The two central themes of Pesach – peoplehood and freedom – have the potential to either provide great blessing or pose great danger to our society.
The Exodus from Egypt paved the way for the Israelites to become a people. Upon deliverance from slavery, we were, for the first time, a “kingdom of priests and holy people” – a nation with a shared history and common destiny.
The Exodus also provided us with freedom from oppressive Egyptian rule. After 210 bitter years of enslavement, self-determination was finally within our grasp.
Like many blessings in life, even these wonderful gifts of peoplehood and freedom can be squandered, distorted and even exploited if we are not wary of a force which is increasingly a feature of our political and social discourse.
Peoplehood provides us with our group identity – a sense that we are not alone; we feel valued as members of a worthy collective. But it can also be used to create a distrust of the other – a poisonous ‘them and us’ narrative. Recent years have seen the emergence of ‘identity politics’ – the formation of exclusive alliances based upon group identity. When used to exclude and scapegoat others, it takes a positive force to its most extreme, thereby transforming it into a negative.
Similarly, freedom is an essential value for any civilised society. But, as Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said, “freedom is in danger of becoming arbitrary unless it is lived in terms of responsibility”.
At the very dawn of creation, the Torah describes how, on each day, Hashem saw what He had created and declared it to be ‘tov’ – it was ‘good’. But on the sixth day, when Hashem created humankind, He observed that it was ‘tov me’od’ – ‘very good’.
A fascinating but challenging Midrash states, “Instead of reading ‘me’od’ read ‘mavet’ – death.” What could be the connection between ‘very’ and ‘death’?
This Midrash is surely warning us against ‘very-ness’; a type of zealotry which takes what we believe to such an extreme that it can cause death and destruction.
We live in an increasingly polarised world. Religious, political and social strands of zealotry, which were once confined to the fringes of our society are now entering the mainstream. Across the globe, far left and far right politics are finding a degree of influence that was once unthinkable. Similarly, aggressive secularism and religious fundamentalism are finding their expression in crucial areas of public policy and creating significant challenges which will affect our society for generations to come.
The classic mistake is to respond to the ‘me’od’ – the ‘very-ness’ of others, with zealotry of our own. The Jewish way, which provides a timely model for our society, is for us to seek freedom tempered by responsibility and to celebrate our peoplehood, whilst respecting the right of others to do the same.
The shank-bone on our Seder plates represents the ‘Korban’, the special Pesach sacrifice. ‘Korban’ comes from the word ‘karov’ (close), indicating that it facilitates closeness to Hashem. This Pesach, let us recall a fundamental truth, too often overlooked: If we wish to come close to Hashem, we must first come closer to one another.
Valerie and I wish you a Chag Kasher Vesameach.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis