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


BEIT POLSKA (Warszawa & Gdansk)



Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

It seems strange to some, but Pessach falls in the First Month of our Jewish calendar, Nissan, because Judaism is based on a Liberation, which took place in Nissan. Rosh Hashanah, the so-called 'New Year’, in contrast, falls in the autumn, in the Seventh Month, because that is ”only” concerned with the world, the universe, the background! That may sound a little strange, but there is a logic to it. Each of us counts our lives from the moment, the day when We were born, not from the time the Earth began or Civilisation started. The Earth is here and the Earth has its birthday and so we mark it – but WE had our own individual or communal birthdays and this is what makes us what we are.

What was this Liberation? We re-tell the story every year, at the Seder and in the Haggadah – though we also mention it many, many times in our liturgy and it is referred to many many times in the Torah and in the other books of the Tanach as well. The ”Yetziat Mitzrayim”, the departure from Egypt. There was a time when we were enslaved, and then we were freed – not by another person, not due to a war, not because politics changed – but due to divine intervention. God actually heard what was being cried out in Egypt, God took notice, God reacted, and although the story is more complicated than I can put it in one sentence – as we know – in essence this is what happened. God rescued us and freed us, liberated us and redeemed us and gave us a new sense of purpose, a new national identity. From now on we were not just the descendants of Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, we were not just the Hebrews or the Israelites, from now on we were the people who had a Torah, a new Covenant, and a special relationship with God; we had a duty to remember our history and we had a duty to believe in our promised future. Neither of these duties is easy, and this is why Jewish history has been so complicated ever since, over thousands of years.

Slavery takes many forms and it may help us now, here, in the modern world, in Europe, to think about what it can mean for each one of us – and try to free ourselves from ancient and not-so-ancient images of forced labour. Forced Labour is indeed a form of physical slavery, and it is the one referred to most in the Haggadah – but it is not the only one. Whenever somebody feels forced to do something they do not wish to do, whenever they are forced to react to external pressure and to give up some of their personal freedom – there is an element of slavery here. When someone feels ”I am not hungry, but I feel I MUST eat something” or ”I am not in a happy social group, I am all alone and miserable, but nevertheless I crave alcohol”; whenever someone feels the need to consume some drug that they KNOW is harmful for them, and yet they feel forced to take it – and currently the USA is facing an enormous rise in people addicted to Opioids – one is enslaved. Most smokers are ”slaves to their habit”. When someone is forced to have sex with another person against their real desire, even if force is not directly used but instead financial pressure or power politics that lead to prostitution – their body is being misused as a form of slavery. It may be that a soldier is conscripted against his will, it may be that someone has fallen into debt and must work longer and harder to pay off the lender, they are not free to enjoy the fruits of the labour because it is already promised to someone else…. There are so many different forms of external pressure and force or of internal pressure, of addiction. All are in some way a form of Slavery.

Of course the definitions can be a little blurred at times. If you have CHOSEN to go into debt to buy a house or a car or a holiday, do you have the same right to feel a grievance? What about addictions to gambling? If you deliberately start a war and lose and have to clear up the mess and rubble – can you truly complain that this is unfair? If you were prescribed certain medication by a doctor you trusted and you now find yourself dependent on these pills, is this your fault? There are issues of Blame and Fault which may creep in and confuse the issue. I do not have simple answers to this, because there are none. A person whose life is dominated by caring for a sick child or a sick parent – are they ”enslaved”, or merely doing what should come naturally? Is someone who has to make a business journey a ”slave of the clock”, or simply dependent on the railway or airline timetable and so he has a requirement to appear punctually at the departure point?

But then we come to other elements that deserve notice, even if not directly relevant to the Exodus, for they involve the way we see others or others see us. From the time of the Industrial Revolution something occurred which changed humanity and society. The Worker became anonymous, just one of a group, just a number on a card to be 'clocked in’. The worker no longer met the customer. Whereas beforehand, when humans lived in smaller communities, in villages or on farms, a shoemaker or a tailor or a baker or a butcher would prepare their goods and sell them personally, would meet the customer, discuss the product, make recommendations, pass the time of day – now they stood at a machine which made shoes or wove lengths of cloth or minced rows of sausages which were packed up and transported and sold to people whom they would never meet. In recent years this phenomenon has spread to, for example, on-line marketing whereby you order online and a worker in a big warehouse for Amazon or whoever puts the wares into a box and adds it to a pile but never meets you, the customer. You are now served by people whom you do not know and do not meet, people with whom you have no relationship. Instead of a shopkeeper there is a bored person at the checkout and even here computers and screens are being introduced to replace them. Of course this is even more so the case if the people who make the clothes you wear or the machines you use or the shoes or anything else live in other countries or on the other side of the world.

