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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Pesach II

March 28, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

From fathers to sons, throughout all the generations, the memory of the exodus from Egypt has been handed on as a personal experience and it has therefore retained its original luster. “In every generation every man must regard himself as if he personally had been redeemed from Egypt.” There is no higher peak of historic consciousness, and history – among all the civilizations of the world and in all the ages – can find no example of greater fusion of individual with group than is contained in this ancient pedagogic command…
-Beryl Katznelson, socialist Zionist leader and writer, “Revolution and Tradition,” 1934

What is it about this night? What is the hold of the seder on us? 71% of Israelis light Chanukah candles; 51% light Shabbat candles; somewhere between 15% and 30% define themselves as “religious,” but 85% participate in a Passover seder.

Two weeks before the holiday, and Pesach is in the air. Anything that can’t be scheduled today drops into the category of “call me after Pesach” (when of course it will be Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Lag B’omer and Shavuot and graduation etc.). People emerge from grocery and housewares stores laden with bundles. The garbage dumpsters are overflowing. There are gift baskets on sale in every type of store, in every price range. Dozens of different editions of the Haggadah – including new ones with modern commentaries and eclectic auxiliary readings – are on display. And the standard season’s greeting is: “So, where will you be for the seder?”

For those who were wondering, after all the controversy and ambivalence, what it means to live in a Jewish state, Pesach is the answer. The seder represents the integration of Jewish history, Jewish law, current events, family continuity, individual creativity, and secular Jewish culture into one seamless whole. The bonds of Jewish solidarity, for just this one remarkable night, transcend the divisions of religious-secular, old-young, Sephardic-Ashkenazic, as we sit in weirdly mixed-up assemblages drawn together by family ties, by friendship, by simple hospitality, by some kind of sense of sacred obligation.

The dominant culture of Israel is what I would call “secularized tradition,” whose first major proponent was the Zionist activist and writer Achad Ha’am. He argued that the tradition was not a product of divine revelation, but of the life force of the Jewish people. Our Jewish identity obligates us even if our theology doesn’t. This approach may be anathema to those who define Judaism as only a religion – whether Orthodox or Reform - but it does allow us to sit together at the seder. Our beliefs may be very different – and may change from year to year as we grow and experience and reconsider, as we pass through the stages of the “four sons;” the people at the table may age, and some join and some depart - but the matzah and the maror , the kid that Dad bought for two zuzim , the melodies, the educational experience of seeing ourselves as if we too had been redeemed from Egypt – remain constant, apparently constituting one of the core affirmations of Jewish identity that is rational and mystical all at once, and that is as meaningful for secular nationalists as it is for ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists..

There is much to regret and to criticize in the way Israeli culture has developed over the past century, in how much of the beauty of the tradition has been lost, on purpose or not, just as there are wonderful examples of richness and creativity. It is interesting that neither secular humanism nor Orthodox coercion, neither ideological polarization nor crass commercialization have been a match for the incredible staying power of the Passover seder.

We cannot agree on anything, but between about 10:00 and 12:00 next Monday night “Chad Gadya” will echo across the land and we will know that there is still hope.


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