Passover 2002/5762: Struggle for Freedom in Israel

Sermon given April 5, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

On Wednesday evening, March 27, Jews here in San Antonio and around the world gathered at our Seder tables, to celebrate Passover, our feast of freedom. Before us were symbols of festive rejoicing – kiddush cups, filled to the rim, to represent the fulness of the joy of redemption; the matzah and haroset, reminding of liberation; even the cup of Elijah, signifying God’s promise of a better future for all the world. The children went to open the door. With smiles on their faces, and questions in their eyes, the little ones opened us up to the possibility that they will be God’s partners in bringing a messianic redemption. Passover forces us to hope.

We smiled at the Seder. We sang. We ate. We laughed. We told the familiar tale. We enjoyed the matzah ball soup and the gefilte fish, the brisket and the tsimmes. We played games. We bargained for the afikomen. We kissed our loved ones and kvelled at the children.

This year, though, our Passover joy felt forced. Earlier on that very same day, we had received a revolting report from halfway around the world. At a Passover Seder, in the seaside town of Netanya, in the holy land of Israel, Jewish men, women and children had gathered for a Seder much like our own. Old people and little ones had come together, to ask the questions and answer them, to sing and to play, to search for the afikomen and to open the door to a better future.

True, they came to the Seder in the midst of a national crisis. Less than three weeks earlier, in their own city, terrorists had murdered innocent Jews at the end of Shabbat. All over the Jewish State, suicide bombers have turned every public place into potential killing fields. Israel is faced with war, confronted by an enemy that wants no less than the destruction of the Jewish State. Where are the front lines of this war? They are every city, every town, every road through the countryside, and certainly every public place. So the Israelis who went to Seder that night were both commonplace and heroic at one in the same time. Going to a Seder at a local hotel is routine for this joyous festival in Israel. This year, though, heading out to a public place feels no different from stepping onto a battlefield. Ordinary Jews went to Seder. Jewish men, women and children, people like you and me, our brothers, our sisters, gathered to celebrate their freedom. But the people of Israel were not free that night. The boys and girls, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers who sat down to Seder in Israel that night were very much in the grip of Pharaoh.

It could have happened in Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv, or in Haifa. It happened in Netanya. Seder goers did not just read about Pharaoh, who decreed the deaths of Jewish children. Their experience of slavery was not symbolic. Their children were slain by a new Pharaoh, now in the form of terrorists. Their old people were cut down by suicide bombers. They planned to sing: Avadim hayyinu, v’ata b’nei horin, “We were slaves in Egypt, but now we’re free.” Instead, the lament: We are slaves to Pharaoh in our own land, in the Promised Land, in Eretz Yisrael, in Netanya, in Tel Aviv, on a Kibbutz in the Negev, on a Moshav in the Galilee, in Jerusalem.

We sat down to Seder in San Antonio, not at all on the front lines. After September 11, we were told that Americans now know what it’s like to live in Israel. Now, though, we realize that we do not know. 9/11 was horrific, the most terrible single act of terror in history. We Americans are not as free as we were seven short months ago. And yet, we must acknowledge that we are not in Pharaoh’s grip, like our brothers and sisters in Israel are today. We went to Seder without fear.

And yet, the Haggadah teaches us that, as long as our fellow Jews are in bondage, none of us is truly free. Gathering for the Seder that Wednesday night, we experienced joy and mourning, at one in the same time. Our own observance was a celebration. But could we banish from our minds the thoughts of men and women and children, just like us, murdered for the crime of lifting the cup of redemption? Instead of salt water, we could have dipped the parsley in our own tears. We tasted the horseradish, but the bitterness was already on our lips.

At the Seder, if we listened carefully, we learned valuable lessons, teachings that we may apply to the tragedy of our own day.

We learned, as we ate the Hillel sandwich, matzah and haroset and bitter herb together. We taste the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom, all in one bite. Indeed, the matzah itself is a dual symbol, reminding us of the poor bread our ancestors ate in slavery, but also recalling the bread of freedom, baked in haste, with no time to rise, as the Israelites left Egypt. The message is subtle but powerful: We know the sweetness of freedom, because we have also tasted the bitterness of slavery. Entering the Land of Israel was the ultimate triumph for the Children of Israel, for they knew the agony of bondage and the uncertainty of wandering in the desert. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the great victory of the Jewish people in the twentieth century, following on the heels of the unparalleled catastrophe of the Holocaust, and the indignities of displaced persons camps. As we tasted the Hillel sandwich, we prayed: Let freedom follow bondage once again; let peace be the answer to terror in the Land of Israel.

We learned, as we contemplated the verse of Torah: “Remember the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” This Passover, even through our anger at the terrorists, we take note of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children who are not terrorists. We acknowledge that they are strangers today in the Land of Israel, even as Israelis are prisoners in their own State. Terrorism may not be justified. Murder may not be explained. But neither may we, celebrating freedom, turn aside from the cause of justice and peace. The wickedness of the Palestinian leadership, the crimes of too many among their people, even the support of the masses, must not turn us away from the righteous plea. We were strangers once; now, we are free. The moral survival of the Jewish people depends on an end to the occupation, the cessation of settlement building in the territories, the realization of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people, at peace, beside a secure and Jewish State of Israel. We were strangers, not just in Egypt, but in Russia, in Poland, in Spain. We are strangers today in Argentina, and in too many other hostile lands. Let us never forget the heart of the stranger.

We learned, as we diminished our cups of wine, ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt. At the Seder, we are taught that the angels rejoiced, when the Egyptian soldiers were drowning in the Red Sea. But God chastised them, reminding the angels that even the oppressors of the Jewish people are God’s children. Let us not rejoice at the indignities suffered by the Palestinian people today. Let us never be indifferent to the deaths of non-combatants, even in the midst of fully justified military action. Even for Pharaoh’s charioteers, God wept. Surely, we can shed a tear for the innocent children of Palestinian mothers and fathers, struck down in harm’s way.