Although there are still some few exceptions and there are still markets where you can buy vegetables from the farmers, in general the days when you bought the fish on the quayside from the fisherman ended when it became possible to transport the fresh fish inland by train; the days when you met the carpenter who made your furniture ended when furniture, like so many other things, became mass produced. That meant the customers became an anonymous mass, and so did the workers. The production chain became so long that the contact between the beginning and the end got lost.

Maybe there are advantages to this and maybe it has to be accepted as ”progress”, but it is still worth taking note of. If I work for a large firm or organisation I am just one of many, my name is less important than my function within the labour process or on the assembly line. Judaism is very aware of this danger, that one ceases to have a name and an identity and becomes merely ”one of the 600,000 who left Egypt” or, alas, ”one of the six million”. An individual Worker has an identity, and a skill, and a relationship to the work he is doing or the thing he is producing; in contrast a Slave has only a function, a task to perform.

How can one free oneself from this situation? (Assuming, of course, that one wants to, for as we know many humans are prepared to sacrifice their humanity and freedom in a form of 'Stockholm Syndrome’ and to identify with those who have power over them and to submit; they make a compromise in return for a certain degrees of security and continuity).

The history of Labour Relations and Trades Unions and worker solidarity reveal some interesting models. Almost none of which apply to the Exodus from Egypt! Let us assume there is a factory, owned (as in former capitalist times) by a factory owner (though nowadays usually by a combination of investors) and employing a thousand workers. If one worker is unhappy at something and complains to his foreman – he is fired. He has no protection. If ten workers come together to their foreman and say ”We are unhappy with the way the shifts are organised” the foreman could decide to take this seriously and make some minor changes – so long as HIS targets are still met. If a hundred workers go to the head of a Section and complain perhaps that their machines are dangerous to work on and they need protective screens fitting, the head can make a decision, use his budget, maybe refer the matter upwards but also fit the necessary protective screens. If all thousand workers protest and say together that they will not continue unless their pay is increased – production comes to a standstill. The Owner or Manager then faces certain decisions – will it be cheaper or more expensive in the long run, to give in to this demand, or to invest in new machines, or to bring in new workers or strike breakers, or whatever? The difference in all these (rather simplified) examples is Solidarity. Alone, one can achieve almost nothing; If a Union, a collective is formed, one can apply pressure upon the slave drivers. There are of course risks because the Owner or Manager may decide to employ brutal methods or to eliminate known ”trouble-makers” but here, too, solidarity can count.

I use the word 'Solidarity’ deliberately, of course, when I speak of life in Poland of the past decades and contrast it to previous decades.

Now, in the story of the Exodus, the Yetziat Mitzrayim, this model does not apply. God sends just ONE man to represent the Israelites, together with Aharon as his assistant and interpreter. Moses is not just a Nobody in Egyptian circles – he is a former adopted prince who fled on a murder charge – but he is a Nobody to the Israelites, who show no solidarity with him. Moses does not say ”Let My people go!”, his task is to say ”GOD SAYS 'Let MY People Go! So that they may serve ME!” Moses represents another power, not the Workers, the Slaves, but the God of the Slaves.

This makes it into a totally different story, one that Pharaoh also needs time to understand. He knows how to deal normally with Slaves who make trouble – you simply whip them, you increase their burdens, you make them collect their own straw for the bricks, you ignore warnings that they could be hurt by falling hail, and so on. But there is another Power at work here, a divine Power. It is only in the Last Plague that Pharaoh – who has of course by then also experienced frogs and lice and boils and hail and darkness – is actually personally, deeply, hurt, is brought down to the level of the slave girl at the millstones – loses his own firstborn child. Only then does the enormous power of this invisible, anonymous God become clear to him, only then does he give way.

The Israelites are now expelled, partially unprepared. But it is only following their salvation at the Red Sea or Reed Sea, the Yam Suf, that they finally understand what is happening and that they have been liberated from Slavery – including the more comfortable aspects such as regular meals of fish and cucumbers – and are now confronted with the responsibilities that Freedom brings. The main task of Moses from now on is to instil into them a sense of solidarity, of peoplehood, of unified interests and shared values so that the individual tribes will not go their own ways. If they are to achieve their goal, the people of Israel must show solidarity with each other.

This is what we celebrate at Pesach. Not just the history but the present. We are free to read the story of the liberation. But we must also apply the lessons to the present. We were freed, not to live in anarchy, but to serve a Higher Power. We may have different opinions – the recent elections in the Medinat Yisrael reveal that as well – but how we express them, this is a part of the Freedom we celebrate today, this week and – hopefully – throughout the year.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.