He  has inspired the both of us with his sharp wit, his insight into the Torah and his ability to simply create an environment for learning that makes for great compassion and understanding. What a pleasure to be able to thank him in person. Commentary By Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

 

Pesach, or Passover, is the Jewish festival of freedom. I can remember as a child the vivid atmosphere that used to build up as it approached. The house was frantic with activity. During Pesach not only are we not allowed to eat any leavened food; we cannot have any in the house. So for weeks in advance we would be turning out rooms, getting rid of any crumbs that might be lying about, and getting out the special cutlery and crockery reserved for the festival days. With all the cleaning and packing and unpacking, it was almost as if we were getting ready for a great journey. In a sense we were, because Passover is more than just a festival. It is the journey each of us is invited to take from slavery to freedom, tracing out the route of one of the most powerful events ever to have fired the human imagination.

The story of Passover is set out in the book of Exodus and it begins in Egypt more than three thousand years ago. There, in that great centre of ancient civilisation, was a group of immigrants from the land of Canaan. They were known to others as Hebrews and to themselves as the children of Israel. Being strangers and outsiders with different customs and beliefs they were easy targets of prejudice, as outsiders have always been. Eventually they became victims of a tyrannical Pharaoh. They were turned into slaves, an expendable labour force press-ganged into building the great cities whose ruins you can still see today. Things got worse. Hebrew children were thrown into the Nile to drown. Slavery began to darken into genocide.

And then something happened, something we have remembered ever since. An Israelite who by chance had been brought up as an Egyptian saw what was happening to his people. He himself was not at risk. But he knew he could not go free when those around him were enslaved. One day tending his sheep at the edge of the desert he heard the call of God speaking from a burning bush, telling him to go back to Egypt and say to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go’. The man was Moses, and although his mission had many setbacks and disappointed hopes, eventually he led the Israelites to freedom and to the brink of the promised land.

There the story might have ended, were it not that from the very outset the Bible seems to sense that the journey from slavery to freedom is one we need to travel in every generation. So we were commanded to gather our families together every year at this time and tell the story of what it was like to be a slave and what it felt like to go free. Not just tell the story but act it out as well. We eat matzah, the unleavened ‘bread of affliction’. We sample maror, the bitter herbs, so that we can experience the taste of suffering. And we drink four cups of wine, each one a stage on the road to liberation. We tell the story in such a way that each of us feels as if we had lived through persecution and come out the other side as free human beings — as if history had been lifted off the page to become recent memory. That is how we learn to cherish freedom.

The story of the exodus has inspired not only Jews. When Oliver Cromwell made the first speech of his parliament, when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin chose their images for the Great Seal of the United States, when black Americans struggled for civil rights and when South American Catholics shaped their liberation theologies, they chose the model of Moses leading the Israelites towards the promised land. The story of the exodus has inspired the search for freedom in many places and times. It does not belong simply to the chronicles of an ancient people. It is a journey each of us must trace and retrace, because freedom is fragile and needs defending. That is why, every year, we taste slavery and suffering, and understand again why God wants us to be free.

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What has freedom to do with faith or religion or spirituality? Freedom, after all, is about politics and society, not about religion and the soul. Karl Marx used to argue that religion keeps us slaves by allowing us to live with our lack of freedom, seeing it as the will of God. He called it the opium of the people.

But that is not the religion of the Bible. The redemption brought about by Moses was not something that happened in the privacy of the soul. It was a political revolution, an event that changed the history of a people. They had been slaves in Egypt. Now they were free human beings, travelling through the desert on their way to their own land.

A free God wants the free worship of free human beings. That is the message the Bible sounds again and again through its verses. And because freedom is created or destroyed by the political system, God wants us to worship Him at least in part by die kind of society we build and the laws we enact. That is why the books of Moses are not just about miracles and revelation and faith. They contain laws, commandments and rules by which we build a just and free society.

God, as He speaks to us through the words of the Bible, asks us to take special care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, those who are vulnerable and without power. He tells us to give part of what we produce to those in need and to cancel debts every seventh year so that no one becomes caught in the trap of poverty. These rules, first stated three thousand years ago, are still capable of moving us today even though we sometimes forget their origin in the story of the exodus.

Beyond them, there are laws whose simple purpose is to remind us of what it feels like to be free, none more so than the institution of the Sabbath. One day in every seven, no one was allowed to work or force anyone else to work. Everyone — servants, employees, even animals — was given a taste of absolute freedom. It is hard to overestimate what this did to keep the spirit of Jews alive.

My grandparents came to this country a century ago from Poland. They arrived in London’s East End with nothing. They knew no English. They had no skills. They found themselves in the heart of London’s poorest district, strangers in a strange land. I sometimes wonder how they and their many neighbours kept alive the burning hope that one day things would be different. But in my heart of hearts I know it was the Sabbath that was their inner strength.

However desperate things had been during the week, that day they would set the table with a shining white cloth and light the candles in their silver candlesticks and relax as if they were guests at God’s own banquet. The Sabbath preserved their dignity and kept them from being crushed by the burdens life had loaded on their frail shoulders. The Sabbath — and Pesach itself with its declaration that ‘This year we may be slaves, but next year we will he free’. You could taste the hope in those four glasses of wine, and from hope came energy and determination.

