Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

This is in all likelihood the strangest Pesach festival in recent Jewish history – and the experience is a worldwide one. The governments of various countries have simply announced – as part of a series of measures including schools and universities but also industries and commerce – that all places of worship are to be closed down. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues. Not, it seems, as a form of religious persecution – we have certainly experienced this in the past, especially in atheist or Communist countries which are so insecure, so afraid of their citizens believing in anything else than their own Party doctrine – and not as a form of antisemitism, imposed by those who are so insecure in their own belief in God that they fear anyone who has a different form of that same belief – for it affects all religions equally. No, the decree has come from above with great suddenness and it has been accepted and – initially at least, as I write this – it has been accepted as a sensible, necessary, positive measure. Maybe in a few weeks, when the boreShabbat Chol HaMo’eddom and the frustration and the human need for social contact builds up, the mood may change; but at the time the decrees were made – and this is a matter of record – nobody complained, no bishop, no imam, no chief rabbi. The expressed need to reduce the risks of spreading an invisible plague were seen as overcoming all else. The concepts of open borders or free right to meet or even the right to gather and worship together were all abrogated by decree from above – no election, no referendum, no opinion poll, no choice.

Ironically, and this is why I referred earlier to ”modern Jewish history”, the best parallel that I can find is with the absolutely very first Pesach of all. It is described of course in the Book of Shemot and on this occasion the Israelites are commanded first to prepare and hoard food in advance – a form of ‘hamstering’ or panic-buying – and to prepare to collect things from their neighbours – and then to spend a night in what is now called ‘Lockdown’ behind closed doors, huddling in their smeared homes while, outside in the Land of Egypt, an invisible plague spread and took away the lives of all the first-born…. the oldest members of each generation. As it turned out, the Israelites were then expelled in the middle of that very night – there was no time to apply the regulations for what to do with any portions of the roast lamb that were left over – and had to move forward into the next significant phase of their transition into a People.

Now, after the Seder Evening, on Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed we read the passage from Shemot chapter 13 in which the significance of this event is stressed. It is SO important that one should recall it each year, even when God has brought us into the land of the Canaanites and the Emorites and the Hittites and others. The act of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Leaving of Egypt, is THE key experience.

What do we know of Egypt? Let me here restrict myself to the Bible and put aside all knowledge gained from Egyptologists and archaeologists, not because it is not important as such but because it is not important to the Biblical narrative. We know that Egypt is actually two countries, Upper and Lower, hence the word ‘Mitzrayim’, the suffix ‘-ayim’ means ‘Two, a Pair’. Yet there is only one ruler, called a Par’oh, or Pharaoh. He is clearly an absolute ruler. Even his domestic servants should fear for their liberty and their lives, one tiny mistake can lead to dreadful consequences. We know that he has wizards and magicians as his advisers, rather than political and economic advisers. Since they are asked to do so, we know they are meant to interpret dreams, but they fail on one important occasion; they are able to emulate certain plagues, but not cure them, and are eventually overwhelmed. We know he worships many gods. We know he has a modern army with many horses and chariots – this is a mobile army, not a bulky slow infantry living off the land but a swift striking force designed to transport troops quickly across the packed sands of the Egyptian desert. We know that he has a prison and a chief bodyguard who is in charge of the prisoners and that when someone is accused there is no form of trial, of defence, of calling witnesses. We know that the Egyptians look down on nomadic shepherds for they are by nature farmers and townspeople, they water their fields by digging canals and channels rather than praying for rain, they rely upon a regular annual inundation from the Nile. We know there are slave markets where travelling caravans can sell for profit people they have found and kidnapped along their way. We know that when the famine hits them they have no option but to buy back – if necessary with their land and their freedom – the grain that had been taxed from them by the Pharaoh during the years of abundance and then stored in special silos and warehouses. We know the Pharaoh can initiate enormous building projects and summon forced labour and all the materials required in order to carry them out.

If one makes a list like this one finds that, even without the help of archaeologists and those who can read hieroglyphs – we already know a great deal about Egypt and a lot of it is unpleasant. It is a dictatorship where an entire group of people can be let in – if they happen to be the family of a high official – or alternatively an entire ethnic group can be enslaved and even murdered – if they no longer enjoy this ‘Protektsia’. A new Pharaoh can simply overturn the generous moves of a previous Pharaoh; there is no sense of human rights, no sense of loyalty between the ruler and the peoples.

The Israelites are to recall this. To read it every year, to talk about it with their children, whether the children are interested or not, to remind themselves of the experience of powerlessness and the fear of the unknown, the feeling of ecstatic relief when their oppressors and pursuers are eliminated. They are to thank God for this and God alone, no human agent. They are to remember it in the dark times as well – for our history provides many such and the world is not yet redeemed. With the sense of taste they are to experience the bitterness of slavery, the salt of tears, the dry bread of poverty. With prayers and songs and shared hospitality they are to strengthen the feeling of unity and nationhood.

This year – well, ”Why will this night be different from all other Seder Nights?” The opportunities to come together in the real as opposed to the virtual world will be limited, the numbers of those who do gather together will be limited, many of us will be isolated and will find it hard to feel a sense of freedom. We realise this and we cannot do much more than offer comfort.

But – the basic message remains. Maybe our method of celebrating will have to be different and the means available to us for celebrating too, but our reason for celebrating remains the same. The Seder is not just the meal, it is the message and the message remains the same. So – wherever you are when you read this – I hope you have or have had a Seder, I hope you will or will have read the Haggadah, and Shabbat Shalom and Moadim LeSimchah!

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

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