Passover Message from Jean Guthery April 2024

It’s About That Jewish Freedom/Hope Thing

Passover 2024 (5784)

“The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era,

in every year and even on every day.”  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, 18th Century

  “Jews have a crazy custom at the seder.  They drink four cups of wine and then pour a fifth.

They set the cup of Elijah, and fill it up.  There is a chair waiting to welcome Elijah. The wine is

poured, but not yet drunk.  Yet the cup of hope is poured every year.  Passover is the night for

reckless dreams, for visions about what a human being can be, what society can be,

what people can be, what history may become.  That is the significance of

‘Le-shanah ha-ba-a b’Yerushalayim,’ (Next Year in Jerusalem), the key term is ‘ha-ba-a,’

future, next year.”  Rabbi David Hartman, “The God of Surprise” in A Different Night Haggadah.

Passover will soon be upon us, beginning at sundown, the evening of April 22nd.  It is the spring holiday, the most beloved holiday celebrated by the Jewish people all over the world and is said most likely observed by 70% of American Jews—usually with some form of a seder at home.  There are many traditions associated with Passover and many themes including family, springtime, homeland, empathy, justice, social justice, freedom.  Food is part of the tradition and families have their own rituals which become precious to each family.  One of those rituals in our home was/is the preparation of charoset, the mixture of apples, sugar, cinnamon, walnuts and sweet red wine symbolizing the mortar for buildings built by the Hebrew slaves—every year for many years in our home, its concoction commandeered by my husband, Peter (of blessed memory) and aided by our daughter, Lisa. His charoset was delicious, popular on the seder table. Together, he and Lisa would partner, taking command of the kitchen and mixing the charoset.  I would listen to their father/daughter banter as I set the seder table, with a wine glass at each place, a Haggadah (book telling the story of the Exodus read during the seder) at each place, the cup of Elijah filled with wine to the point of overflowing, and a plate of matzah, the “bread of affliction” symbolizing the bread not allowed to rise when the Israelites ate in a hurry as they left Egypt. And then the seder plate with the symbolic foods of the seder: a roasted egg symbolizing the continuity of life; parsley, representing spring; a roasted shank bone, representing the sacrificial lamb; charoset, representing the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt; and horseradish, representing bitter herbs and the bitterness of slavery.  Predictably, as Peter and Lisa worked on their task, grating the apples, adding cinnamon, sugar and walnuts, I would hear Lisa declare, giggling, feigning shock, “Dad!  You are adding too much wine!”  To which he would respond, “Yes, Lisa, I am adding more wine.  And don’t tell your mother!”  Did the two of them really think I did not hear that?  But it probably explained why his version of charoset was so popular. After he died 10 years ago, many of his tasks became mine to do, including the making of the charoset at Passover.  Approaching that task the first time in a moment very bittersweet, feeling like a poor substitute for his flair, taking a deep breath, I made the charoset.  And, yes, I added more wine.  That extra wine I was not supposed to know about.

As families expand, other traditions are added.  My daughter and son-in-law, David, were married just before Peter died and David brought his traditions to add to our family, one of which was his special potluck seder, celebrated on the second night of Passover—the second night seder—to which he invited all his friends: Jews and non-Jews.  Since their marriage, David and Lisa have continued that tradition, inviting their friends and neighbors, Jewish and non-Jewish. The Haggadah used is in the form of copies of David’s third-grade coloring book Haggadah from his religious school days.  Friends are asked to bring food for the potluck seder, instructed in observing the rules of Pesach: no pork; no shellfish; no bread, “we eat only matzah;” nothing leavened or with the appearance of leavening; no cheese— “if my mother-in-law brings her barbecue brisket, no cheese because of no dairy with meat, but if we serve salmon (fish), you may bring dishes with cheese (dairy).”  Their dining room/living room are transformed by the addition of four or five long tables arranged in assorted rows and angles with accompanying chairs (“Jean, can we borrow your portable long table and some chairs?”), seder plates on every table, coloring book Haggadah at every place, cups of Elijah filled with wine to the point of overflowing on every table. The seder is led by David using his coloring book Haggadah prefaced by his thoughtful and informative D’var, explaining the significance of the Passover story of exodus and freedom. In their neighborhood in Arvada, neighbors bring their children, saying, “I want my kids to see this and be here; we want our children to come for this.”  Is it a bit different compared to the traditional seder at my house?  Oh, yes!—more people with considerable diversity—ethnic, cultural and age—making for a lot of fun but no short shrift on the message. The non-Jewish people who attend leave that evening with joy, delighted in the taste of my charoset (with its extra wine)—and maybe my Temple Sinai/Dee Trasen recipe of barbecue brisket—but more importantly, having gained an understanding of Judaism, the Jewish people, and a concept of freedom and hope they previously did not appreciate before that night.  Most particularly, how dearly do the Jewish people hold the preciousness—and responsibility—of freedom and their undying—and yes, stubborn—hope attached to it.  The never-give-up immovable hold on freedom and hope.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, translated as a constricting, narrow place. What follows is the story of the Exodus and thoughts about how the Exodus became a call to revolutionary hope regardless of the conditions of the moment.  Regardless of how narrow the place from which the Israelites escaped and from which each of us might need to leave for our own freedom.

