Religion

What didn’t happen on Passover?

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(RNS) — Have you ever noticed what didn’t happen on the night of Passover?

I turn to a sermon on Passover, delivered by the late Orthodox theologian, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Throughout history, whenever slaves have overthrown their masters, the former slaves have usually retaliated with brutality.

  • Ancient Rome endured insurrections of slaves against their masters and in every case there was a bloodbath.
  • There was the German Peasants’ War in the 1500s — Europe’s largest popular uprising before the French Revolution.
  • There were the Cossack revolts in Ukraine, in which the Cossacks rebelled against their Polish overlords, and in the process instigated the single largest Jewish bloodbath before the Holocaust.
  • There was the French Revolution — a bloody event with lasting repercussions and implications, both in France and in Europe.

I might add: the Rwandan genocide, which recently marked its 30th anniversary.

In the words of Soloveitchik: “The brutish drive for vengeance, for gratification of the satanic in man, was irresistible.”

Let us return to the Exodus from Egypt.

“There was a great cry throughout the land of Egypt, for there was not a single house where there was not one dead” (Exodus 12:30).

Picture the situation: The masters, who had exploited, tortured and humiliated the Israelites for years, suddenly found themselves at the mercy of their slaves.

What would you expect the slaves to do with their newly found freedom?

You would expect them to avenge themselves on their oppressors, to pay back the ones who had murdered their babies, who had assaulted their daughters, who had mercilessly beat them for any and every minor infraction.

But now ask yourself, as Soloveitchik asked, rhetorically:

Were Egyptian babies taken out of the embrace of their mothers and thrown into the Nile, as the babies of the slaves had been murdered just a short while before?

Did the Hebrew beat up his taskmaster, who just several days ago had tortured him mercilessly?

Did the liberated slaves set fire to the exclusive neighborhood of their former overlords?

Did the teenagers smash at least the windowpanes of the offices where their taskmasters used to assemble and plan restrictive and sadistic edicts?

No. None of that.

Instead, what did the Israelites do in their first hours of freedom?

Moses tells the Israelites: Slaughter the paschal lamb. Eat the lamb. Put some of the blood on the doorposts of your house.

What else does he say?

“None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.” (Exodus 12:22)

Do you understand why they had to stay home that night?

This is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s answer: “The liberated slaves had the courage to withdraw, to defy the natural call of blood.”

Because if they had given into the normal, natural, expected, typical — they would not have been free.

They still would have been slaves — but this time, not to Pharaoh, and not to the Egyptians — they would have been slaves to themselves and their own passions.

What was the first thing Jews did after the Shoah?

As Yossi Klein Halevi has taught, the survivors had their own sense of vengeance. They renewed Jewish life. Whenever and wherever they could, they re-created Jewish communities — in Germany itself!

Take the term “Nili.” Nili is an acronym for netzach Yisrael lo yishaker, “the victorious one of Israel does not lie.”

Who, or what, was “the victorious one of Israel”? It is either God or the Jewish people. For most survivors, it was the endurance of the Jewish people. 

Some Holocaust survivors created a kibbutz that enshrined that phrase — Kibbutz Nili.

Kibbutz, right? It must be in the land of Israel, right?

No, it was created in Germany, as an agricultural training center for those who would immigrate to the land of Israel.

Yes, but where, precisely, in Germany?

Jewish survivors created that kibbutz in a rather odd, unsettling place.

It was on the grounds of the former estate of Julius Streicher, the publisher of the notorious Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer.

That newspaper featured the most vile caricatures of Jews in history. Anti-Israel activists deserve to know the caricatures they use come straight out of that Nazi rag.

So, why did they create kibbutz on Streicher’s estate?

You want vengeance? We get it. It is understandable.

But, instead of taking vengeance, learn how to plant.

Celebrate life.

“Celebrate life.” Would you like to know when the single largest Jewish baby boom in history happened?

It was right after the Holocaust — in the DP camps themselves.

People fell in love — often, after having lost their former partners in the camps. In contemporary language, many of them “hooked up” — almost haphazardly.

They got married. They did not want to be lonely. They wanted to have children.

By 1947, the DP camps had the highest birthrates in Europe, or perhaps even the world. That is still the case in Israel today, and not just among the ultra-Orthodox. It is an explosion of biology, and it is the triumph of hope itself.

As Yossi taught us at the Shalom Hartman Institute: Zionism was the healing response to every aspect of the Shoah assault.

  • The Shoah had destroyed the richest centers of Jewish life; Israel would create the next center.
  • The Shoah destroyed Jewish self-confidence; Zionism would restore Jewish self-confidence.
  • The Shoah had said the Jews would be the eternal Other; Zionism said Jews would no longer be the Other.
  • The Shoah was about Jewish shame and cowardice; Zionism would be about Jewish pride and heroism.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik said, it would have been easy to imagine the ancient Israelites going ballistic, and wanting to destroy Egypt, and to kill Egyptians.

That did not happen.

They went forth to build a civilization.

Which, by the way, is what we celebrated at our Seder tables.

It was not only the Exodus from Egypt.

It was Jewish civilization, culture, history and identity.

The anti-Israel, antisemitic hordes on college campuses — and elsewhere — might try to trash the history of the Jewish people.

To which we say: We know better.

“The eternal one of Israel does not lie.”

God said we would not only survive. We would endure and thrive, despite your taunts and your anti-intellectual vulgarities. 

You will lose.

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