How do we find a shared identity that can hold the entire enterprise of the Jewish people together?
The State of Israel grapples with unifying an often fractured society, building a strong economy and dealing with its neighbours and internal security threats, as well as obviously the perennial Palestinian question. Diaspora Jewry is contending with threats of terrorism, as well as problems of apathy and drift.
We live in turbulent and confusing times, but also times of great opportunity. We, as the Jewish world, have, possibly, more resources available to us than had any generation before us. We have a sovereign, strong Jewish state and most of us live in societies of freedom and democracy. If we are to harness the opportunities and confront the challenges, we need to clarify who we are and what our values are. We need to rally around a shared Jewish identity. From our core values and identity will naturally flow our direction and vision for the future. But how do we start finding a shared identity that can hold the entire enterprise of the Jewish people together? For the answers we must go back to the birth of our people.
Pesach is the time the Jewish people were born as a nation. Our birth is like none other in the history of the world. We were born amidst slavery and miracles. The circumstances of our birth are the clue to our identity. That is why Pesach is the highlight of the Jewish year and why the mitzvah of remembering the going out of Egypt applies to each of us on each and every single day. The message is clear – the experience of our slavery in Egypt and our redemption through miracles goes to the very heart of our identity.
The birth of our people teaches us to have faith in human greatness. Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin explains the verse “You shall not … oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shemot 22:20), to mean that we must never underestimate the greatness of spirit and the awesome potential of every human being, never to forget that beneath the surface of the “stranger” can reside immense greatness and that, therefore, we have to be kind to every person in order that we can allow the awesome human potential of each to flourish. This is a lesson we learnt from our experience of slavery, because in Egypt we were the “stranger”. In Egypt we were the ones about whom others said that nothing would become of us and that we represented a threat to society. And yet we were able to emerge from the oppression to achieve greatness in the world.
The birth of our people also teaches us humility. The Torah is a book of truth and does not create a fairy tale beginning of a nation born in success and nobility, but rather of one born in the midst of the humiliation of oppression. This teaches us to live with humility, which is the gateway to wisdom and kindness.
The story of our birth instils compassion within us. Being born in the pain of oppression and prejudice has resulted in our being taught in the most dramatic way about the important of kindness and compassion, and about the importance of the equality and dignity of every human being created in the image of G-d. We are reminded of the pain of that oppression each and every single day so that we can make compassion and sensitivity a part of the very essence of our characters. In fact the Talmud notes that in the Chumash there are thirty six separate references to the injunction to be kind to the stranger. To be Jewish is to have to act with sensitivity and compassion to all people, and especially to those who are in situations of vulnerability.
We were born through miracles; the miracles of the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, the miracle of a grand Divine redemption that set the tone for all of Jewish history as it has unfolded over the centuries. The memory of these miracles is embedded deep within the Jewish psyche, and so we feel close to G-d Who looks after us. He has accompanied us throughout our journeys across continents and historic eras. Our bond with G-d is at the heart of our identity.
Our birth in slavery has also taught us to treasure freedom, and to never take it for granted. With freedom, human beings can achieve the greatest things in the world, and without it very little and sometimes nothing at all. With freedom, societies can thrive and without it they wither. Our freedom came as a direct gift from G-d. And so for us freedom is bound up with gratitude, and also with purpose. Since G-d took us directly from Egypt to Mount Sinai to give us a moral vision and mission for the future, for us freedom has always been about how we can use it to make ourselves and the world better, more spiritual, more moral, more decent, more compassionate, and more connected to G-d.
As we sit around our seder tables this year, we will yet again hand from one generation to the next the story of the birth of our people, and with it the key to what it means to be a Jew, a key which gives us the moral clarity to chart a confident path into the future, with all its challenges and opportunities.