Taking the Active Steps Towards Salvation

For many people, the favorite part of the Passover prayers is the Torah reading on the seventh day of the holiday.

The song “Az Yashir,” (the Song of the Sea), is a celebratory hymn that the Jews sang after they crossed through the Reed Sea safely and watched the Egyptian army drown. It is recited from the Torah in a unique melody compared to every other reading during the year, and it is the only time that the entire congregation stands for Torah-reading, other than the recitation of the Ten Commandments and the conclusion of each of the five books.

Just as the Haggadah that was read on the first night of Passover directs us to “show himself as if he had left Egypt,” everyone in the synagogue does not simply sit and listen to the words of the Torah, but takes an active step of standing while they listen to the song.

וּבְכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁלֹּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל, אֵלָא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל–שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְאוֹתָנוּ, הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם–לְמַעַן, הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ” (דברים ו,כג. In every generation, a person is obligated to show himself as if he had left Egypt:  for He did not redeem only our ancestors, but even us as well, as it is written “And He brought us out from thence, that He might bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers” (Deuteronomy 6:23).

The participation of standing for the song is communal today, just as the song was sung by the entire congregation over 3,000 years ago.

א  אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ,  {ר}  לֵאמֹר:  {ס}  אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה,  {ס}  סוּס  {ר}  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.  {ס} Exodus 15:1 Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

The fact that the Jews were appreciative for their salvation is understandable, but also shocking that such emotion appears during this Song of the Sea for the first time in the bible. Throughout the story of the ten plagues and leaving Egypt, all the way until the shores of the Reed Sea, the Jews mostly complained to Moses; they certainly did not say ‘thank you’ to him nor exalt God.

11 Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:11-12)

The constant actions of Moses during the story were in contrast to the persistent inaction of the Children of Israel. The Jews were content to stay where they were, to have all of their basic needs taken care of for them, whether food to eat or graves in which to be buried. The Jews were as much physical slaves to the Egyptians as they were to their own complacency. They had accepted their misery, and angry that Moses had the temerity to break the status quo.


The Crossing of the Red Sea
by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

I will suggest here that the Song by the Sea was the third and pivotal step in the Jewish people taking action to break the weight of inertia and achieving salvation; not just freedom beyond the borders of Egypt, but of the slave mentality as well.

The First Steps: The Tenth Plague

The streak was on.

Nine times in a row, God had brought a plague onto the Egyptian people. In chapter after chapter, the bible recounts how God inflicted pain on land and sea, on animals and fields, yet all of the while, the Jews were in a protective bubble. They were not impacted by the plagues nor asked to participate in any way.

But at the announcement of the final tenth plague, the bible tells us that it was time for the Jewish people to take action.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֕ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה כְּשַׁ֨לְּח֔וֹ כָּלָ֕ה גָּרֵ֛שׁ יְגָרֵ֥שׁ אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּֽה׃ דַּבֶּר־נָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ ׀ מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃ וַיִּתֵּ֧ן יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֖ם בְּעֵינֵ֣י מִצְרָ֑יִם גַּ֣ם ׀ הָאִ֣ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֗ה גָּד֤וֹל מְאֹד֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּעֵינֵ֥י עַבְדֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה וּבְעֵינֵ֥י הָעָֽם׃

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all.  Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people. (Exodus 11:1-3)

If God was able to do everything on behalf of the Jewish people, why did He want them to take the jewels of the Egyptians? He could have just given the Jews riches or transferred the wealth to the Jews.

God knew that the Jews had a complacent mindset after hundreds of years of slavery. He needed them to break free of that inertia and confront their oppressors. To do that, He commanded the Jewish people to stand up and take back the wages and goods that had been taken from them while they worked as slaves for so long. Step 1: confront the oppressor.

Yet the single step would not be enough to earn redemption nor break the psychology of slavery, so God commanded the Jews to take additional action.

Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house: And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats: And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat itAnd they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof. 10 And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire. 11 And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord‘s passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord13 And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. 14 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. (Exodus 12: 3-14)

God commanded the Jews to do something out-of-the-ordinary. Each family was to take a lamb into their houses for three days, and then slaughter it and paint its blood onto the outside doorposts of the house while they devoured the roasted meat throughout the night. Quite a bizarre farewell to Egypt.

