How many generations have the Hebrews/Jews celebrated Passover? Possibly as many as 150, if generations were about 20 years.
We can imagine Judean herdsmen and farmers, panoplies of priests and regiments of rulers in Jerusalem; Judeans spread throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin into Persia and Bukhara and as far as India; from Cadiz in Spain and Carthage and Rome and across the Alps to the German and Slavic lands. We can picture them in the clothing common to their time and place and we see them stubbornly clinging to other dress codes, other customs, other languages.
The rhythm of the Hebrew calendar provided the pulse to family and communal life.
What can better symbolize this than the family Passover Seder and the Exodus story. Many of us may only have seen our grandparents conduct the Seder. But just close your eyes and imagine yourself back into history.
Why write this when Passover is – sorry – passed and over? The responding question is: what makes us think more about continuity than the circumcision ceremony, the “brit mila”? Word for word, the Hebrew means “the covenant of circumcision.” This ancient custom, practiced by the Egyptians as well, became in our tradition the first sign a Jewish male is given of his relationship with the generations from the time of Abraham.
This writer has a special reason for these musings, for this week another male great-grandchild entered upon this covenant. To our ears, the cries of the child – the eight-day old baby – betoken pain. It is a cruel ceremony, one would think, yet this has been our banner: “Even when wallowing in your blood, (I command you), Live!” This never fails to move me, as the child ceases his weeping and sucks on a bit of gauze dipped in wine. Another Jew has entered into the ranks of our people, and is commanded to live. I think of the dozens of generations past. I think of the generations crushed forever by Nazi Germans and their willing collaborators. And, as I write this, Holocaust Remembrance Day is upon us, I think of the million-and-a-half children who wallowed in their blood and that of their parents, and no one saved them, and commanded them, “Live!” I think of how we must live and carry on our ways and traditions in freedom and in liberty. I think of the threats uttered against us, and I think of our pain and our pride that we have lived and we shall live.
And in all that view of “us” – a group, a people – I think of him, the new-born baby surrounded by generations of living forebears and siblings. I know that he will grow up not only circumcised of body, but also, as circumcised of the “foreskin of heart,” (see Deuteronomy 10:6). This spiritual circumcision is to remove from our hearts the evil it can contain, and to remind us that external practices must be accompanied by the internal shedding of evil and the doing of good. For life which does evil is a desecration.
Living is constant battle between our leaning toward the bad, and our wanting to do good. The little baby will know the difference. How can I be so sure? Children learn by example, and the parents and grandparents who are his future role models will show how to choose. I do not attest to myself and my own generation. That would be self-aggrandizement.
In my family, we love biblical references and the traditional phraseology. It is part of the overshadowing presence of our books and our tradition in our lives. Thus, when many years ago, one of my daughters announced that she was carrying new life within her, she reminded me that this would make the number of my grandchildren equal to the tribes of Jacob/Israel.
When asked how many great-grandchildren I have, somewhat superstitiously, I do not give a direct answer in numbers. I use a Hebrew word whose letters translate into numbers. This new baby I numbered as “yad.” The Hebrew speakers among my readers will know that this word, meaning hand, is written with two letters equal to 10 and four.
This “hand,” by association led me to “the mighty hand and outstretched arm” mentioned so often in the Haggada of the Passover Seder. This then led to the personification of this might, when we are unable to rely solely on Divine intervention. The baby’s uncle had just completed a rough and toughening military service.
I leave to my future generations, who are my “eternity” as embedded in their memories, to our Israeli conundrum: We must be strong, mighty to survive, even when this can be bloody. We must be just, because we have circumcised the body and the “heart’s foreskin.” We must live, in the fullest sense of that word. And we must be free, as both the Exodus and the Holocaust have taught us.
What a weight to carry, little one! What a pride to carry, as this “little one becomes big.” “Big” in Hebrew means large, grow-up; but it also means great in learning. Perhaps even great in wisdom.
Thus the chain of life carries on across the centuries and the generations. This little one was born while his parents, to ease the pain of childbirth, sang a hassidic tune. The days before his brit were punctuated by the Song of the Sea and the Song of Songs. His name is Shir (song), Yaacov (Jacob).
Before his circumcision, we all sang King David’s beautiful Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The lyre we play since King David has struck many discords. It has many broken strings.
Shir’s lyre will, we hope, help repair the broken strings in our history. The song played on it can revive in us the first Jacob, crossing into the Land, having to wrestle and be lamed, in order to become Israel.Avraham Avi-hai has lived in Israel for 63 years and three generations of his offspring live in Israel. Though he has many accomplishments in the public area (government, academia, and Jewish public service) he takes greatest pride in his family. He can be reached at email@example.com.