Thursday, April 05, 2007

'In Every Generation ...'

While there are many mitzvot (commandments) that one is obligated to fulfill during Passover, one of the ones that always challenges me is the requirement that 'in ever generation, a man is obligated to regard himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt.' Perhaps Ze'ev Magen's Personalizing History is a good 'starting point' in trying to relate to the difficulties and accomplishments that our people have felt then and now, as we've struggled and overcome the obstacles that have been placed in our paths:

See, you personally were born quite recently. You haven't existed, built, climbed, fallen, lost, won, wept, rejoiced, created, learned, argued, loved and struggled for thousands of years. Nevertheless, you, my friend, happen to have lucked out. You are a distinguished member of a nation which has done all those things, and more. You have special eyes, eyes that can see for miles and miles. If only you will it- enough to work at it- you can extend your arms and touch the eons and millenia, you can suck up the insights and bask in the glory and writhe in the pain and draw on the power emanating from every experience of your indomitable, indestructible, obstinately everlasting people.

This is not an ability acquired solely through learning or reading (although this is a major ingredient, I hasten to emphasize); it is first and foremost a function of connection, of belonging, of powerful love. If you reach out and grasp your people's hands - you were there. You participated in what they did in all places and at all times, you fought their battles, felt their feelings and learnt their lessons.

You tended flocks with Rachel and slaved in Potiphar's house with Joseph; you sang in the wilderness with Miriam and toppled the walls of Jericho with Joshua; you carried first fruits to the Temple Mount; and were mesmerized by Elijah on the slopes of Carmel; you brought the house down on the Philistines with Samson, fought the chariots of Hazor under Deborah, and danced before the ascending ark with David; you went into Exile with the prophet Jeremiah and hung your harp and wept by the rivers of Babylon; you defied the divinity of Nebuchadnezzar with the courage and cunning of Daniel, and vanquished the might of imperial Persia with the wisdom and beauty of Esther; and studied law and lore in the vineyards of Yavneh with Elazar ben Arakh and Bruria; you were with Judah the Macabbee at Modi'in, with the Zealots at Masada, with Akiba in the Roman torture chamber and with Bar Kochba at Betar; you devoted your life to Torah at the yeshivot in Babylon and philosophised by the Nile with the circle of Maimonides; you were crucified for refusing the cross in the Crusades, and were turned into ashes for stubbornness in the fires of the Inquisition; you were exiled from the shores of Spain by Isabella, and chased down and raped in the pogroms of the Ukraine by the hordes of Chielnicki; you went to Safed's fields to greet the Shabbat bride with the Ari, Isaac Luria and went into Galicia's huts to seek the ecstacy of the fervent Baal Shem Tov; you fled the Black Hundreds across Russia's plains, and were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty at the gates of Ellis Island; you filed into the gas chambers of Bergen Belsen, and were hurled into the flames at Mathausen and Sobibor; you parachuted into Hungary with Hannah Senesh, and fought back in Warsaw with Mordechai Anilweicz; you were shot with your family in the forests of Poland and dug a mass grave and perished there at Babi Yar; you revived your dead language, you resurrected your sapped strength, you returned to yourself and renewed the lapsed covenant, you arose like a lion and hewed out your freedom on the plains and the mountains of your old-new land.

Throughout all of this and so much more you were there with them - and they are here with you. This is the thrust of the Passover Hagaddah when it exhorts: "In every generation a person must see him / herself as if s/he personally left Egypt." This is the intention of the Talmud when it whispers - based upon a strongly suggestive Bible verse - that we were all present and accounted for at the foot of Mount Sinai in the desert, over three thousand years ago.

Chag Sameach to everyone .... חג שמח לכולם

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