Sinai Today: Understanding historic times

We live in historic times. Just think about what has happened in Jewish history during the last 70 years alone.

haggada four sons_311 (photo credit: David Geffen)
haggada four sons_311
(photo credit: David Geffen)
We live in historic times. Just think about what has happened in Jewish history during the last 70 years alone. We often struggle to make sense of it all. There is too much information and not enough perspective. Our understanding is often fragmented as we lurch from one headline to the next, one crisis to the next, without seeing the bigger picture.
Contrast this with Seder night, when we don’t just recount the isolated historical facts of the Exodus from Egypt but tell a whole, coherent story in the manner in which G-d has shown us. The Passover Haggada is structured in such a way that in retelling the events and re-experiencing the great miracles which G-d performed for our ancestors in Egypt, we are actually putting the various fragments together to form a larger, integrated and congruent whole.
As we go through the Haggada, we see the Exodus not as an isolated event but as an event which occurred in the context of our people’s history, going all the way back to our forefathers and -mothers. We recount not only the experience of the Exodus, but how we got to Egypt in the first place, the destiny of our people and the events following our redemption – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and entering the Land of Israel. We look at the full sweep of history, not just at the individual events being recounted at that moment. In the world of the Haggada, we feel past, present and future merging into a coherent and congruent story of who we are and what our Divine mission and purpose is.
Through this, G-d teaches us an important lesson, and that is that we need to look at things from a broader perspective and to contextualize the events of history in order to make sense of them. Often we get pulled into the vortex of a particular event’s intensity, to the point where we are unable to see the larger picture. But one of the great teachings of Judaism is that nothing in this world is random; no event is an isolated occurrence and everything is part of the Divine sweep of history. We need to piece the fragments together so that they cohere in a meaningful way that reflects G-d’s master plan.
In our own times as well, we need to understand world events in the context of Jewish destiny and from a Torah perspective. This imperative led me to produce a short, six-minute video message (>/vehisheamda), which looks at the miraculous sweep of Jewish history, from ancient Egypt to modern-day Iran, all underpinned with the immortal words of the Passover Haggada, “Vehi she’amda.”
This short video, interwoven with the inspiring music of Yaakov Shwekey, seeks to provide a framework for understanding our destiny and the events of our times.
The video has been made in the spirit of the Haggada, which teaches us to rise above the fragments of daily events and to see the bigger picture, to see ourselves as part of the unfolding story of Jewish destiny as guided by G-d. We must see events not as random headlines, but as part of a meaningful story of who we are, which in turn gives us clarity as to our purpose and Divine mission.
One of the central symbols of our Passover redemption is the eagle. “You saw with your own eyes what I did to Egypt; I carried you on the wings of eagles, and brought you to Me” (Exodus 19:4). The eagle symbolizes transcendence. It flies higher than any other bird, scans vast areas and sees everything. Flying on the wings of eagles enables us to rise above the turbulence of daily affairs. Too often we find ourselves staggering from one event to the next, from one peace summit to the next war to yet another United Nations resolution, instead of seeing the bigger picture of where we have come from and where we are headed.
Especially in our interactions with the nations of the world, we need to come with the broad perspective of our history. There is no doubt that the modern Zionist enterprise achieved great things; but if we tell the world that Zionism started just over 100 years ago in Basel, Switzerland, distorted perceptions and accusations of colonialism will emerge.
If we do not proudly proclaim the truth, that Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish state long before Washington, Paris or London even existed, there will be always be confusion. For our own clarity of purpose and sense of mission, we need to realize that we are an ancient people whose moral vision is rooted in our Torah, given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago.
We are indeed living in historic and dramatic times. We need to step back for a moment and understand that everything we are going through is part of something much larger. It is only from the commanding heights of the transcendent eagle that we can see things from a broader perspective and find optimism and gratitude to G-d when we consider the miracle of our very existence after so many enemies have sought – and still seek – our destruction.
This transcendent vision also imbues us with inspiration for our Divine mission to continue our legacy as an ancient, holy and eternal people. From this perspective will emerge the insight, faith and courage we need in order to rise, with G-d’s help, to the challenges and opportunities of our times.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.