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A Pre-Passover Message from Rabbi Neil / As Relevant as Ever (03/28/23)

As Relevant as Ever

For thousands of years, the accounts in Exodus about our liberation from slavery in Egypt have fascinated and inspired multitudes. People are awed by the magnitude of the plagues and delight in the idea that God intervenes for the downtrodden.

Nowadays, though, readers are more critical. Did all the Egyptian firstborns need to die? Also, why did myriads of animals need to suffer during the plagues? What happened to Abraham’s cry: “Will you kill the innocent with guilty?”

Nonetheless, even with our scrutinizing 21st-century eye, the story is still compelling and relevant. People long for freedom and to be determiners of their destiny. Passover inspires all of us to strive for and believe in personal and national freedom and liberation. I’d like to share with you a few modern examples of how Passover continues to inspire us.

On Friday night, May 24, 1991, fourteen thousand four hundred Jews from Beta Yisrael, Ethiopia, crowded into the Israeli Embassy compound in Addis Ababa. They were caught between a nightmare and a dream: the danger of slaughter by a rebel army that encircled the capital and the opportunity for freedom in Israel. All of these moments before an invasion by the rebel armies.

That night the Ethiopian Jews passed from one station to another at the embassy grounds. First, the head of the household’s identity card was checked, and his children counted off and given a sticker with the number of their bus (to the airport) to wear on their foreheads. Then all their local money had to be thrown into a box, as demanded by the Ethiopian government. Afterward, all their possessions were relinquished for lack of space in the planes. Only what they wore – their nicest clothes and gold jewelry – came with them, along with bread which was wrapped in the flowing garments.[1]

For these Ethiopian Jews, the Passover story was eerily real. They, too, left Ethiopia in a hurry with just their clothes and some quickly baked bread.

Like the Jews who left Egypt, they made it to freedom in the promised land.

However, even in the promised land, freedom is not to be taken for granted. On Thursday, April 2, 1970, an Israeli Phantom jet was shot down over a Damascus suburb. The pilot Pini Nahmani was imprisoned in the al-Mazza Prison in Damascus. In his secret diary, he describes his Passover experience:

“Two Haggadahs and some matza crumbs sent by the Chief Rabbi of Zurich gave us the feeling of a real Passover. When Boaz, the youngest among us – almost a kid – sang the four questions, tears welled up in my throat. But then came the singing! It was such a strange scene. In the most heavily-guarded prison of an enemy state, three Israeli prisoners are singing songs of the ancient holiday of liberty.

We finished the Haggadah with Had Gadya and went on singing other Israeli songs – Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” – just to continue the celebration long into the night and to avenge ourselves a little bit…I had never taken part in such a long Seder. We had to be taken prisoner in order to fulfill the Haggadah’s description of the five rabbis in Bnai Brak: “The whole night long they spent retelling the story of the Exodus.”[2]

These Israelis were born with freedom, yet the Syrians took it away from them. That Passover Seder in prison gave them hope to survive.

Natan Sharansky, perhaps Russian Jewry’s most famous refusnik, was also motivated by a Passover Seder:

He writes: “I was born into a completely assimilated Jewish family. Nothing Jewish, except the anti-Semitism. No traditions, no holidays, no language.

At 24, I joined the Zionist movement. We struggled to free the Jews of the Soviet Union. As part of my Zionist activities, I learned Hebrew secretly in an underground ulpan. I celebrated the first Passover Seder of my life with my fiancé at the time, Avital (then Natasha), in Moscow. Three Hebrew teachers brought all of their students together for one big Seder in a Moscow apartment.

As we didn’t know Hebrew well enough to read from the Haggadah, the teachers gave each of us a short part to memorize. We didn’t understand many of the words, expressions, or sentences, yet one line, in particular, we didn’t just understand… we felt:

“Ela sh’bkhol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’khaloteinu” – “In each generation, they stand against us to destroy us.”

It was enough to simply look out the window and see the KGB agents surrounding the apartment to know that we ourselves were continuing the Exodus from Egypt.

And when we said, “L’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”, we believed and knew that just like the Israelites in Egypt, we too would live lives of freedom.”

Nowadays, we may question the validity of certain details of the Passover story, but its main theme, individual and national freedom, continues to resonate with us. As antisemitism increases in our country, we can also identify with the tragically sad statement that “in every generation, they try to destroy us.” On the other hand, we’ve outlasted our enemies for more than 3000 years. Passover gives us hope that better times will be around the corner.

“L’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim!”

Try to enjoy your Passover preparations,

R’ Neil

P.S. Much thanks to Eric Bocian for allowing me to share his Bar Mitzvah speech presented on Parshat HaChodesh, March 18, 2023.

[1] A Night to Remember: The Hagaddah of Contemporary Voices by Mishael Zion and Naom Zion

[2] Ibid

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