One of Judaism’s most powerful messages is that redemption is of this world, and every time we help the poor to escape from poverty, or give the homeless a home or cause the unheeded to be heard we bring God’s kingdom one step closer. The best way never to forget this message is every year to eat the bread of affliction and taste the bitter herbs so that we never forget what it is like to be unfree. ‘Do not oppress the stranger’, says the Bible, ‘because you-know what it feels like to be a stranger. You were once strangers in the land of Egypt.’

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Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleylot, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ Those must have been the first words of Hebrew ever said. If I strain my memory I can still see my grandparents’ dining table with all the uncles and aunts and cousins gathered round on those Passover nights in Seven Sisters Road in London many years ago. Pesach was the great family gathering and all very daunting to me, the youngest, three or four years old. But I quickly learned that it is in fact the youngest who has the best lines: the four questions with which the whole service begins. Why is this night different? Why the unleavened bread and bitter herbs? Why do we dip the vegetables and why lean when we drink the wine?

The answers came much later in the evening. But meanwhile there was much to keep a young child awake. My favourite part came when my grandfather broke the middle matzah in two and gave me one half to hide until the end of the meal. This kept me in a state of pleasant suspense for several hours because I knew that when the time came for us to eat the broken matzah, custom decreed that the adults would put on a show of searching for it, they would fail, and I would then be entitled to a present in return for disclosing its whereabouts. It was an elaborate charade, but it worked.

 

And then there were the rousing songs with which the evening ended, usually after midnight. The last one was my favourite, the one about the young goat that father bought, which got eaten by a cat, which was eaten by a dog, which got hit by a stick, which got burned by a fire, and so on in a manic crescendo until in the last verse God Himself came and defeated the angel of death. Mortality duly vanquished, we could go to bed.

Judaism has always had a genius for attracting the interest of a child, never more so than on Passover night. Nor is this accidental, because if you turn to the book of Exodus, you find that on the brink of Israel’s liberation Moses repeatedly speaks to the people about children and how, in generations to come, they should be taught the significance of that event. Only slowly did I come to understand why. Freedom is not born overnight. it needs patience and training and carefully acquired skills It needs an education in freedom. Without it, a society can all too quickly lapse into chaos or conflict, rivalry and war.

The Israelites of Moses’ day were unprepared for liberty, and the Bible faithfully records tier quarrels and disorders. It took a new generation to be ready to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. As the Rabbi of Kotzk put it: ‘It took one day to get the Israelites out of Egypt. Rut it took forty years to get Egypt our of the Israelites.’ That is why on Pesach we begin with the youngest chiId, as if to say to him or her: This is what affliction tastes like, and here, by contrast, is the wine of our hard-earned freedom. This is the heritage of our historical experience, and tonight we begin to hand it on to you.

No less importantly, the first lesson we teach our children is how to ask questions. Religious faith is not uncritical. It does not only ask us to take things on trust. It encourages us to look at the world, and ask, why are things as they are? Could they be otherwise? The great prophets took nothing for granted, least of all the injustices of the world. They asked questions of God, deep and searching questions. And God asks questions of us. Why do we allow evil to prosper? Why are we passive in the face of suffering? For God and mankind are partners in the work of redemption, and every step on the way begins with a willingness to question why we are as we are.

As I read the Bible I sense the link between Moses’ two great passions, for justice and for teaching children. What we learn as children shapes the society we make when we become adults. And so on Pesach we turn to our children and say: Here is the freedom God has given us. Take it and make it yours.

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Judaism tends to be a mystery to observers. It is a religion of the spirit, but it seems to be about very physical things. There is nothing abstract about Pesach. It is about the hard, dry unleavened bread, and the sharp horseradish of the bitter herbs, and about drinking wine and telling stories and singing songs. Nor is it about solitude, the lonely soul in communion with God. Go to a Pesach meal and the one thing you will not find solitude. You will find a table crammed with grandparents, parents and children, uncles, aunts and cousins. Even those who are lonely at other times are tonight here as guests, sharing in the crowded celebration.

The reason is simple. God created the world as a home for mankind and He wants us to create a world that will be a home for Him. There may be rare saints for whom suffering is spiritual, But for most of us, affliction turns us in upon ourselves. Slavery which begins by imprisoning the body can end by narrowing the soul, We need freedom, a sense of inner spaciousness, to be able to reach out beyond our own immediate needs and breathe the air of a larger reality. So, though it does nor end there, the religious journey starts in the here-and-now of daily life, the society we build and the relationships we make.

For many years I was puzzled by the first words we say on Pesach: ‘This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt, Let all those who are hungry come and eat it with us. What kind of hospitality is it to offer the hungry the bread of affliction? Finally, though, I think understood. The unleavened bread represents two things. It was the food eaten by slaves. But it was also the food eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in too much of a hurry to let the dough rise. It is the bread of affliction, but it is also the bread of freedom.

When we eat it alone, we taste in it all the suffering of the human condition. But when we offer to share it, we can taste in it something else: the sense of a freer world that God has promised us we can create. One who fears tomorrow does not share his bread with others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger is capable of fellowship and hope. Food shared is no longer the bread of affliction. Whenever we reach out and touch other people’s lives, giving help to the needy, and hope to those in despair, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.

Chag kasher v’sameach!