President’s Column: Live and Learn
Research tells us what we already know: The Passover Seder is the most widely observed Jewish ritual of the year. Even Jews who have no affiliation with any synagogue or communal organization show up to hear, tell and sing the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Perhaps a fifth question to add to the holiday narrative is why, as the index of so much religious observance goes down, stock in Passover continues to rise. I think the answer is staring us squarely in the face.
The text of the Haggada applies equally to the biblical era and to our own. The story of the original Exodus is also a prequel of the second great migration—the Jewish journey back to Israel, back to national independence, in modern times.
Genesis describes the birth of Jacob’s children and the division of Israel into tribes—the very tribes that left Egypt. Coming into modern times we no longer identified as descendants of Reuben, Dan or Asher. Instead, the Jewish people were split into Ashkenazi and Sefardi; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform; Polish, Moroccan, German, American and a hundred different nationalities.
In Egypt, our ancestors suffered the deprivations and indignities of slavery. When the hour of liberation came, those who had suffered together left together. Our modern exodus has a more complex narrative. Jews in many nations suffered discrimination and persecution, but were remote from one another. Something was needed to take the place of physical unity. What united the modern Jewish tribes under a single purpose was Zionism.
Our ancestors left ancient Egypt on a single day, but the modern exodus is a tale of millions of individual moments of liberation and streams of immigrants, in groups of all sizes. We can digest the biblical Book of Exodus in 37 chapters, but today’s narrative—which has already produced thousands of chapters—is still being written. Many of us have had the privilege of witnessing, aiding or even participating in some of these stories.
The recent headlines—from Israel’s election of a new leader to the fighting in Gaza—remind us that, just like in the biblical tale, the birth of a Jewish nation was not the end of the story but the beginning. But here we have an advantage over our forebears. We have an extra 2,000 years of exile behind us, two millennia during which we suffered, but also learned many lessons. We have absorbed the wisdom of many great cultures and contributed our own wisdom to those cultures as well. We have learned much because we have lived so long.
Perhaps the most precious lesson from both the biblical and the modern exodus is the difference between before and after. Today, when a rocket is launched from Gaza, a synagogue vandalized in Venezuela, a kosher market in Switzerland plastered with flyers advocating an anti-Jewish boycott or a columnist in Australia blaming Israel for 9/11, we react with horror. But unlike before, we can be secure in the knowledge that Israel exists—to defend itself, to defend the rights of Jews, to provide refuge.
As we read the Haggada this year, we in Hadassah can take pride in our central role in the success of modern Israel. In addition to our institutions on the landscape, we are a living bridge between 300,000 American Jewish women and six million Jews in Israel. We can also exercise the power we harnessed as a byproduct of our Zionism and our influence in making Israel’s case and defending Jewish rights from every congressional district in America.
The reason we can readily imagine that we, personally, came out of Egypt is that our recent history reminds us of the need to control our destiny as much as the Haggada does. As you sit around the Passover table, remember that Hadassah is here, and that Hadassah still needs you, to help make the journey worthwhile. H
To respond to Nancy Falchuk’s column or view her monthly podcast, go to www.hadassah.org/podcast.