Passover commemorates the Biblical story of exodus, and it begins in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.  There in that center of ancient civilization lived a group of immigrants originally from the land of Canaan.  They were known to others as Hebrews but to themselves as the children of Israel with different customs and beliefs, making them easy targets of prejudice as outsiders usually are.  Eventually, they became victims of a tyrannical Pharaoh who turned them into slaves, a labor force pressed into building great cities.  Things got worse. Slavery began to darken into genocide when Pharoah declared all male Hebrew babies were to be murdered.  One Hebrew woman, mother of Miriam and Aaron, with a new male baby, and determined to save that male infant devised a small water-proof cradle and placed him in it on the edge of the river Nile.  As it floated along with its precious cargo, the baby was saved by the daughter of Pharaoh, raised in the Egyptian court but always knew he was a Hebrew.  He saw what was happening to the Hebrew people and knew he could not go free when those around him were enslaved.  One day, seeing the cruelty of a slave master, he killed the Egyptian and then fled for his life into the wilderness of Midian.

There in Midian, he found work as a shepherd, working for Jethro, a Midianite and eventually married Jethro’s daughter, a non-Jew.  His name was Moses, taken from the Egyptian, and he remained aware of the ongoing enslavement of his people, the children of Israel. One day, tending his sheep, he heard God calling him from a burning bush, telling him to go back to Egypt and say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”  Moses was a reluctant participant in this plan of God.  Four times he refused to do as God asked.  “Who am I to do this; why me?  Who am I to say you are; they won’t’ believe me. I am a poor public speaker; I stutter.   Find someone else.”  But eventually he agreed: to go back to Egypt where he was a wanted man, previously an assimilated prince now a Hebrew, married to a non-Jew, poor at public speaking, with no army and no weapons and a people barely united. With a job to speak truth to power.  Which took unmitigated chutzpah! There was no reason to succeed. His mission had many setbacks and disappointments, many attempts to persuade an extremely reluctant Pharaoh.  Most particularly through the use of 10 plagues, one after another to demonstrate God’s power and in an attempt to persuade Pharaoh to free the slaves. (From: “From Slavery to Freedom; Rediscovering the Meaning of Passover,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)

After the ten plagues, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the children of Israel go and Moses led them to freedom.  They left in a hurry, so rushed that they could not wait for their bread to rise; they ate fast and ran (matzah, “The Bread of Affliction”).  Only to face the Red Sea which seemed an impossible barrier to their freedom. Pharaoh, in turn, regretted his decision, and sent 600 men in their chariots after the slaves.  Faced with a sea ahead and Pharaoh bearing down on them from behind, the slaves complained, “Why have you brought us here?!  Better to be slaves to the Egyptians than to die here in this wilderness!” But the sea parted to allow them to pass through to the other side and dry land.  And Pharaoh and his chariots were caught in the mud, the sea breaking back over them and drowning them.

What about this story of the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea that we read every year in our Haggadot?  Do we believe all that? With our reality-oriented minds and our evidenced-based scientific theories? Following are the thoughts of Rabbi David Hartman. “Central to the Exodus story and the Pesach story is the recounting of the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea.  As moderns educated in natural science, on the lawful order of the world, the story strikes us as childish, as primitive, as mythological.  Yet we may be missing the point of these extraordinary events if we understand it as a superstition. Instead the miracle is a symbol of spontaneity in history, a faith in the changeability of oppressive regimes…The language of the supernatural miracle is the Bible’s way of undermining the acquiescence of humans to ‘the way things have to be,’ to the political ‘facts of nature’ created by powerful dictators…A people rising from helplessness, utter destruction, and complete impoverishment, the movement from Egypt to the desert was a radical leap…Belief in miracle is the basis for the ‘hope model’ of Judaism.  Exodus becomes a call to revolutionary hope regardless of the conditions of history.  The act of protest against their environment can occur because the Jews possess a memory bank which structures what they think is possible.  The Exodus becomes vital because it tells people that they are able to hope.  The order that people observe in the cosmos is not irreversible.  Tomorrow will not necessarily be like today.  Radical surprise becomes an important feature.  New possibilities are always present; history can change.  Tomorrow can be other than yesterday.”  (Rabbi David Hartman in A Different Night Haggadah).