Some biblical commentators believed that sheep were sacred to the Egyptians and that slaughtering them and painting their blood onto the outside of the house and eating them was a detestable offense to the Egyptians. If so, this action would be a continuation of the first step above: confront your enemy first by taking physical goods (jewels), and then by destroying their spiritual world (sacred sheep).

But the text reads differently. The bible writes that the blood is for God to see (“when I see the blood”), not the Egyptians. The blood on the doorways is therefore not designed as an insult to the Egyptians, but an act of affirmation that the Jews believed in God, and that God will protect them. For nine plagues God protected the Jews without their active participation, but for the final plague, the Jews needed to participate in their salvation. Step 2: show your belief.

The Next Step: Entering the Sea

The communal belief was short lived. As described above, the Jews quickly reverted to their old habits as they verbally attacked Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to face death at the hands of the Egyptian army at the shore of the Reed Sea.

And Moses similarly fell into the old trap of assuming that God would do everything for His people and called out:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ הִֽתְיַצְב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

יְהוָ֖ה יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם וְאַתֶּ֖ם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן׃

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The LORD will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Exodus 14:13-14)

Moses tried to allay the fear of the Jews and told them to sit back and watch God save them. But God was not pleased with the words of Moses.

The drama of the story is heightened, as the Torah reading takes a pause just after Moses makes his declaration. When the Torah reader takes up the reading again at the next aliyah, we imagine that the dramatic splitting of the sea is about to happen. But it doesn’t.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. (Exodus 14:15)

God surprisingly questions Moses proclamation and instead calls for the Jewish people to literally take the next steps forward in another act of redemption.

The Midrash says that the Jewish people were frightened and reluctant to march ahead. But a prince from the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into the sea undeterred, and the waters finally split and saved him from drowning (Sotah 37a).

Nachshon’s actions can be viewed as a continuation of the important second step: show your belief, as an individual. Do not be lulled into the prevalent community attitude of letting the leaders or someone else take action. Do not sit and wait, as even a solitary person’s actions, coupled with a leader’s (Moses) prayers to realize God’s vision, can help redeem everyone.

Rabbi Aaron Kampf of Manchester, England balances the notion of individual action versus the will of God. In recounting the story of Queen Esther, Rabbi Kampf notes that Esther’s uncle charged her to speak up on behalf of the Jewish people to the king.

יג  וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר:  אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים. Megillat Esther Chapter 4: 13 Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: ‘Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.
יד  כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת. 14 For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?’

The speech that Mordecai gave to Esther was not a pep talk of “you can do it; we’re all counting on you!” but one of humility. God has a plan, and you can either play or part or disappear into history because salvation will come from somewhere else.

An individual’s action will become successful or unsuccessful based on the will of God. A person should not be so self-centered as to believe that they alone can change the world. But as Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot 2:16:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.

A person must be involved and take actions in partnership with God.

The Final Step: Gratitude

The Jews were finally free of the physical and mental slavery when they sang “Az Yashir” on the other side of the sea. They had confronted their enemies and showed their belief in God. They witnessed their Egyptian masters completely defeated.

However, one more step was required to become free: the expression of gratitude.

The actions that the Jewish people had taken in their salvation were all commanded by God: take the jewels; slaughter the lamb; paint the doorposts; move forward; etc. In many ways, the Jews had traded masters: the Egyptian taskmaster for God.

But on the safe dry ground they understood that the calls of complaints to their leader Moses were empty. Those were not steps forward but merely instinctive reactions, animalistic. Now, they decided for themselves to thank God.

Noble peace prize winner Elie Wiesel believed deeply in the action of expressing gratitude. He believed that gratitude was the ultimate expression of humanity:

“Gratitude is a word that I cherish.
Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.
No one is as capable of expressing gratitude as one who has escaped the kingdom of night.”

And as the Children of Israel and Moses sang in unison about their gratitude to God, the transformation of a people was realized. They no longer were physically or mentally constrained by the will of Egyptian masters, broken of free will like cattle. They were on their way to participate actively in the teachings of their God and the God of their fathers.

Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik wrote: “While not all are loved by God in the same way, we are all held accountable for our actions, and are rewarded for a life well lived.” (Azure No. 19, “God’s Beloved: A Defense of Choseness“)’ Our ability to confront the wrongs, to demonstrate our faith and to be thankful for God’s gifts are key ingredients to the story of Passover and how we live our lives.


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A Seder in Jerusalem with Liberal Friends

I am “right-of-center” when it comes to politics about Israel. I firmly believe that Israel has unquestioned legal, moral and historic right to live as a free, independent, democratic Jewish state, and that the borders of such state should include the holiest city for Jews, the united city of Jerusalem as its capital for the previous reasons, as well as based on fundamental security needs.

This year, I had the fortune of celebrating my Peach seder in Jerusalem. My hosts were liberal friends that believe that the eastern part of the city – a few hundred feet from where we ate the festive dinner – should become the capital of a new state of Palestine. I was not sure how this fact would impact the seder: how would the meal remain a celebration and educational for the dozen children, while not ignoring the momentous 50-year jubilee of the united city without a contentious debate?

The Community Obligation

I tried to stay on safe ground.

Before Pesach each year, I purchase a new Haggadah to share some new thoughts at the seder. Knowing of the attendees at this year’s meal, I decided to buy Erica Brown’s “Seder Talk,” as I considered that her essays would appeal to the more progressive crowd (compared to past year selections of R. Soloveitchik, R. Lamm, Lord Sachs, Sfas Emes among others).

One of Brown’s essays discussed the basis for the seder’s “Four Sons.” She considered that the bible wrote in four different places the need to educate one’s children about the exodus from Egypt, and each mention correlated to a different type of child:

  • Exodus 12:26-27: And when your children ask you “What is this service to you?” you will say, “It is a Pesach offering for the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt while He struck the Egyptians, but saved those in our homes.”
  • Exodus 13:8: And you shall explain to your son on that day, “Because of this the Lord acted for me when I came out of Egypt.”
  • Exodus 13:14: And when, in time to come, your son asks you saying, “What is this?” you shall say to him, “With a string hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the grip of slavery.”
  • Deuteronomy 6:20-21: When in time your children ask you, “What re the testimonies, the statutes and laws, that the Lord our God commanded you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord our God brought us out of there with a strong hand.”

The four different types of children in the Haggadah are the hacham (wise son), the rasha (evil son), the tam (simple son), and the she’eino yo’dea lish’ol (the one that doesn’t know how to ask). Brown wrote that the rabbis believed that the role of the parent is to explain to each child according to that child’s abilities. There are “four different recipients, whose learning needs vary. All must be told the story. All must learn it and be able to transmit it.

Brown continued that the mission to tell the story of the Exodus actually extends beyond parental responsibility. The Jerusalem Talmud used an alternative term for the “tam,” the simpleton, instead calling that son a “tipesh,” a stupid child.  Brown said that “the child of the Jerusalem Talmud is the child with limited mental capacity…. This child is a child of not only the family but of our entire community.” It is not only the responsibility of the parent to educate their own children, but in certain circumstances, it is also the obligation to assist others raising those kids. To make an important adjustment to the words of Hillary Clinton – it does not “take a village” to raise children – it is the responsibility of each parent to rear their own. However, there may be extraordinary circumstances in which the broader community should be involved in educating and raising a child with special needs.

I opted to end my comments there, as the reception at the seder was lukewarm. I do not think I won fans with terms for children of “stupid” and “mentally challenged,” even though the remarks were from Erica Brown herself. Had I continued with some extended thoughts of my own, it would have surely gone downhill.

The Community Declaration

Shortly after the description of the four sons, the Haggadah quotes and analyzes a different selection from the bible.

  • Deuteronomy 26: 5-8: [Then you shall declare before the Lord your God:] “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.  Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.

The Haggadah uses many pages to expound on these biblical verses, however, it does not give the context for the long history leading up to the exodus.