As we read the Book of Exodus, we learn of the critical role of Moses, the supporting acts of Miriam and Aaron, and the heroism of so many others, bringing freedom to the Children of Israel. We know that liberation can not be achieved without human effort, the faith of men, the prayers of women, the hopes of the old and the dreams of the young. In ancient times as today, leaders matter. We pray for Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel. Moses was imperfect, and so is Ariel Sharon. Indeed, imperfection is probably just about all Sharon has in common with Moses, and the truth is that I rarely agree with a single thing the Prime Minister does or says. And yet, he is the Prime Minister of Israel. He is entrusted with the peace and security of the Jewish State. We must keep him in our prayers; may God guide Ariel Sharon in the paths of peace and righteousness. Let us pray, too, for the leaders of the Israeli peace movement, for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, whose vision of peace remains a beacon of light today. Let us pray for President George W. Bush, for Secretary of State Colin Powell, for General Anthony Zinni. We are grateful for the President’s strong and courageous words of yesterday. May his commitment to Israel equal or even exceed his words. With God’s help, may Secretary Powell’s mission part the Red Sea of blood, spilled both in crimes of terrorism and in acts of defense. We know that God has the power to change hearts. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The Bible speaks, too, of God’s power to take a heart of stone, and bring it to life in flesh. May God soften the heart of Yasser Arafat. With God’s help, even that man whose actions are evil may become an instrument of peace. The liberation from Egypt did not happen without the courage of Moses, the words of Aaron, the selflessness of Miriam. The freedom we seek for Israel today will not come without the work of Ariel Sharon, the cooperation of Yasser Arafat, the commitment of George W. Bush.

And yet, we learn that the Haggadah of Passover does not mention the name of Moses. The ancient Rabbis worried that the Jewish people would begin to worship Moses as a god. They avoided any chance that we would view Moses as the ultimate source of our freedom. Time and again, the Haggadah reminds us that God is the One freed the Jewish people from Egypt, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. If the last eighteen months of violence have taught us anything, we should have learned not to put our trust in human beings alone. After all, Yasser Arafat is a Nobel Peace laureate. We are told that the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for more than 400 years. Surely, God knew they were suffering. So why did God wait? Why was their freedom delayed? They Haggadah teaches us that God heard the people’s cry for help; only then, did God bring salvation. Let us call out to the Lord. Let God hear our plea: “Let our people go!” With faith, we affirm: God will reach into hearts, with a mighty hand. God will bring peace, with an outstretched arm.

We learn to conclude the Seder with faith. Every year, we pray: l’shanah haba-ah biyerushalayim, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Most years, those words may mean little. We may interpret them metaphorically. Having no intention to be in Jerusalem next year, we usually take that promise as a prayer that ultimate redemption may come to the world in the days ahead. This year, we meant those words: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Even if I celebrate the Seder right here in San Antonio in 2003, I pray that Passover may be observed with joy in Israel next year. Even if we mark the feast of matzah in America next April, may we plan a trip to visit and demonstrate our solidarity with Israel, some time in 5763, without worry that we may be the terrorists’ next victim. May the ordinary act of attending a Netanya Seder next year be just that, a normal holiday celebration, not an act of heroism, not a denial of death. Next year, may peace reign in Jerusalem.

We conclude, then, with an expression of faith, a poem of Prayer in Time of War, by Rabbi Boaz David Heilman:

A Prayer In Time Of War

Oh Creator of all life,
God of our ancestors,

So many Passovers ago, at the edge of the Red Sea,
You promised our great-great-great grandparents
That you would take us to a Promised Land.

They went, pretty much on blind faith alone.
They believed in what they had heard
Their bubbies and zaydies tell them.
They followed Moses
Though he himself never made it all the way,
Was stopped just short,
By Your inscrutable will.

You led us out of Mitzrayim,
The Land of Narrow Passage,
To a place overflowing with streams
Of silvery water,
Where rivers ran
With milk and honey,
Where buzzing bees whizzed by,
Each telling the other what the source
Of all that sweetness was.

We followed you still
When you chased us out of Eden.We took you,
Our most beloved possession,
When we ourselves were disposessed,
As we scattered around the globe,
Finding refuge in Afghanistan,
In Teheran, Madrid,
Mainz, Lwow
And even in America.

You watched as,
From Passover to Passover,
We followed you still,
Each generation leaving behind its own Mitzrayim;
Our voices rising out of the whirlwind
Our feet raising a cloud of dust,
Sometimes casting back a column of thick black smoke
From deep within the firestorm.

You have led us back to our Promised Land,
Still in your inscrutable will.
As you had promised Moses,
You brought us out of bondage
Flying free on wings of eagles.
The crying of our Mother Rachel
Turned into song
As she saw her wandering children
Returning to the Land,
To work its soil
In the sweat of their brow.

Having brought us there,
We thought perhaps the circle
At last was finished,
That this was the Time
Of which you spoke,
When a lamb would be lying with the lion
And the child would lead them all.

But in every generation,
So too, today–
We see that Your Time
Is not the same as our time.

We pray You now:Let our people rest some,
Let them find some respite,
Give them a moment to breathe free air
To shake off the yoke of fear
To proclaim the wonders of Your wisdom,
To sing Your praises in our thanks.
Bless us with just one moment of Your Time.
Give us peace, bless us with rest.
We have walked so long
Our feet have crushed rock into desert sand.
Our throats are parched for water from your well of blessing
We need peace,
Give us peace,
Grant us peace.