Judaism teaches that “every Israelite is responsible for the other.” Aside from Israel – where the Jewish population continues to grow, Jews in the rest of the world suffer from internal hemorrhaging.
How do we “inspire” our Jewish siblings so that they remain within – or return to – our Jewish peoplehood? We have recently celebrated the festival of Passover, and we are “counting” each day towards the festival of Shavuot. The Hebrew term for the counting is sefira, a word pregnant with meaning. Its root noun is the Hebrew sappir, which is the dazzling blue – as the Bible records immediately following the Revelation at Sinai: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel then went up. And they saw the God of Israel, beneath whose ‘feet’ was something akin to the creation of a sapphire stone, like the essence of the heavens as to its purity” (Ex. 24: 9-10).
From this perspective, the days of our counting are a period of spiritual growth and development, of a connection between Passover and Shavuot. But when and how does this spiritual journey begin? It begins with Passover, God’s encounter with His nation Israel at its conception. And the Hebrew sefira (count, sapphire) is also based on the Hebrew noun sippur, a tale, a story, a re-counting – the very essence of the Passover Seder evening experience: “And you shall tell (haggada, telling a story) your child on that day saying...” (Ex. 13:8) The Israelites came into Egypt as a family, the 70 descendants of Jacob. Hence the recounting of the story of our enslavement and eventual redemption is the recounting of family history. A nation is a family writ large: in a family, there are familial memories of origins; in a family there is a sense of commonality and community togetherness; in a family there are special foods and customs, special holidays and celebrations; in a family there are mandated values and ideals, that which is acceptable and that which is unacceptable “in our family”; and in a family there is a heightened sense of a shared fate and shared destiny.
Eda is the biblical word for community (literally witness), and every community attempts to recreate a familial collegiality. The relationship within the family is largely horizontal – towards each other – rather than vertical – connected to a transcendent God. And familial rites of togetherness are largely governed by familial customs rather than by a Divinely ordained legal code.
Most importantly in families – as well as communities – every individual counts (once again, sefira).
Passover is our familial, communal festival, at the beginning of our calendar, at the very outset of our history, at the early steps towards our sefira march. At Passover we had not yet received our Torah from God, and we had not yet entered our Promised Land.
The Passover Sacrifice (Exodus 12) emphasizes our willingness to sacrifice for our freedom from slavery – our sacrifice of the lamb which was a defiant act of rebellion against Egyptian slave-society – and it attests to our uncompromising belief in human freedom and redemption even before we became a religion at Mount Sinai. In order for everyone to really count, large communities must be subdivided into smaller – and more manageable – familial and extra-familial units, “a lamb for each household” or several households together.
Special foods, special stories and special songs define and punctuate the familial nature of the event.
The ticket of admission is that you consider yourself a member of the family and wish to be counted in as such; this entitles you to an unconditional embrace of love and acceptance, to inclusion in the family of Israel.
The rasha (wicked child) is the one who excludes himself from the family – and even he/she is to be invited and sought after! How do we engage our Jews so that they do not defect and fall away from us? We must embrace them as part of our family, love them because we are part of them and they are part of us, regale them with the stories, songs and special foods which are expressed in our biblical and national literature that emerged from our challenging fate and our unique destiny, share with them our vision and dreams of human freedom and peace, and accept them wholeheartedly no matter what.
A personal family postscript: My paternal grandfather was an idealistic and intellectual communist. He ate on Yom Kippur and truly believed that religion “was the opiate of the masses.” Nevertheless, he conducted a Passover Seder each year – which I attended as a young child – with matza, maror, haroset, and the first part of the Haggada. He would add passages from the Prophets, the Talmud and Shalom Aleichem which dealt with consideration for the poor and underprivileged, and checked that I could space my fingers properly for the Priestly Benediction, cautioning me to understand that the blessing was for world peace.
Despite my tender years, I noticed that there were still bread and rolls in the house which, if a grandchild wished, he received. I couldn’t understand the contradiction.
And then I was riding on a train with my grandfather, and there were two elderly ultra-Orthodox Jews sitting opposite us, speaking Yiddish. Two young toughs walked into our compartment and began taunting the hassidim.
At the next stop my grandfather – who was fairly tall and strong – lunged forward, grabbed the toughs, and literally threw them out the open door. When he returned to his seat, I asked, “But grandpa, you’re not at all religious!” He looked at me in dismay. “What difference does that make? They are part of our family – and I am part of their family!” Then I understood...
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs – currently celebrating their 30th anniversary – and is chief rabbi of Efrat.