Forty is a significant time period in Jewish terms. It rained for 40 days and nights in Noah’s time; Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and stayed for 40 days; the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years before reaching the Holy Land. So, too, the period of doing teshuva, “atonement,” extends from the beginning of the month of Elul through Yom Kippur, exactly 40 days.
Today, we have yet another (almost) 40 day span, from the beginning of the month of Nisan through Yom Ha’atzma’ut. In a sense, this extraordinary slice of the Hebrew calendar is an accelerated trip through Jewish history.
Nisan is the time of our ancient liberation from Egyptian bondage and emergence as a nation; Holocaust Remembrance Day epitomizes our travails in the long period of the Exile; Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Indepedence Day celebrate our renewal as an independent nation restored in our ancestral land, along with the high price we pay for that privilege. It’s all here.
While Passover is still in our rearview mirrors – having only just recently closed our haggadot and put away our Passover dishes – let’s take the liberty of asking just one more question: Why is it that for the first nine of the Ten Plagues, the Israelites were spared, with no action whatsoever taken on their part, yet for the tenth plague – the killing of the firstborn – we had to perform numerous actions to protect ourselves? We had to bring the lamb – one of Egypt’s primary gods – and slaughter it before their eyes, and then we had to smear the blood on our doorposts so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” our homes. We had to pledge that our own firstborn would dedicate themselves to serving God and, even to this day, firstborn traditionally fast (or participate in a siyum – celebration of studying the Talmud) on Erev Pessah. Why the difference? RABBI YEHUDA Loew, the great 16th century commentator better known as the Maharal of Prague, addresses the issue.
The first nine plagues, he says, were directed solely at Egypt. They represent God’s attempt to change Egyptian society, to “persuade” the Pharaohs to end their immoral, tyrannical abuse of others and to free the slaves. It is a mighty attempt at righting the wrongs, but despite all the pressure from Above, Pharaoh will not relent; he is determined to continue ruling with a cruel and oppressive hand.
But the 10th plague has a dual purpose: It frees us, finally, from Egyptian control, but at the same time it launches Israel on its way, beckoning us to create a new kind of nation, one that will be based on justice, morality, equality, love for one’s fellow man and freedom of every kind. The firstborn are a powerful symbol, for they represent the dawn of a new generation, one that hopefully will abide by the principle that right makes might, rather than the reverse. A generation with a mission, prepared to tackle the ills of the world and create a better tomorrow.
That is why the Passover Haggada contains references to so many of our highest ideals: Belief in One God, the importance of family, the sharing of our lavish meal with the poor, the sense of justice embodied by Elijah the Prophet, and, ultimately, the advent of a Messianic Age where prosperity replaces poverty, and wisdom wins out over warfare.
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The final page of the Haggada offers the delightful Had Gadya song. It seems childlike, perhaps, but it has an underlying, uplifting message that someday the perennial wars will finally cease, the innocent will be vindicated, and a new age will be ushered in.
THE SO-called “Arab Spring” is a colossal misnomer, a dud, an abject failure.
Despite the wishful thinking of western pundits, no significant change has occurred anywhere in the Arab world.
In fact, in most countries, the situation has only become worse, with more bloodshed, more terror, more innocent people being killed on a daily basis. One dictator is toppled, and another tyrant immediately takes his place. In Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, et al., democracy is still a dirty word. In Egypt, a member of Parliament is ignominiously booted out because he dares to host the Israeli ambassador for dinner. In Jordan, journalists who interview Israelis for their point of view are barred from ever writing again. In Turkey – once the “great Islamic hope” for moderation – newspapers are shut down for daring to question the wisdom of the president-whowould- be-king.
In all these countries, freedoms of religion, press, speech, travel and assembly are denied; free elections are unheard of. The average citizen leads a life of deprivation and desperation, crushed beneath the power of the ruling elite, dreaming of the day when he can escape to a more benevolent society.
Alone among the countries of the region is Israel, a beacon of light and hope in a sea of moral darkness. All the high-handed expectations unfulfilled in the Arab Spring are truly realized in the Jewish Spring, in the Jewish state, where democracy, the rule of law, openness, and every type of freedom flourishes.
We came to the Middle East a century ago and we broke the millennia-long mold; we forged a nation of diverse cultures and different religions, an oasis in the arid desert from which millions of people can drink, without fear or foreboding.
We established a state that offers each and every member the opportunity to realize his ambitions while safeguarding his personal approach to life.
And this is precisely why our despotic neighbors rage against us, struggling endlessly to remove us from the map.
Not just because of religious differences – though our enemies often couch their attacks in terms of a “holy war” – but because our free society constitutes the greatest possible threat to their retaining power. As the old song goes, “How can you keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?!” Israel demonstrates clearly that you can be successful, prosperous – religious, too – and still grant every citizen his or her inalienable rights.
The prospect of their own countrymen engaging in a true “Jewish Spring” is what scares the hell out of them.
AND THIS is what is so disheartening to us as we look across the ocean to our American counterparts. At its inception, America was also filled with the same spirit of freedom, optimism and expansiveness, a breath of fresh air in the community of nations, determined to bring “liberty and justice” to all. The United States was not just a powerful symbol of freedom; it lent a helping hand to any people being subjugated by oppressive masters. It knew, intrinsically, the difference between right and wrong. Yet over the last several years – particularly in the reigning administration – America has turned inwards, rejecting its role as the “policeman of the world,” even facilitating the legitimacy of horrific, freedom-denying regimes like Iran and Cuba. Sadly, the image of the Stars and Stripes, once heralded as a liberating force in the universe, has been severely tarnished.
But Israel retains its vision, its optimism, its spiritual energy. We are a young country; in historical terms, we are still toddlers, just starting to walk on our own two feet. We have achieved amazing things in our short 68 years – we are no less than a military, cultural and economic miracle come to life – but this is only the beginning. The Jewish Spring of Israel is only starting to bloom and to flow. As long as we protect our freedoms along with our borders, as long as we respect our citizens as much as we respect our ancient heritage, we can look forward to a bright and beautiful future. ■
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council; email@example.com.
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