As the school term is coming to an end we are about to face the first Passover of its kind in history. For thousands of years Jews have celebrated Pesach together, with their families and friends. Very early in the Seder we point to the matzah and say, “This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is hungry should come and eat, anyone who is need should come and partake.” The very essence of Pesach is being together, as a family, as a community and as a people. It is when we welcome those less fortunate than us materially and open ourselves up to those older and wiser than us spiritually. It is the unending chain of knowledge passed down from grandparent, to parent, to child that is the lifeblood of our people.
This year, for the first time ever it appears, on face value this will not happen. Even during the darkest episodes of Jewish history, Jews made every sacrifice to be together, to celebrate Pesach, sharing food they could not spare, baking and distributing matzah in secret and providing wisdom to younger generations at the Seder, in the direst of circumstances.
This Pesach, we will likely sit with those that we live with and no one else. For many of us this will mean no grandparents, no grandchildren, no cousins, and no friends. We might feel completely hopeless and lost. We might feel that a Pesach like this is not a Pesach at all. It is natural to be upset, but we should not stay upset.
There is an incredible story about two brothers, Reb Zusha and Reb Elimelech, which is so powerful for our time. The brothers lived in 18th Century Poland and were once arrested on false charges by Anti-Semitic police. In their prison cell, Reb Zusha noticed his brother crying. “Why are you crying?” asked Reb Zusha.
Reb Elimelech pointed to the bucket in the corner of the room that prisoners used as a toilet, “Jewish law forbids praying next to a toilet,” he told his brother. “This will be the first day in my life in which I cannot pray.””But why are you crying?” asked Reb Zusha.
“What do you mean?” responded his brother. “How can I begin my day without connecting to G‑d?” “But you are connecting to G‑d,” insisted Reb Zusha. “The same G‑d who commanded you to pray each morning, also commanded you not to pray in this circumstance.
Now, you can connect to G‑d by not praying.”His brother’s viewpoint elated Reb Elimelech’s heart. The awareness that the bucket in the corner of the room allowed him to enjoy an intimate — though different — type of relationship with G‑d inspired him so deeply that he began to dance and his brother joined him.
The non-Jewish inmates imprisoned in the same cell were so moved by the sight, that they too joined the dancing. It did not take long before the entire room was swept away by an electrifying energy of joy, as dozens of prisoners were dancing in happiness, completely forgetting for one moment that they were prisoners.
When the prison warden heard the commotion coming from the cell, he burst open the gate, only to be stunned by the inmates enjoying such a liberating dance. In his fury, he attempted to stop the dancing, but to no avail: the prisoners were by now totally consumed by a deeper happiness, stemming from a very deep place within their souls.
Finally, the warden pulled aside one of the inmates, demanding from him an explanation for what was going on.
The frightened prisoner said that it was the two Jews dancing in the centre of the circle who triggered the trouble.
“Why are the Jews dancing?” thundered the warden.
The prisoner pointed to the bucket in the corner of the room. “It is the bucket, they claim, that brought about the joy in their heart.”
“How can this disgusting bucket make them happy?”
“They explained that the bucket allowed them to experience a new type of relationship with G‑d. There was the pre-bucket relationship… and the post-bucket relationship.”
“If that’s the case, I will teach them a lesson.” shouted the angry warden. He took the bucket and threw it out of the cell.
Reb Zusha turned to his brother and said: “And now, my brother, you can pray!
“The times that we are experiencing now will pass. The ‘bucket’ will be removed from our lives. However, we will not be the same. We cannot be, and we should not be the same. There will be a reality of before and a reality of after. The only thing we can control is how we change.
Every single experience in life is an opportunity to make ourselves and the world around us better. In the cycle of Jewish life, which has survived and continued through much worse than what we are experiencing now and will survive this too, we just celebrated Purim.
The very heart of the Purim Megilah is when Mordechai turns to Esther and says, “Do not think that you will escape the fate of all the Jews by being in the King’s palace. For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position.”
None of us knows why we are alive in this time and place. How powerful would it be however, if we all lived every day with the belief that we are right here, right now, because it is within us to bring salvation to ourselves, our people and the world.
We can hide away in the shadows, hoping for history to pass us by, but then who are we and what would we be but “lost.” Alternatively, we can be like Esther and stamp our name on this time as people who faced the challenge of our age and made the world better for it.
We will be isolated physically this Pesach, but that does not mean we must be so spiritually. This Pesach has the potential to be the most important and transformative of each and every one of our lives.
We can all become greater than we believed possible. There are people who are in dire material and physical need and whilst we cannot welcome them into our homes for our Sederim, there is no shortage of things they need from us for their salvation. To help them is, literally, to change the world.
Furthermore, if there will not be older, wiser, people at our Sederim, we must become wiser, now, before the Seder, so that we can fulfil that position. We must become the grandparents or parents that would have been there but are not, for others and for ourselves. We cannot despair of the bucket, but instead must, must understand it for the opportunity that it is.
As Hillel is quoted as having said in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers), “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” When none stand up to be the person needed in a time and place, be that person. We can decide, like Esther, “if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position.”
I wish you the absolute happiest, most meaningful and transformative Pesach we have ever had, because you make it so.
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