The Seder, the sirens and the state

The story of Pessah reinforces the resilience of the Jewish people and teaches that after hardship comes joy and hope.

By
March 29, 2010 18:10
Israelis stand still as the sirens wail

siren standing yom hazikaron 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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There was a time in Israel, back in the “good old days,” when almost every car here was equipped with a manual transmission. Today, it’s quite the opposite; standard automobiles come with fully automatic transmissions. In fact, I had to place a special order, and wait an extra month, in order to get my car with a stick shift. Maybe that’s the contrarian in me – I like the feel and control of shifting gears more than the convenience of putting it in “drive” and letting the engine do all the work.

But it’s not only about cars. This is a particularly useful skill in navigating the highway of Israeli life, where we are constantly called upon to “switch gears,” particularly on an emotional and psychological level. The highs and lows which confront us in this unique country require a special kind of dexterity. One day we are riding along on positive economic news or celebrating our latest Nobel Prize winner; the next day we are facing condemnation by foe and (presumed) friend alike. In other countries it’s the weather which is unpredictable and ever-changing; here we go way beyond meteorology when it comes to sudden storms.

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If ever a season of the year exemplified this phenomenon, it is the one now upon us. In a span of just 16 dizzying days, we will go from the joyous celebration of Pessah to the somber ceremonies of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for our fallen soldiers), and then to the raucous celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut. The continual flame that burns throughout these days – from the candles kindled for the Pessah holiday, to the memorial lights for loved ones lost, to the fireworks that light up our national birthday – sometimes warms our hearts, while at other times sears our souls.

HOW DO we do it? How do we cope with all these intense, diametrically-opposed feelings packed into one tiny slice of the year? How do we maintain our spiritual equilibrium and balance the agony and ecstasy of life in the Holy Land?

The answer is the Seder. This unique event, so carefully crafted and encompassing so many different elements within its fourteen steps, is a microcosm of all the extraordinary experiences that Jewish life sends our way. Think about it: There is the camaraderie and compassion that calls upon us to share with others, by inviting perfect strangers to our Seder table so that no one goes hungry. There is the emphasis on family, as even the estranged or assimilated child has a seat reserved (indeed, current surveys indicate that more than 90 percent of Jews in Israel will attend a Pessah Seder). And there is enthusiastic revelry, characterized by uplifting songs throughout the Haggada, the year’s most elaborate meal and no less than four toasts to our good fortune and God’s saving grace.

We openly acknowledge, with gratitude, all that we have been given.

But there is also recognition of what we lost along the way: the slaves who suffered, the Jews who never made it out of Egypt. Even the innocents who were caught up in the Ten Plagues are remembered through the bitter herbs, the salt water and the spilling away of some of our wine. At most Seder tables there is also an empty chair. It can represent the long awaited yet still absent Messiah, the child lost during the pogrom, the Inquisition or Shoah, the once-proud Diaspora communities from Alexandria to Zimbabwe whose synagogues are now ghostly silent.



Perhaps, above all, there is hope – the sincere belief that, come what may, we Jews will persevere over the enemies of each generation, renew our faith in the ‘Great Liberator’ and reclaim our heritage and homeland. This hope is symbolized by our welcoming of Elijah, the prophet who will announce the final redemption; by the singing of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and, at many modern-day Seders, by the closing of the Haggada with “Hatikva” – the Hope.

EACH YEAR, as the wailing sirens usher in Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom Hazikaron, I ask myself, “How will we ever reconcile the grief with the glory? How will we dry the tears shed for so many tragedies and move on to happier times? Is it right, is it proper? Is it fair to those who fell?”

Then I think of the Seder. In Egypt, too, many died and many more suffered. And yet, when all is said and done, this is a supremely happy night. We pay our respects to those who perished, but we do not dwell forever on it. We see the events of the Exodus beyond just the slavery. We also witness the liberation, the splitting of the sea, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the entrance into Israel, the building of the Temple. In that bigger picture, there is joy and there is hope.

And so, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I can remember amid the mourning the Warsaw ghetto fighter who battled the Nazi beast and set the standard for bravery, encouraging resistance throughout all of Europe and epitomizing the Jewish courage which defied all odds and helped us win independence. And by reflecting on the fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron, I see a strong and vibrant nation that is surrounded by threat and terror and yet refuses to kneel in fear – a nation that has surpassed our most optimistic expectations and is nothing less than a walking miracle.

Most Haggadot end with “Chad Gadya.” Seemingly a harmless children’s ditty, the song describes the little goat that faces fire and beast and butcher, and even the angel of death. But the song is far from simple, for we, the Jewish people, are that goat. We have faced all those challenges and more, as we watched mighty civilizations come and go. It defies all logic and reason, but the one little kid on the block refuses to disappear. He will return, year after year, to sing the song of the Seder.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and can be reached at: jocmtv@netvision.net.il

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