Sermon: 7th Day Pesach

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 3 May 2016

70 years ago, a remarkable document appeared in a prominent Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires. It was entitled “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.” Dated ‘Warsaw, April 26 1943,’ at the height of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising it purported to be a letter to God from a Chassid, Yossel Rakover, written in the midst of the burning ghetto, which he sealed in a bottle for future generations to discover. Rakover challenges God for what is happening, while at the same time affirming his continued belief in God.

The text was translated into many languages. You can find it in Shoah anthologies and in some modern Yom Kippur liturgies. It had an enormous impact in Germany and the great author, Thomas Mann, hailed it as a “gripping human and religious document” and offered to help promote it to German readers. [Alvin Rosenfeld, ‘Holocaust Fictions and the Transformation of Historical Memory’ in Remembering for the Future (Papers presented to the Holocaust Conference, Oxford 1988, Vol 2, p1529)]

For some time, then, it was widely believed that this was an authentic letter out of the Shoah. Even though it became clear by the end of the 1950s that this was not the case, serious writers continued to write about it as if it was, even into the late 1980s (eg Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ‘Life After Death’ in Jewish Chronicle, 22 December 1989, p24.)

It was actually written by Zvi Kolitz, and when he submitted the story in 1946 he had clearly subtitled it ‘a story.’ Kolitz was born in Lithuania, but spent the war in the USA, fought in the War of In dependence in 1948 and was a writer and film producer in Israel. When the truth emerged about the origin of the story, he was accused of plagiarism. The problem arose because when the Hebrew version appeared in the 1950s, it accidentally omitted his name and the subtitle – and so it was assumed to be a genuine document by a martyr who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and that Kolitz had claimed it to be his.

He wrote it in response to the question, “How might a Chassidic family like the Rakovers, imbued with deep religious faith, have spoken to God at such a time?” It was not a fake – Kolitz never tried to pretend it was anything but a work of fiction. Fiction or not, it is still very powerful, and well-worth reading.

A week ago we sat around our Seder tables reading a work of fiction – ‘fiction’ in the sense that the only record we have of the Exodus is the one we have in the Torah. A historian, trying to establish the authenticity or otherwise of a document looks for some external evidence to corroborate or disprove what the text says. In the case of the Torah, it would be, say, some reference in Egyptian records to the Hebrew slavery in Egypt, or the circumstances by which those slaves left Egypt.

When I was rabbi in Paris, my colleague jokingly asked me: “why did the English name so many famous places after defeats?” I looked puzzled. He explained, “Trafalgar Square, Waterloo Station and so on.” Now no nation wants to proclaim its defeats from the rooftops. But we might have expected something in Egyptian sources trying to deal with what happened, presenting it in as positive a light as possible; akin to the way Churchill presented Dunkirk as something less than the catastrophe it was. As far as the Exodus is concerned, the objective historian would have to say, “we simply do not know if it actually happened.”

Yet the fact is that a week ago, millions of Jews around the world sat at their Seder tables and said “we,” not ‘they’ – “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Many years ago one of our au pairs started with us just before Pesach. She sat at our Seder table. I wondered what she made of a group of people who had never, apparently, been slaves, proclaiming that they had been. History is what happened to ‘them’; memory is what happened to us, to you and me: “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Together with Mount Sinai, the Exodus is the central, formative experience of the Jewish people. Mention of it crops up all over the place: everfy service has to have some reference or other to it; Shabbat exists as zecher litsiat mitsrayim, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. Over and over again we are told not to mistreat the stranger – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And it’s not only central in Jewish thought and experience. Virtually every liberation movement in history has seen the Exodus as its model. Negro slaves in the southern states of the USA singing “go down Moses, tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.” Oppressed, enslaved peoples have read the Exodus and said, “just as it was the story of those Hebrew slaves, may it be our story also.”

We don’t know if there ever was actually an Exodus. But what we do know is that something happened, something so momentous that burned itself into Jewish consciousness and psyche, so that some 3,500 years after the event might have happened, we don’t just tell that story but we re-enact it, and in so doing, make it ours. It remains a bench-mark, a reference point against which we can set our present situation. We look at slavery and freedom then and see how we measure against it now. “The freeing of the slaves,” writes Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “testified that human beings are meant to be free. History will not be finished until all are free. The Exodus shows that God is independent of human control. Once this is understood by tyrants and their victims, then all power is made relative.” (Greenberg, The Jewish Way, Summit Books, New York 1988, p35.)

Questions of authenticity are important for historians. As we sit around our Seder tables, we are interested in truth but truth of a different order, maybe; a metaphysical truth, something which speaks to the human situation, informs it and tells us what is meant to be. We can paraphrase the response of the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas to the authenticity or otherwise of Yossel Rackover by declaring that the story of the Exodus is, as he put it, “genuine as only a story can be.”

But there is a more serious problem with the Exodus than one of historical accuracy and here we come back to Yossel Rakover. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on the second day of Pesach 1943. It didn’t start because the Jews thought they could free themselves of the Nazis. They knew there would be no miraculous Exodus. They knew the outcome even before they fired the first shot. Does not the Shoah, then, make a mockery of all that we celebrate at the Seder? Is this not a greater challenge to the truth of the Exodus than any lack of supporting historical evidence?

Oppression is the experience of too many people today. Every act of injustice, oppression, mistreatment by one human being of another is a serious challenge to the message of the Exodus, speaking of the inviolable right to freedom and God’s love for all human beings.

There is a tension, then, between theology and observed reality and there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Either the theology is correct or the evidence of our eyes is. Perhaps the theology has got it wrong. The mantra here goes something like this: “God is not loving and caring; just as the Exodus is a myth, so too is human freedom. And the sooner we understand and accept that human existence has little meaning and purpose the better. We may not be happy with that but at least we will stop living in some sort of foolish expectation that life can be different.”

Or should we somehow ignore observable reality and just concentrate on the theology? The mantra here is: “Yes, there is suffering, but it is God’s will. Don’t question. Just accept.” We recoil against that approach because it seems to be a fool’s paradise of acquiescent acceptance of what happens, with its concomitant lack of incentive to struggle against it. But the first path – to ignore the theology – is surely equally deficient. Where else can it lead but to despair and emptiness? “There is no meaning to life – just live for yourself, live for the Now because there is nothing else.”

Those people in the Warsaw were, surely, even more aware of this tension than we are. How did they manage to sit around even their rudimentary Seder tables – as we know they did – in the full knowledge of what lay ahead for them?

Throughout the ages we have struggled to find some harmonious resolution of that tension and, no surprises, I’m not going to announce this morning that I have. What we do know is that despair and denial are not the Jewish way. At the beginning of the Ghetto Uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the revolt is reputed to have proclaimed, “Today we establish the State of Israel.”

The exodus is the clarion call of hope for all humanity. At the Seder we break one of the three matzot and put one half aside, to be for used later as the Afikomen. We hold up the piece we keep at the table and say ha lachma anya, “this is the bread of poverty, of affliction.” It is the matzah of future redemption, but it remains broken – we live in a broken unredeemed world. There is still the darkness of slavery and oppression to endure. And at the end of the meal we eat the Afikomen – technically the last thing we eat at the seder.

But what has happened to that matzah since we called it the ‘bread of affliction’? It has now become the bread of freedom. Nothing has happened, obviously, to that piece of matzah but something has happened to us. In between breaking it and eating the Afikomen we have told a story, we have relived a story, our story, and whether it happened or not is irrelevant. Our hope is still unbroken. The Exodus reminds us to hold on to that hope with all our strength, so that the darkness may never snuff out the flame of freedom.