|Freedom and Responsability|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is with the famous question, “Mah Nishtanah”, that year after year Jewish families the world over begin the celebration of the festival of Pesach. If we stick strictly to the text of the Hagadah recited at the Seder table, the answer is always the same; we are commemorating the exodus from Egypt. What changes are the circumstances in which the celebration takes place, which are different each year.
The question we ask today is a paraphrase of that famous saying, “Why is this Pesach different from all other Pesachs?” In 5766, within what national and religious context do we approach this most famous of our festivals and commemorations? To provide us guidance in our thinking, we met with Rabbi Motti Elon, the rising star of the national religious movement in Israel and Rosh Yeshiva of the well-known Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, which has over 1,500 students from all over the world.
How would you define the major challenge with which we are faced both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and for which the lessons of Pesach provide us the means to face up to them effectively?
Before I respond directly to your question, I would like to recall what is the essential idea, the basic message of this celebration, which is often wrongly interpreted. When we think of Pesach we think immediately of the liberation from Egypt. The concept of freedom and of independence is thus very present, yet it only represents one of the aspects of the festival of Pesach, and not the most important. Liberation by itself is far from being sufficient. In Judaism, the word freedom is not an entrance ticket to a life of debauchery or anarchy, far from it. For freedom to exist, it must be accompanied by a defined, precise and achievable target. Liberation from Egypt led us from being freed from slavery, not to independence but to individual and national emancipation – taking in hand. We often hear the slogan, “Let my people go”. However, this is a quotation taken out of context and partially truncated. Moses always said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that…” He did not demand liberation for the simple purpose of freeing the people from Egyptian slavery, but so that it could live its identity. This is the concept within which lies the true dimension of liberty, when it implies voluntary servitude. This is the essential message of the liberation of the Jewish people. There was only purpose to leaving Egyptian slavery if it led to a voluntary servitude that lets each one take responsibility for himself and fulfill himself, by subordinating himself to the Almighty and His commandments. Released from Egyptian authority, the symbol of practices and values that are alien to us, the individual Jew who of his own free will chooses to live according to the criteria of truth, morality and divine laws can in this way achieve true freedom. To be free and emancipated does not therefore mean breaking every sort of constraint, but rather on the contrary it strengthens the relationship and the link that ties us to our voluntary servitude.
Having said that, I come to the second essential element of Pesach’s general message. As you know, the main part of the festival occurs at the Seder, the family dinner that follows a strict sequence in which the reading of the Hagadah is intertwined with symbolic gestures, of which I will recall just a few here: the Seder plate with the three Matzot, the bread of affliction, and the little bowls each containing a symbolic element, such as for example the Maror, the bitter herbs, which recalls the bitterness of life in Egypt, and the Charoset, a brownish spread made of apples, almonds, cinnamon and red wine, which evokes the mortar and clay of the bricks that Pharaoh demanded of his slaves. Among the many traditions that distinguish this evening is a cup of wine, just put on the table but not drunk, because it is for the Prophet Elijah, whose coming it is said will precede that of the Messiah. There are many explanations for this tradition, but I believe that one of them is particularly suited to our times. It comes from the Prophet Malachi (3:23-24), which says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…” This expression of family and national unity found again is in fact the second part of achieving freedom, which is thus made up of two elements and which lets us take on our Jewish identity: voluntary servitude for the sake of divine commandments and unity.
To answer your question, one must therefore know to what extent these two elements are found in the present situation. We are living in a time where the uncertainties and worries in respect of the actual basics of our Jewish society in Israel and the Diaspora are a source of constant concern. Now to face up to and continue to assume our true identity, which means living according to the fundamental moral values of Judaism, we must apply these two essential elements of the festival of Pesach to our daily lives. By that I mean to say that we must affirm and strengthen our Jewish identity, and secondly do everything to rediscover some form of national unity.
You say, “rediscover” national unity. Has it been lost, and if so, how do you explain this phenomenon?
What is true for Israel is true for the Diaspora. It is well known that a society that is unaware of its roots is a society in perdition. Now many among us no longer know where are the basics in terms of family, State, divine service and unfortunately country too. Let us remember that the First Temple was destroyed because the people had abandoned religious morality, and the Second because there was no unity among the people. Yet one cannot be achieved without the other, and if we wish to live our true freedom, we must do everything so that these two elements converge. Today more than ever, the time has come to reinstate our national priorities that have been thrown into disarray. According to the politicians, our entire future depends upon our security situation. But that’s not it, because the facts on the ground are quite different. Our weakness is that we are not a single people, but a set of small, ideological communities that have only in common speaking Hebrew. We only rediscover the sense of unity in misfortune, during wars and when murderous attacks proliferate in the streets of Israel. To understand how serious this phenomenon is, it should be recalled the spirit in which the State was founded. At the time it was obvious to all that there was no question to create an entity that was exclusively religious or socialist, conceived along entirely atheist lines and based upon the creation of a “new Jew”, totally devoid of all connection with Judaism. The Jewish State was created in order to establish a national, pluralist unity, based upon the sole concept that lets us fully and freely live our identity: the return of the Jewish people to its land, there to build its own country. It was in this spirit that together we built the country, that together we went to the army, and that together we succeeded to live and prosper. We had a common denominator, a reason for living and fighting. Yet gradually the “set of small communities” of which I spoke took shape, and the members of these various units live side by side but do not know each other, do not meet, and no longer share a common denominator.