Thoughts from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: At those miracles, those so-called “myths,” there the story might have ended.  No, not by any means.  From the outset, the Bible seems to sense that the journey from slavery to freedom is one we need to travel in every generation. So we were/are commanded to gather our families together every year at this time and tell the story of what it was like to be a slave and what it felt like to go free.  Not just tell the story but act it out as well. So we eat the matzah, the “bread of affliction.”  We sample maror, the bitter herbs, so that we can experience the taste of suffering.  And we drink four cups of wine, each one a stage on the road to liberation. We tell the story in such a way that each of us feels as if we had lived through persecution and come out the other side as free human beings. Our story of freedom does not belong simply to the chronicles of an ancient people.  It is a journey each of us must trace because freedom is fragile and needs defending.  Freedom is not only to do with faith or religion or spirituality.  Freedom is about politics and society and the freedom brought about by God through Moses was not something that happened in the privacy of the soul.  It was a political revolution, an event that changed the history of a people.  They had been slaves in Egypt, now they were free human beings.  A free God wants the free worship of free human beings.  And because freedom is created or destroyed by the political system, God wants us to worship Him in part by the kind of society we build and the laws we enact.  That is why the books of Moses are not just about miracles and revelation and faith.  They contain laws, commandments and rules by which we build a just and free society.  Hence, we are to take special care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, those who are vulnerable and without power. (From “From Slavery to Freedom: Rediscovering the Meaning of Passover,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks).

“At the heart of Judaism is a belief so fundamental to Western Civilization that we take it for granted, yet it is anything but self-evident. It has been challenged many times, rarely more so than today. It is the belief in human freedom. We are what we choose to be. Society is what we choose to make it. The whole of Judaism..is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities and a nation, habits that defeat despair.  Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of mankind.  It is no accident that so many Jews are economists fighting poverty, or doctors fighting disease, or lawyers fighting injustice, in all cases refusing to see things as inevitable.  It is no accident that after the Holocaust, Jews did not nurture resentment or revenge but turned to the future, building a nation whose national anthem is Hatikvah, ‘the Hope.’

“To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.  Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation of the blind acceptance of fate.  Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Future Tense: How the Jews Invented Hope,” April 2008.)

Over the millennia, biblical prophets characteristically warned the Jewish people to return to their God and their spiritual and moral values when they had tragically wandered far from them.  Such was the prophet Jeremiah who lived in the years spanning the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.  Probably the most unhappy character in the bible, his prophesies were among the most stark and pessimistic of biblical literature and were a rebuke to Jews, affluent and spiritually debased, who had surrendered to idolatry and depravity.  For all of his 40-year career, he told the Israelites what they would rather not hear: that God spurns sacrifices unaccompanied by ethical behavior. When things were going well materially, he pointed out what was wrong morally. Regarding him as a despair-ridden crank, his warnings fell on deaf ears even as he warned of the destruction to come.  He was scorned by the people to whom he preached, arrested, beaten and thrown into a pit.  King Zedekiah, the last ruler of Judah, had him imprisoned for warning of the fall of Jerusalem.

When it finally became evident that the Babylonian army would defeat Judah, the people, having lost everything, prepared to march into exile, certain they would never again see their homeland.  Their land a devastated wasteland, the First Temple gone, overcome by despondence, Jeremiah surprisingly became a vision of hope. In one of the most famous passages in the Book of Jeremiah, even as the armies of Babylon laid siege, in a war zone, in prison, hopelessness beckoning, Jeremiah expends his last funds to buy land in Israel in enemy territory.  As the worst is happening, Jeremiah offered optimism and bought land, investing in the future, investing in hope, telling the people they will be back, that the land will be restored as of old. “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.’ (Jeremiah 32:6.) He turned out to be prescient for in 70 years, the Israelites began to return.  (From Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy.)

 

From his prison in the 6th century BCE, in the darkest of times, Jermiah would have resonated with the despair of Jews in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the 20th century CE. He would have known the bleak darkness, the creeping fear, the mind-numbing hatred, and the stark awful loneliness.  But he also would have recognized the strength of spirit that grasped and held onto a slender thread of hope—that very Jewish kind of hope—when these words were scrawled on a wall in Germany. 

            “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.

            I believe in love, even when I do not feel it.

                I believe in God, even when He is silent.”

                                                                                                                Jews of Germany, 1939

Passover, 9 years ago. Text from Lisa Hoffman to Jean Guthery: “Mommela, would you please send us the recipe for charoset?”   “Yes, of course, sweetheart.  Don’t forget the extra wine.”

“The cup of hope is poured every year.”

Happy Passover!  Le-shanah ha-ba-a b’Yerushalayim!

Jean Guthery