This declaration in Deuteronomy is ordered by God at the time of bikurim, the bringing of the first fruits in Jerusalem.

  • Deuteronomy 26: 1-2: When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it,  take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name

God demanded that the story of leaving Egypt be repeated in the chosen place of the chosen land for the chosen people: at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in the heart of the Jewish holy land.

Nachmanides (1194-1270), also known as the Ramban considered the rationale of the bikurim commandment. Why would an offering of first fruits in the Jewish Temple be accompanied with the history leaving Egypt?

The Ramban noted that bikurim is ONLY made in public in Jerusalem; such an offering cannot be made on an individual basis. The personal declaration of thanks for the riches of the holy land is made before the entire community. The acknowledgement of the gifts of the holy land began with the exodus from Egypt, and is something that each person must publicly declare while internalizing the message: my gift of fruit is simply a portion of our collective gifts: we are a nation that was collectively brought from Egypt to Jerusalem. The offered fruit is realy the nation’s fruit, just as the freedom from slavery was a national liberation.


The bible and Haggadah are clear in the command to educate one’s own children, and Erica Brown noted the need of the community to also educate other children in the community about our freedom from slavery. We stand as part of the community helping individuals learn the lesson of God’s gifts.

But we also have a need to stand before the community to acknowledge God’s gifts. Those gifts extend beyond our freedom from slavery, to the gift of the holy land and its produce. And that declaration is to be made in Jerusalem on the Jewish Temple Mount.

As left-wing radicals like the New Israel Fund rewrite the Haggadah and eliminate “Next Year in Jerusalem” to “Next Year in Palestine and Israel,” they have rewritten the centrality of God’s gifts and the role of our community. In doing so, have they rejected God’s gift and being part of our community? Or must the community not give up, and teach this wayward son as well?


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Biblical Command to Come to Jerusalem

There are commandments in the bible that are clear and explicit, while there are others that are deduced by the rabbis. For example, “Do not kill” is easily understood, while the commandment to not eat dairy and meat together was derived by the rabbis from different parts of the bible.

The commandment for Jews to go to Jerusalem three times a year is a combination of both clear and deduced commandments.

1Observe the month of Aviv and celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 Sacrifice as the Passover to the Lord your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his Name. 3 Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt. 4 Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days. Do not let any of the meat you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain until morning.

5 You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the Lord your God gives you 6 except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt. 7 Roast it and eat it at the place the Lord your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents. 8 For six days eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day hold an assembly to the Lord your God and do no work.

Passover in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:1-8)

9 Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. 10 Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you. 11 And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you. 12 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.

Shavuot in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:9-12)

13 Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.

Sukkot in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

16 Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles. No one should appear before the Lord empty-handed: 17 Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.

Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:16-17)

There is no question that God commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage three times a year to “the place He will choose.” However, that place was not clearly specified by God and changed over time.

When Jews emerged from Egypt and came back to the holy land roughly 3300 years ago, they first set up the holy Tabernacle in the town of Shiloh in Samaria. It remained there for 369 years.

“The whole assembly of the Israelites gathered at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The country was brought under their control,”

(Joshua 18:1)

The Jews set up the “tent of meeting” in Shiloh and made their pilgrimages to Shiloh as directed in the bible. The Israelites themselves chose this location, which is not exactly what the text in the bible prescribed stating that God will choose the location. Presumably, the Jews chose Shiloh with divine inspiration and blessing.

After Shiloh was destroyed, the Tabernacle had temporary homes for fiftyseven years in Nob and Gibeon. When King David took over the leadership from King Saul around 1000BCE, he sought to unify the various tribes and establish a new capital. David seized the Jebusite city of Jerusalem which sat in the center of the kingdom. After David died, his son King Solomon built the First Jewish Temple there in 950BCE. From that time until the present day, it has been the center of Jewish worship.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem,
with thousands of Jews at the Kotel plaza on chol hamoed Pesach

The Incomplete Jerusalem

Whether the Jews were self-governing, or living under Assyrians, Greeks or Romans, Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of annual pilgrimages. That began to break down in 70CE.

The Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in 70CE and then banned all Jews from the city in 135CE after the Bar Kochba Revolt. While Jews continued to live in the holy land, they could not visit Jerusalem.

