Sermon: 1st Day Pesach 2018

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 3 April 2018

Last night as we sat around our Seder tables, we told our story, we read our history book, the Haggadah. But just what is the Jewish story? And which part of the Haggadah, in particular, tells that story more authentically?

Two places in the Haggadah use the same phrase but in strikingly different ways. The first comes just before we begin telling the story of how we came to be in Egypt. It begins “v’he sh’amdah” and continues “b’chol dor va’dor,” “in every generation, people rise up against us to destroy us.” Is that, then, the eternal narrative of the Jewish people? Is our story nothing more than an “emek ha’bachah,” “a vale of tears”? Do the events of this past week lead us to say “yes, that’s just what it is”?

If we focus on that “b’chol dor va’dor,” then, it’s easy to understand how the appropriate vocabulary of Jewish existence should be that of combat and withstanding siege: constant vigilance; preparing for battle; never able to trust the non-Jewish world around us; battening down the hatches, pulling up the drawbridge; girding up our loins for the fight and so on.

But “b’chol dor va’dor” comes up again later in the Seder – “b’chol dor va’dor,” “in every generation each individual must see themselves as if they were the ones who actually went out of Egypt.” So at the Seder we don’t just talk about the bitterness of slavery, for example, we eat bitter herbs, we ingest the burning heat, to feel that bitterness in our guts. We are exhorted not to understand freedom merely as an intellectual construct but as an emotional experience, we feel in our hearts and very guts.

Which is your “b’chol dor va’dor”? Rabbi Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor, suggested that one of the most bitter and perverse legacies of the Nazis was, is that the Shoah had – not surprisingly – such an impact on the Jewish people that, three generations on, we still refer to it as some sort of base-level which determines how we see our story, how we gauge contemporary events and how we should respond to them as Jews. So there is a particular mindset that sees every current incident as somehow indicating that another Shoah is imminent, and events this past week have done nothing to dispel that feeling.

Yet Pesach offers an alternative way of looking at our story. This evening we begin counting the Omer, 49 days culminating in Shavuot, the festival commemorating the events at Mount Sinai. Now if somebody doesn’t mark Shavuot, Pesach stands on its own, as it were: the festival when we remember gaining our freedom but not really connected with anything else

But if you do count the days of the Omer, you establish a real connection between Pesach and Shavuot. No longer simply two separate festivals which just happen to be 7 weeks apart but two intimately linked moments. Indeed one of the names of Shavuot is “atseret,” meaning ‘conclusion’: Shavuot is the concluding part of Pesach. The Exodus was not simply about getting our freedom and that’s it, but it had to precede Sinai: only a free people can freely choose to accept Torah.

The Ten Commandmnets were, we read, “charut al haluchot” “incised on the tablets” (Exodus 32:16.) Instead of reading “charut,” a midrash suggests, change the first vowel from ‘a’ to ‘ay’: do not read “charut” “incised” but “cherut” ‘freedom’ – freedom was on those tablets. (Pirke Avot 6:2)

But there’s nothing particularly special in saying that Pesach and Shavuot are connected – it’s almost self-evident.

More unusual, though, is a curious connection between Pesach and Tisha b’Av: the black fast of the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, exile – effectively, the end of freedom.

Firstly, Pesach and Tisha b’Av always fall on the same day of the week; in addition, the sidra we read on the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av contains the verse “mah ha’eydut v’ha’chukim v’hamishpatim asher tsivah Adonai elohenu etchem” “what is the meaning of the laws, statutes and customs which the Eternal our God has commanded us?” (Deuteronomy 6:20) It’s familiar from last night as the question which the Wise Son asks.

Now all of that can be dismissed as nothing more than mere coincidence which comes about because of the way in which the Jewish Calendar is constructed.

But then it gets much more interesting. Central to the liturgy of Tisha b’Av are ‘kinot,’ a series of sad, doleful poems, lamenting the destructions and travails that have befallen the Jewish people.

And then there’s another ‘coincidence’ which can’t possibly be coincidence because, among those ‘kinot,’ those sad poems, is one with the refrain “mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot.”

So here’s the conundrum. Whoever composed that particular religious poem purposely chose to include a phrase which they knew everybody would recognise and, simply on hearing the words “mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh” would involuntarily make the connection with Pesach.

Pesach and Shavuot are two festivals connected in their meaning and hence by the Omer. But what could have been in that anonymous poet’s mind to connect Pesach and Tisha b’Av?

Pesach represents freedom, the freedom to choose who and what we are to be, on a road to Mount Sinai where we can freely choose a system to govern our lives. Pesach is the beginning of our story. Tisha b’Av, however, stands for everything antithetical to Pesach: it is the end of the Jewish story, the loss of freedom, of identity; of being subjected to a law which is not ours, not freely chosen. It’s a return to everything represented in the Jewish psyche by that deeply-loaded word ‘Egypt’

Putting “mah nishtanah” in a Tisha b’Av poem is an immensely powerful symbolic reminder of the choices that lie before us, “b’chol dor va’dor,” before each generation. It’s a question: where do we, not just the collective ‘we,’ but the individual you and I, where do we situate ourselves on that continuum between Pesach and Tisha b’Av?

What story do we tell at the Seder, what is our ‘master narrative,’ how do we see our history? Is it a perpetual vale of tears – “b’chol dor va’dor” “in every generation, people rise up against us to destroy us”; or is it that other “b’chol dor va’dor” where each one of us must come to a fresh understanding of freedom every Pesach? In this week where naked antisemitism has been exposed, which is the narrative we wish to make ours, not because of that antisemitism, but in spite of it?

Creation and destruction – beginnings and endings – independence and subjugation – hope and despair. Looking back, looking forward. That’s what Pesach is and why we have to sit around our Seder tables, year in, year out.

We Jews are, as the prophet Zechariah described us, “assirei tikvah,” “prisoners of hope.” May we always be bound up in that hope, may it always keep us looking forwards, knowing that where we are now is not the end, but nothing more than a stage on the journey. “B’chol dor va’dor”