Another Pesach has come and gone but why, I wondered, did this one seem different from all other ones? Perhaps in the current lockdown, there’s been more time to reflect on this and other questions that I’d previously taken for granted.
To begin with, what precisely were we supposed to be celebrating? Of course, even the youngest child knows about the Exodus from Egypt and that the whole point of the Seder night is to keep that experience alive by talking about it and asking questions. But the requirement goes much further.
Foremost, the first of the Ten Commandments between man and God is to acknowledge God, who took us out of Egypt. The same is also repeated in the Shema which we recite twice daily and which, lest we forget it, the Exodus is referred to in the mezuzahs on the doorposts of our homes. However, it was the command to remember, regarded as one of the cornerstones of our religion, that I’ve always had trouble getting to grips with. This is mainly because I wasn’t sure it was sustainable.
For instance, there was Abraham’s prophecy in Genesis that we were destined to be aliens in a foreign land for four hundred years, which discounted the fact that we were there by chance! Next, as the biblical writings of the midrash point out, four-fifths of Jews died in the Plague of Darkness, leaving just one-fifth, albeit still a hefty number, to follow Moses into the desert. Then came the people’s string of complaints, just three days later, grumbling that because of lack of nourishment, they would have been better off staying enslaved in Egypt. Hardly meriting the status, one might think, of the most momentous event in our History!
Needless to say, it all came good with the giving of the Torah at Sinai. As it is written in Exodus: We will do and we will hear – what a feat of compliance Moses must have achieved in a mere seven weeks!
It was only on the 7th day of Pesach that the feelings of helplessness and awe at the splitting of the sea and complete obliteration of the mightiest military force on earth, began to stir me. Above all, it was the humility shown by all those who witnessed that spectacle which truly resonated with what I (and, I suspect, many others) am feeling today with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic and its far-reaching effects on all of our lives.
Maybe the lesson to be learned is that freedom can only be fully appreciated when it’s taken away from us. That is what makes this last Pesach so poignant and why we continually need to be able to contemporise the Egypt experience to ensure that the festival remains as fresh in our minds as God intends.
©John Steinberg 2020