Eventually Jews were allowed back to their holiest city, and they resumed pilgrimages even though there was no longer a Temple. But during the Christian Crusades in the 1200s, the Jews were evicted from Jerusalem again, and only able to reestablish themselves in the city in the middle of the 13th century. By the 1860s, Jews were the largest religious group in Jerusalem, exceeding both the number of Muslims and Christians, even while the city was under Ottoman rule.

That changed in 1949.

In 1948, five Arab armies invaded Israel after it declared its independence. At war’s end, the Jordanians went about an ethnic cleansing of the Jews in Jerusalem.

  • They evicted all of the Jews from the eastern half of the city, including the entire Old City
  • They destroyed over 100 synagogues in the Old City, including the Hurva Synagogue
  • They annexed the eastern half of the city in a move not recognized by most of the world
  • They established a land law which made it a capital offense for any Arab to sell land to a Jew
  • They gave Jordanian citizenship to all Arabs in the lands they annexed, and specifically excluded Jews from gaining citizenship
  • They refused to allow Jews to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Kotel and Temple Mount, even on holidays

From 1949 to 1967, anti-Semites ruled in Jerusalem, and the holiest place in the world for Jews was out-of-reach.

But that changed 50 years ago.

Jubilee is for Redemption

In June 1967 the Jordanians attacked Israel after Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt and Syria in the Six Day War. The Jordanians lost all of the land that they had illegally annexed, including Judea and Samaria and the eastern half of Jerusalem.

Jews once again moved into their holy reunited city.

The bible notes that 50 years is a jubilee, a time of redemption.

8 Count off seven Sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven Sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years.  Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

13In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.”

50 years is freedom (Leviticus 25:8-13)

Fifty years ago Jews were able to walk their streets again, to rebuild their synagogues and live in their homes. The anti-Semitic Arab laws were nullified as the Jewish State proclaimed liberty in their holiest city.

Celebrations in Jerusalem’s Old City
(photo: First.One.Through)

Just one week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a new town in Samaria near Shiloh, the first new development in decades. The new town is adjacent to the ancient Jewish holy site. A return and redemption of sorts, thousands of years later.

Passover starts next week around the world. The seder ends with a song “HaShana HaBa B’Yerushalyim,” “Next year in Jerusalem. Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.” While there are still more obstacles to overcome in Jerusalem (such as the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount), the city has been revitalized and home to thousands of Jews.

Passover 2017 marks anniversaries of both the redemption of the Jews from being slaves, and the redemption of Jerusalem from being Judenrein. Celebrating Passover in Jerusalem is performing a mitzvah, a positive deed, which combines a clearly delineated action with those divinely inspired. God saved us, and blessed us when we took actions to celebrate His gifts.

Happy Passover from Jerusalem.


Related First.One.Through articles:

Shabbat Hagadol at the Third Hurva Synagogue, 2010

It is Time to Insert “Jewish” into the Names of the Holy Sites

Today’s Inverted Chanukah: The Holiday of Rights in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria

Jordan’s Deceit and Hunger for Control of Jerusalem

The Arguments over Jerusalem

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Chag Kasher v. Sa’meach

Summary: For many people, the “v.” is for “versus”, not for “and”. In the ongoing battle between a Chag Kasher versus Sa’meach, Kasher seems to be winning again.

I am neither a cook nor a chef.

While I love to eat, my wife prohibits me from doing any food preparation for fear -not without reason or history- that should I venture into the kitchen, her holy sanctuary, the entire room – no, the house itself! – would become un-kosher.

Over time, my place has become confined to the kitchen table. It is there that I must sit and wait for my meals, not unlike our dog (which she prefers on most days) who waits before his bowl. Remarkably, I am afforded more table scraps than him. Score one for me.

This is not to say that I cannot approach the sink. My share of the household bargain falls on cleaning up after meals. My wife considers the dishwasher and garbage pail safe terrain, as I can usually deduce whether I just consumed a dairy or meat meal.

That all ends on Passover.

