Parashah of the week: Va'era

“Therefore tell the Jewish people, ‘I am Hashem and I will take you out of Egypt’” Exodus 6:6


The most lost expression I saw on a person’s face belonged to a group of American college Birthright students at the Kotel (the Western Wall  in Jerusalem). They had spent a day in Auschwitz and the very next day were at the Kotel. They were emotionally charged — moving from the horrors of the Holocaust to the freedom of Israel — but without direction.

The centrepiece of our Seder night are the four promises. The four cups and various other iterations of four are due to these four Divine assurances of freedom. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th century) asks a piercing question. Why do four assurances of the same event equate to four different reasons to celebrate?

He explains that the four assurances were four different milestones that happened at different stages, each rescinding elements of slavery. The first was the removal of the backbreaking, extra-harsh element of slavery. The second was the removal of the slavery entirely. The third was our no longer being under any Egyptian dominion, with the fourth assurance being the receiving of the Torah.

The Netziv brilliantly explains the psychological metamorphosis from a nation battered through generations of slavery to receiving the Torah, explaining that the incremental healing process spanning the fulfilment of these four assurances lasted a year and a half.

The transition from slavery to freedom was not simply a cessation of work. It was a reclaiming of our national mission, a movement away from being reactive to others’ whims and workloads to being proactive Jews. If we allow ourselves to be thrust into a position where we are reactive, then we are behind.

If, however, we drive the educational agenda, we actively connect to our values; and if we plan community development, then we have grasped the empowering position of being proactive.

The transition from slaves to free people and subsequent focus on the miracles of the Exodus signified that while we do not ignore the past pains of slavery, we are more concerned with our mission.

Put very simply, Pesach’s focus on the miracles of the Exodus tells us that antisemitism is not the reason to be Jewish. While schools correctly teach about the pain of the Holocaust, the religious perseverance of the Russian Refuseniks hardly gets taught.

The fact that Jews have been persecuted across history may light a spark and touch Jewish identity, but it does not provide a positive reason to be Jewish. Jewish education must teach about its painful past, but the empowering proactive reasons and mainstay of education should be our future.

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