In this week’s Dvar Torah for Shabbat of Passover and seven of Passover, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann lays out the calendar of Jewish and Israeli observances following in the weeks after Passover. Many are commemorated by events with strong nationalistic and triumphalistic overtones. As Jews and Israelis, how can we mark these meaningful days while also remembering our past as former slaves and our responsibility to seek freedom and dignity for all those living in our midst?
By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
The Shabbat of Pesach is when we read, in the haftorah, Ezekial’s vision of the dry bones coming to life, a vision of revival of the ancient nation after exile which is also a textual basis for the rabbinic belief in the resurrection of the dead. And on the seventh day of Pesach we read the description of the miracle of the parting of the Reed Sea, the song sung by the people on that occasion (which became part of the daily liturgy). We conclude the Festival of Freedom and move on into a period of semi-mourning until Lag BaOmer (Sefardim/minhag Eretz Israel) – and, for some (Ashkenazim), this continues right up until the week of Shavuot. Counting the Omer started already at the end of the first day of Pesach, but it takes on a more somber role after Pesach is over and until the next festival.
What have all these rituals to do with the work of Rabbis for Human Rights and its vision for the future? For many Jews this is a time of affirmation of their peoplehood and an opportunity for nationalist expression as the commemoration of the redemption from slavery merges with other memories of exile, suffering, genocide and national renewal through the dense calendar of public events to commemorate the Holocaust, the heavy cost of all the battles and ongoing terrorism, the founding of the State of Israel, the victories of the Six-Day war and the reunification of Jerusalem. There is a lot of flag waving and many, many speeches about Jewish destiny, etc.
For others – myself and many members of RHR – it is also a time of discomfort and sadness as the spiritual insights of the commemoration of slavery and their translation into the unique moral-ethical demands of the Jewish tradition are overcome by nationalist flag-waving and narrowness of vision. Calls to remember others negatively impacted by our national revival are lost in the raucous calls for Jewish pride and the songs of triumphalism. The cost to our Palestinian Arab neighbours of our independence was terrible – loss of a homeland, thousands dead, and a continuing regime of repression and dispossession. There will never be peace or coexistence here until we as a people recognize that and make that recognition public, perhaps ritually. This is what the halacha has done with the defeat of the Egyptians and their tragedy by limiting our expressions of joy in various ways – such as only saying a partial Hallel on the intermediate days of Pesach and particularly on the last day when we sing the “Song Of the Sea” but also remember that “My creatures are drowning” (Maasei Yaday , i.e G-d’s creatures).
Let us renew the kind of heroism of the early halutzim that made the creation of a Jewish homeland possible, a heroism like that of Nachson Ben Aminadav, according to the midrash, a heroism that made the crossing of the Reed Sea possible — a heroism of those whose determination to continue forward despite terrible odds made the realization of freedom possible for the others that followed. They were doing G-d’s work whether they thought so or not, as Rav Avraham Kook would say.
We need this kind of heroism and spiritual devotion to end the occupation and rebuild our country again, to lead our fellow Jews towards realization of a humane and human vision of Jewish freedom; one that does not entail repression of the rights of others, one in which we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and must be sensitive to those who are vulnerable living in our midst as the Torah commands us over and over again. This too is G-d’s work.
As we count the days of the Omer in the coming weeks let us see them also as a countdown, (and a call to action!), to the end of the occupation which is now reaching its jubilee year. Fifty years is long enough. There is no true freedom if there is not freedom for all! It is time that the ancient Jubilee call to liberty for ALL the inhabitants of the Land, also promised in Israel’s declaration of Independence, be translated into real “facts on the ground”.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is the director of organisational development at Rabbis for Human Rights