Muswell Hill Synagogue
Emor 17/18 May 8.35pm 9.49pm

Shabbat HaGadol 5784 – Stephen Frosh’s Sermon

It’s nice if one can start a d’var Torah with a joke, but that doesn’t feel easy this year. Perhaps a bitter one is all that can be allowed. It’s 1938, just as the German takeover of Austria is looming, and a Jew in Vienna enters a travel agent’s office asking to buy a steamship ticket. ‘Where to?’ the agent asks. ‘Let me look at your globe please.’ The Jew starts examining the globe. Every time he suggests a country, the agent raises an objection. ‘This one requires a visa… this one is not accepting any more Jews… the waiting list for this one is ten years.’ Finally, the Jew looks up. ‘Excuse me,’ he says, ‘do you have another globe?’

‘Do you have another globe?’ We might ask that this year, given all that we have been going through. It might not feel that there is anywhere to go that wants us; it certainly feels that many of the old hatreds are stirring. And maybe too that our own sense of direction is unclear, our sense of where we want to be. ‘Anywhere but here, in the situation we are currently in,’ will be some people’s answer.

This makes it a very hard time to speak about Pesach, which arrives this week, the time of our freedom when we revisit our central narrative of national self-determination. How can we celebrate this year without concern and anxiety, without a question about the state we are in as a nation (if that is what we are), without sorrow and grief, without mourning for our own people and for others? How do we deal with the continued hostility of others towards us, to the growing – almost complete, it seems – isolation from other nations, and with the difficulties and differences within the Jewish people? I think many of us are cautious about what we say to our Jewish friends, because we are not sure about how any point of view we have might be received, how explosive it might turn out to be. I How do we render ourselves as a community, a people, that can manage these differences, acknowledge and accept them and stay together as a whole? And a perennial question, present at the very first Passover: if we are free, what are we using this freedom for? What is the purpose of it?

The classical religious answer to this, of course, is we became free in order to freely receive the Torah, with its teachings and laws that bind us to a relationship with God and that impose on us certain duties, notably as ‘Am segulah’, a ‘chosen’ people, required to be ‘holy’ and a ‘light to the nations.’ As Tevya says at some point in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘I know we are the chosen people, but once in a while could you choose someone else?’ Still, if we are free and chosen, it comes with responsibilities; we all know this. Freedom in itself – the freedom to live openly as Jews, the freedom of Jews to have a national state – has certain constraints imposed on it. I am not speaking here of the restrictions placed on us by antisemitism and international hostility, which have been and are all too substantial, but of those that arise from our own traditions – ethical restrictions that stop us doing some things and push us into doing others. I am not going to lecture anyone about what those ethical injunctions might be; it is not my role and I have no right to do so. Just to note in passing that often (though not always) when something violent is done, our tradition expresses a note of regret. The Talmudic story about the death of the Egyptians is the relevant one for this occasion: that God criticises the angels for celebrating the Egyptians’ drowning at the Red Sea, stating ‘Are they not my creatures also?’ – and for this sentiment, we reduce our recitation of Hallel at Pesach and spill some of the wine at the seder. To take a quote from what you might think of as the other side, the Palestinian-American academic and activist Edward Said, who was also co-founder with Daniel Barenboim of the East-West Divan Orchestra bringing together young Israeli and Arab musicians; he wrote, ‘There is suffering enough for everyone.’ ‘Are they not my creatures?’ God, it seems, understands suffering and grief and perhaps we can too.

Let’s look for a moment at the Haggadah that we read at the seder service in our homes this week. It is mainly a triumphant narrative, rehearsing the exodus from Egypt and fulfilling the commandment to teach about these events, to pass on the story to the next generation. The different components of this story are elaborated in different ways. In fact, the Haggadah – which is a remarkably ancient text, found in its final form for over a thousand years, contains four different narratives, wound together to make a whole but still discernible in their separate versions. The first, attributed to Rav Shmuel, begins with Avadim Hayinu and announces the purpose of the seder: ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; God brought us out; if he had not done so, we would still be slaves; therefore, every one of us must acknowledge this and talk about it.’ The Haggadah then demonstrates how this talking happens – the rabbis in Bnei Berak; the four sons. Fine. The second narrative is Rav’s version and begins with ‘Mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah’ – ‘In the beginning, our fathers were worshippers of strange gods.’ This narrative does not focus on freedom from slavery, but rather on the progression from idol-worship to monotheism and the continued protection we get from God. The third narrative is the longest and in most households the most boring, because it involves close analysis of a few Torah verses. This is the ‘normative’ account that begins with the phrase ‘Tzey ulemad’ – come and learn – and which tells the story of enslavement and rescue, ending with the recitation of the Ten Plagues and the triumphant singing of Dayenu, which in our family involves hitting each other hard with spring onions, thankfully in place of whips. Each of these narratives contributes something distinct to the Pesach story; each is self-contained but insufficient: from slavery to freedom, from illusion to truth; from suffering to gratitude.

But it is the fourth narrative that I want to focus on. In fact, it is hardly a narrative at all, yet it is labelled as essential. It is Rabban Gamliel’s ritual, about which he says: ‘Anyone who does not make mention of the following three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation.’ It is not really a telling, more a dumb show: ‘Pesach, Matza, Maror’, the memorial to the Passover sacrifice, the matza and the bitter herbs. We name these things and point to them on the table, and then as a kind of afterthought recite an explanatory paragraph about each one, before rushing on to the first part of Hallel and the long-awaited meal. If we are to link this back to the starting point of the seder, as we might legitimately do, it is the response to the child ‘who does not know how to ask,’ understanding that to mean that this ‘child’ cannot summon up the language to make sense of the occasion. In response, we also revert to something pre-linguistic; we point, and say ‘there, and there, and there’ are the important things in life. This is a foundational gesture, preceding even the making of sense: we show the building blocks on which the whole seder service is based.

Pesach, matza, maror. The order is instructive. We start with the eating of the lamb, the sacrifice that the Israelites made so that their first-born children would not be killed. We move on to the matza, which at this point in the service is no longer symbolising slavery but has become the bread of freedom, the unleavened bread that the Israelites carried with them out of Egypt. But we end with the maror, the memory of bitterness and of slavery, and it is the taste of maror that we take with us into the meal. The Torah, of course, reinforces this emphasis on memorialising slavery, but not – as with the Amalek story that we stress during Purim – for purposes of revenge and recrimination, for the sustaining of enmity. Instead, it is a message about reaching out to others – because we were slaves in Egypt, we need to understand the importance of not oppressing other people. So the recollection of bitterness, its taste in our mouths, is of course a motivation for our need for freedom and later on for the establishment of a nation state, both in Biblical times and in our time. But behind all the stories, the narrative drive to elaborate and celebrate, even the excitement of the plagues imposed on our enemies; behind this there is a mute pointing to the conditions of our freedom. First, solidarity as a people: the eating of the Pesach lamb was a gesture of belonging, of adherence to a communal purpose. We need to hold together. Secondly, finding ways to sustain ourselves even under duress, so that matza, the ‘bread of affliction’ becomes during the seder the fuel for freedom. And thirdly, the taste of bitterness, which means grief and mourning and awareness of suffering for ourselves and our losses, for sure, but not only for ourselves.