Monday 13 May 2024

Celebrating after October 7th

This period in the Jewish Calender is always poignant. Last week (May 6th 2024) marked Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar chosen to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Today (May 13th 2024) marks Yom HaZikaron, the day we remember the soldiers fallen in defence of Israel. It ends tonight when Yom Haatzmaut begins, the Israeli day of celebration marking the declaration of Israel's independence 76 years ago. We are reminded in one week of the cost of not having a state; the price we pay for having one and then, immediately, often at the end of an event to commerate the fallen soldiers, celebrate having one. Except this year feels a little different. Hamas still holds over hundred hostages. Men, women, babies (...yes, babies). How can you celebrate anything, let alone the freedom of having a country when so many are slaves in Gaza, not free and living in unimaginable conditions as modern day Nazis rape, torture and murder them. 

I do not know the answer. But I am reminded of the Pesach Seder. I am reminded that admist the 'Yom Tov' (literally 'good day') celebration of not being slaves in Egypt any longer; a night when we have someone else pour our wine for us and recline while drinking as visual reminders that we are free, we are commanded (Exodus 13:8): 

וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what HaShem did for me when I went free from Egypt.’ [Emphasis added] 

How can this be? I was never a slave in Egypt; I never went free from Egypt. Yet the Torah commands us to explain the Exodus to our children in this way. This commandment is reinforced in the Hagaddah itself. Part of what is read is a story about five Rabbis who were retelling the Exodus for so long that they had to be alerted by their students that the time for the recital of the following morning's Shema had come. Those Rabbis were Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. None of their ancestors were enslaved in Egypt (of these five rabbis, four of them were from the tribe of Levi which was not enslaved and the fifth, Rabbi Akiva, was descended from converts to Judaism so his ancestors were never in Egypt) yet so engrossed were they in retelling the story, that they nearly missed morning prayers. We can learn from this how important that commandment to remember the exodus as if we were slaves and freed ourselves; it even applies to those of us whose ancestors were actually not enslaved. 

Maybe something similar is required. Celebrate but remind our children that we are slaves in Gaza, even though, of course, we are not. However, in a very important sense, until the hostages are released, none of us are truly free. Just like in the midst of the celebration of our greatest redemption, being led out of Egypt on the way to receiving the Torah and becoming an 'am', a nation, a people we must not just remember that we were slaves in Egypt but live that experience and tell the story as if HaShem is literally freeing us from Egypt as we tell it. We can celebrate our freedom while praying for the release of the hostages; we can hold these two contradictory truths in our hearts at once. That we are free, Baruch HaShem, we are not hostages in Gaza but we are also not free, because, some of us are hostages in Gaza. 

So on this Yom Haatzmaut, may we celebrate our freedom and remember all those things we have to be grateful for but may we also remember the hostages and pray for their freedom. 

עם ישראל חי