Our priority is not to know whether to fight the PLO or Hamas, Syria or Iran. It is to remember who we are, what is our identity and the manner in which we can take it up together. That is what we draw our strength from, not from the number of tanks. The reinforcement of our national unity comes from improved mutual acquaintance. We must involve all the elements of society in the development of Jewish towns and villages throughout the country, because it must be understood that nowhere, whether on the Mediterranean coast or in Judea and Samaria, can retain its Jewish character if it is peopled exclusively by religious Jews. Jerusalem will not remain Jewish if its population is entirely made up of orthodox Jews. We should do everything to increase the number of mixed towns so that all the trends that make up our nation will want to settle there. I believe this is the central challenge of our time, and we must make our national priority strengthening our society internally.
This is certainly a magnificent idea, but you are not unaware that reality is very far from these ideals. Israeli and Jewish society the world over is ideologically very divided, not to mention that your idea implies a long-term program. Time is pressing, what can we in fact do to remedy the situation?
That’s the reason we should concentrate on essentials and not on secondary problems. We know that tomorrow the PLO or Hamas will do everything to make our lives increasingly difficult and to beset us with misfortune. The question that must be asked therefore is whether or not we will have enough internal strength to face this. In the long term, we cannot satisfy ourselves with filling in holes as the house collapses. Yet that is what we are doing at the moment both at the national level and throughout the Jewish world. The solution involves basic educational programs that today are missing. I will quote you a single example: A survey carried out recently by the army revealed that 70% of young Israelis had never seen the Kotel Hamaarivi, the Western Wall. If tomorrow a politician were to propose a unilateral withdrawal from the part of Jerusalem where the Wall is, how do you want such an idea not to obtain popular support? It must be understood just how deep this ignorance is, and at the same time I am daily witness to the existence of a true thirst to learn about our values at almost every level of society. This is a great source of optimism. We have reached the point where accelerated programs must be implemented, not to promote religious practice, but simply to transmit the actual basics of our values that define our individual and national identity. It’s true, time is of the essence and we must not sit by with our arms crossed. Firstly, because it is our responsibility as rabbis, Jews and above all practicing Jews, to combat this ignorance that is sapping our national identity. We have no right to leave the solution of this problem in the hands of the government and politicians. For my part, I take part in a program called “Bereishit”, in which in about a thousand non-religious kindergartens throughout Israel we run a program in which the parents participate and whose purpose is to transmit a certain amount of basic knowledge about Judaism. In this way we reach 200,000 people. At the same time we have taken the initiative to organize, together with the Ministry of Education, one week educational visits to Jerusalem for young school children. It is expected that in the next four years, 60,000 youngsters will take part in this program. Gradually, we are preparing the return to our core values and to the roots that unite us.
How do you think that this patchwork of gaps that you have identified within Israeli society and which you are filling up reflects on the Diaspora? What are the consequences and how can they be remedied?
I am very much involved in everything that happens in the Jewish world, and our yeshiva welcomes students from all over the world. In addition to the phenomenon of fragmentation in Israeli society of which I have spoken, in the Diaspora we are faced by assimilation, which does not just affect religious life and Jewish identity, but also the relations of the Jewish communities with Israel. This link can be reestablished through a very simple program, the direct link. Let me explain. In each Jewish school each student should have a correspondent in an Israeli school, and in fact schools should be twinned with schools in Israel. This type of program should be created for adults. This is not a governmental or ministerial action, but an individual one. I believe that today there are the beginnings of an awareness, in Tel-Aviv and in Hebron, on the Golan and in the Diaspora, that if we do not strengthen our ties and our identities through Jewish education, we are guaranteed an uncertain future. We must accordingly create a fundamental awareness in our society, which includes the Diaspora. The responsibility that this challenge succeeds is above all in the hands of those who have the knowledge, namely the religious world. I for my part am working on it. To conclude, I would like to say that the message of Pesach 5766 reminds us which are the two pillars of our success: strengthening our identity in every way, by investing our forces and our financial means in spreading dynamic, attractive educational programs, and consolidating the links that unite us. The challenge is enormous, but if each of us plays his role and accepts his responsibilities, we shall succeed. No one has the right to delegate carrying out his own duty to a minister or an organization. Our survival as a nation and as a State depends upon it.