When I think of my wife on Passover, I am reminded of the final scene from the movie Gallipoli where manic soldiers charge an Ottoman trench, knowing of their certain death. A fury fills her eyes as the holiday approaches and I know that no cleaning I do could ever satisfy her Kashrut Compulsive Disorder (commonly referred to by Jewish psychiatrists as KCD). This non-silent killer has taken more husbands than latkes on Hanukah.

My wife, (let’s call her “Pharaoh” to protect her identity from the teachers in school who think of her as a sweet, mild-mannered parent) despises Passover. Her venom is matched by her vigilance as she tries to square the invisible shmura matzah of Passover kashrut stringencies with her own KCD.

The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt had it easier than my modern Pharaoh. The ancient kings had teams of advisers and thousands of slaves to execute their commands. Today’s Pharaoh is left with a spouse who only gets to clean in the kitchen during most of the year because we have two dishwashers.

More warriors are clearly needed for the task.

New York has an outsourced cleaning industry which features companies with jolly names like “Molly Maids” and “PIG” which stands for “Partners in Grime”. When these companies drop the non-kosher acronyms and become armed with blowtorches, perhaps Pharaoh will “let these people come.”

Well, in truth, they do come.  They come a few times in succession to make sure that one team picked up where the first team may have been sloppy. At $400 a pop, the twelve cleaning tours of duty make a not so subtle reminder that we could have gone to a Passover program in the sunshine somewhere.

The cleaning troupes do not absolve me of cleaning (nor the sin of making Passover at home). My tasks are to lift and move large objects around the house in case a morsel of bread was carried there by a microscopic antisemitic mouse.  Dishwashers are pulled from their moorings. Refrigerators are yanked from the walls.  I am ordered to lift the island in the kitchen, until my rabbi steps in on my behalf (only because he thought I was too weak). My dog snickers at my misery.  Score one for him.

After eighteen gallons of bleach have been pored over every inch of the kitchen, and the fleas on my dog would no longer consider smelling (let alone eating) anything in the house, my next task is assigned. Foiling.

Foiling on Pesach has nothing to do with fencing.  It involves rolling out aluminum foil over counter tops as a punishment for not giving one’s wife a new kitchen. For the hardcore, the foiling of tables, chairs, cushions is also warranted.  Our family is so famous for our foiling, that we get Happy Passover cards from Alcoa.

IMG_3295
Foiling at a bar

As the first seder arrives, Pharaoh starts to resemble my former wife again. The house is indeed clean enough that even Eliyahu would be impressed.  Family and friends gather around the table to recount the timeless story… of how no one in the shtetls had more than one pot and somehow made Passover.

As has become our tradition, before I recite the Kiddush to start the seder, my wife inverts the very order of the seder. She sings out in a loud, yet exhausted, teary voice “Hashana ha’ba’a b’Yerushayim” – Next year in Jerusalem. Everyone joins in.

Shabbat Hagadol at the Third Hurva Synagogue, 2010

Summary: Five years ago, I was fortunate to spend Friday night at the newly re-opened Hurva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. A reflection on history and change.

On the Friday evening of Shabbat Hagadol before Passover in March 2010, I walked with my father to the Old City of Jerusalem.

I had come to Israel with my family to celebrate my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Several members of the family walked the 1.5 miles in the light rain from our hotel towards the Kotel.  As we passed the newly opened Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, my father and I opted to pray there, while most of the others continued to the Kotel.

THE HURVA

The very first Hurva Synagogue was built in 1694 but was destroyed a few years later in 1721 due to financial problems. The second Hurva synagogue on that location opened in 1856, as the Ottomans began to ease restrictions on Jewish development in the holy land. However, the Jordanian Arabs blew up the synagogue during their 1948 attack on Israel.

Hurva1930
Hurva Synagogue, 1930

In 1967, in response to the Jordanian and Palestinian attack on Israel, Israel counter-attacked and took control of the eastern half of Jerusalem. The Israelis opted to not rebuild the Hurva Synagogue for decades, and instead built a ceremonial arch, similar to the arch that existed in the original shul. However, in 2002, the government began a process of looking at rebuilding the synagogue, which it finally opened in March 2010.

 Hurva arch
Ceremonial Arch where the Hurva Synagogue stood

The rededication of the Jewish synagogue caused international hysteria. Palestinians and Jordanians called the action a “provocation” that was meant to begin an attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. The main Palestinian political party, the Jihadist group Hamas, declared a “Day of Rage” against Israel.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said it “strongly condemns recent measures taken by Israel in East Jerusalem, the latest of which has been the inauguration of a synagogue in the old city. PCHR holds Israel responsible for the escalation of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

The United States was upset with the reopening of the synagogue in the contested part of the city and the Palestinians’ reaction. As such, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skipped the rededication ceremony to avoid harming relations with US President Barack Obama.

SHABBAT HAGADOL 2010

 I was very happy to go into the new-historic shul. It is not often that one gets to visit a brand new building with so much history.

There was security to enter the building, but nothing extreme or time intensive. The entry area had many siddurim, prayer books, and my father and I each took one and grabbed seats inside. We observed the large inside of the domed building and could see a woman’s section behind us overhead.  The tall wooden aron that held the torah scrolls sat against a wall that tried to convey the levels of history in the building – a mix of raw stone, stone with plaster applied and painted finished walls towards the ceiling. The four corners of the synagogue included painted frescos of holy places: the Cave of the Jewish Patriarchs in Hebron; and the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem were in the front of the building, and Migdal David; and Tiberias were portrayed towards the back.

Hurva inside2
Inside front wall of the Hurva Synagogue

After Kabbalat Shabbat, the newly appointed Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, delivered a speech.  He spoke clearly and strongly in Hebrew for a while about the story of the Jews leaving Egypt, and the important role that women and all of the Jews played in their own redemption. I was happy both with the content of the speech and my ability to understand it.

FIVE YEARS ON

Five years later, I spent Shabbat Hagadol at a university in Massachusetts as my daughter began to consider her college options.

On Shabbat, my wife and I walked the 1.5 miles in the light snow from our hotel to the college campus.  We were lucky enough to hear Rabbi Saul Berman, who was a visiting lecturer from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and Columbia University’s School of Law. He spoke about the role all Jews played in their own redemption 3300 years ago.  He also spoke about the significance of temporarily banning a seemingly innocuous item – chametz – during the week of Passover.  As opposed to permanent prohibitions to actions that God viewed as improper (such as murder), he argued that a temporary ban was meant to be used as a time of reflection. The change acts as a catalyst to contemplate the separation itself.  In the case of chametz, Jews eschewed the characteristics of ancient Egyptians, for example, the use of slave labor. The temporary ban today allows us to reflect on how we treat our workers today.  Passover is both a time to remember and relive ancient history (we physically left Egypt centuries ago), as well as a time to consider our own actions (how do we avoid acting like ancient Egyptians in the present).

In Israel, the third Hurva synagogue still stands and welcomes Jews to pray on Shabbat Hagadol, Pesach, and all year.  The loud commotion around the rebuilding of the shul has died away and is now part of the din from protests of a large segment of the world that attacks Jews for building and living in their holiest city; a city they have built and lived in for thousands of years.

The chief rabbi who spoke at the Hurva in 2010, Yona Metzger, is no longer the chief rabbi.  He just stepped down from his position due to an indictment on bribery charges.

Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu is still in office, having recently won a fourth term in elections.  As he did five years ago, Netanyahu continues to make conciliatory remarks and take actions regarding the Palestinians to endear himself to US President Obama. (But Netanyahu has also ratcheted up his language regarding Iran’s nuclear program which has only strengthened Obama’s dislike for him).

As for me, I have had the chance to visit the Hurva many more times.  I have come with my wife and children.  Soon, I will come with in-laws, nieces and nephews who could not attend the bat mitzvah five years ago and have never seen the synagogue.


The front wall of the Hurva Synagogue is a plum line of history. The changing materials reflect our movement into the modern with a foundation straight from the ancient. Like the seder on the first night of Passover, the Jewish story builds on the past. Jews relive ancient history, recount how Jews retold the story more recently, and add their own stories today.

Hurva
Hurva Synagogue 2014


Related First One Through article:

United Nations and Holy Sites in the Holy Land