Pesach’s story of hope and redemption will give us strength

In these difficult times, the words of the Haggadah will resonate more deeply with us


The road to freedom: reciting the Haggadah at the Seder table

In March 1943, somewhere in the despair of the Vilna Ghetto, the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever penned the following lines: “Perhaps these words will endure/ And live to see the light loom — / And in the destined hour/ Will unexpectedly bloom?/ And like the primeval grain/ That turned into a stalk —/ The words will nourish,/ The words will belong — / To the people, in its eternal walk.”

Whatever the circumstances they have found themselves in, Jews have always clung to the possibility of redemption. The belief that better times would eventually come, when they would be able to celebrate their physical and spiritual freedom from oppression.

The primary tool we have used to transmit this belief has always been the written word. That is why Jews have devotedly preserved the text of the Haggadah through the ages, seeking solace in the eternity of its account of enslavement and redemption — and through its words, continuously reinvigorated their own belief in the eternal promise of freedom.

Perhaps Avrom Sutzkever had this in mind, too, when he wrote his poem, likely in the weeks preceding that dark Pesach of 1943. The words of the Haggadah sustain us in our ongoing quest for freedom and each Pesach we add our own voices to the story of our people “in its eternal walk”.

There have been years, perhaps, when we may have questioned the need for this annual reflection on freedom from oppression

But not this year. This year, we will approach Pesach with a genuine sense of longing for redemption.

Redemption for the suffering of our brothers and sisters whose lives have been torn apart by tragedy and despair in Israel’s southern communities. Redemption for families of the hostages who continue their unbearable wait for news of their incarcerated loved ones. And redemption for our homeland that feels embattled, increasingly isolated and above all, at risk. And with all this, prayers for redemption from the resurgence of anti-Jewish hatred here in the UK, with the painful scars this has reopened within us all.

Perhaps this Pesach, therefore, we have a sacred duty to connect ourselves to that long history of our ancestors, who prayed, as Avrom Sutzkever did, for the words to, “in the destined hour… unexpectedly bloom”.

Perhaps this Pesach, we will be able to find renewed strength within those words — if we choose to read them in a way that speaks to us.

There is, of course, no single way to achieve this. But there is one way to read the Haggadah which may, perhaps, bring a measure of solace — and in turn renewed faith in the redemption we so desperately long for.

To get there, we first need to confront a basic question

Despite the very name Seder meaning “order”, the account of the Exodus as retold on Seder Night, accompanied by the foods we consume, seems quite obviously out of order.

We begin with a cup of wine symbolising the first of the four cups of redemption — before we have even commenced the story.

Then, having retold the account of the Exodus in detail and consumed the matzah, we eat the maror, the bitter herbs, which reawaken a sense of slavery! We are left wondering why a night predicated on order seems to have been deliberately crafted to confuse us. Understanding the true nature of freedom, however, helps us understand the deeper message here. Life, and especially Jewish history, is not linear. Our experiences of slavery and redemption have often vacillated between the two.

There were years and localities when we would sit around our Seder tables and feel remarkably free. And there were others, like the one experienced in Vilna by Avrom Sutzkever in March 1943, when the opposite was true. Consuming the maror after the matzah reminds us of the realities of Jewish history. Where, therefore, lies our true sense of freedom?

In his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning, which draws on his own experiences in the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl sets out the truism that human beings are not in control of the circumstances they find themselves in life. Instead, it is in their ability to choose their response to those circumstances where real freedom can be found.

There are numerous classical Jewish sources which support this idea. Take, for instance, this passage in the Talmud: “Everything is in the hand of Heaven, save for fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b). In other words, the choices we have are primarily moral in nature, rather than circumstantial.

Read the Haggadah with this in mind and a new pathway of understanding opens up.

Our ancestors were redeemed from centuries of slavery in Egypt. They then entered a desert which would continually test their reserves of faith.

The one thing that was within their control was their ability to shape their responses to the trials they faced. Doing so arguably embedded within our collective psyche a keystone character trait: resilience. Jews are perhaps the most resilient nation on earth.

We can be forever oppressed, threatened with mass extinction, even uniquely accused of deicide — the murder of a deity — and yet refuse to assimilate.

The Jewish people live on, Am Yisrael Chai, because this is the response to circumstance that we have continually chosen for ourselves.

There are many ways to read the Haggadah. This year, I would suggest that the resilience embedded in the conscious choice of Am Yisrael Chai is perhaps the most powerful possible — and one that will add our own words to that of our people in its eternal walk.

Dr Yoni Birnbaum is currently rabbi of Toras Chaim in Hendon and senior rabbi elect of Finchley United Synagogue

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