Responsibility – Generosity - Freedom

Rav Shlomo Amar, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (Photo by Bethsabée Süssmann)
By Roland S. Süssmann
“ …that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt…”. It might appear curious that in the Book of Exodus (13:8) this statement, which we recite on Seder night, is written in the present tense when it refers to an event that occurred several millennia ago. In fact, that is just one of the many things that are meant to remind us how permanently up to date the festival of Passover is. This year again, the message of Passover challenges us and encourages us. To let us understand the specific nature of this message that is solemnly addressed to us each year since the mists of antiquity, we met with the new Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Rishon Lezion, Rav SHLOMO AMAR. We were extremely well received by a man who, despite his considerable knowledge and wisdom, has managed to remain simple, direct and warm.

In these difficult and uncertain times through which the Jewish people is currently living, how should we approach Passover 5764?

This festival is called both the Festival of Liberation and the Festival of Freedom. It is not by chance that we left Egypt at this time of the year. The advent of Passover has made this period propitious for freedom. This is illustrated by the story of the king who was traveling with his entourage, whose supply of water for the journey had run out. He asked his advisor what to do. The latter replied: “We have two possibilities, either send messengers to the nearest town to bring us back water, and we have to count three hours until they get back, or dig a well where we are, since we will certainly find water, but that will also take three hours”. The king chose the second solution, though it was both more difficult and more laborious. Asked why he had made this choice, he replied: “If I had sent out messengers we would have had what to drink, but by digging the well, it will be useful for a long time to come for those who come after us”. When the Lord gave us freedom in Egypt, that was not a single act of mercy reserved for our forefathers, but rather a fundamental action for the well-being of generations to come. G-d thus made Zman Cheruteinu – the time of our liberation -, which is the period of freedom, as He established Sukkot Zman Simchateinu – the time of our joy. As you know, we have just lived through difficult times, and last Rosh Hashanah when we said in our prayers ‘that the year with its curses should leave, and that a new year with blessings should come”, we thought above all else of the plague of attacks and the cortege of family and individual tragedies that it has entailed. Asked at the time, I said that we had no right to forget the good things that have happened, one being the disappearance of one of our most ferocious and most dangerous enemies, Iraq. It is all too human to remember just the difficulties, but I think that it is essential, despite all the worries, to approach this Passover in a spirit of optimism. Freedom is certainly a big word with many meanings. But I believe that this year, it should above all free us from the hate that surrounds us. After all, we only seek to live according to our traditions and our laws, and we disturb no one. We must hope that the world will become somewhat more open-minded towards us and learn to accept us. I know this is just a hope, but it must not be forgotten that when we left Egypt, we were in the very lowest state people could be in: slaves, with neither rights nor identity, on both the physical and spiritual planes. But when the Lord decided to give us freedom for ever, He did not limit himself to liberating us physically, but gave us the Torah, that spiritual freedom which encompasses the morality and responsibility we have both to ourselves and to our fellow men. I am well aware that when we are confronted by difficulties, each of us tends to lose hope, to give in to fear and to ask him or herself “how much longer?”. This applies equally to the individual and to the nation. Yet Passover comes to teach us that we do not have the right to despair. We waited two thousand years to re-acquire the land of our ancestors, after passing through terrible epochs, and I am thinking in particular of the Holocaust. And ever since we have been re-installed in our home, no one has left us in peace. Each day we face new problems. So much so that our leaders are considering abandoning parts of the Land of Israel in order to earn the right to live in peace. Passover teaches us that this is the wrong way. When Moses told the enslaved Jewish people that he had been sent by the Eternal to bring about their liberation, the Egyptians’ first reaction was to make their working conditions even more draconian. When Moses complains to G-d, He answered him: “You will see what I am going to do to Pharaoh”. And in fact what appeared at first sight to be a punishment turned out to be a blessing. Incidentally, this increment in difficulties in order to reach freedom is symbolized rather amusingly during the Seder night. After the synagogue, we sit down at the family table for the festival meal. But before we get to the food, we go through a whole ceremony, and to cap it all, before eating the dishes the lady of the house has prepared, we are served bitter herbs, the maror. Only after we have eaten the maror is the meal served…

You say that after 2000 years of the Diaspora we have finally come back to our homeland, yet neither the peace nor the calm we hope for is the prerogative of the other nations. The fact is that internal dissension and political and religious tensions corrode not only the country, but also have a negative effect on Jewish communities around the world. What can be done to remedy this?

You have touched the subject that concerns me the most at the moment: our internal situation. In this respect, we have reached a situation we have never known in our entire history. There have always been the religious and the non-religious, but the tensions between the two groups have never been so exacerbated as today. Once, everyone respected the other. But when people attack you and ridicule the Torah and religious practice, do they think they are doing something wrong? We are going down a slippery slope, for the Torah and its teachings are the essential elements in our Jewish and human identity. Its precepts were given to us millennia ago, when the entire world hardly knew how to read or write. Its laws contain the basis of all the great, modern, intellectual movements: the rights of man, the rights of labor, women’s rights, social justice etc. We must find ourselves again and remember that we are a single people, that we all share the same origins, and the fact that we are or are not practicing, that we are rich or poor, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, in no way changes this primary reality, which we have no right to forget. Stating this truth leads to the following essential point: all these tensions, which are fundamentally artificial, represent extreme danger, for the hate which they bear is tearing our society apart. This is all the more serious since we are in an extremely precarious economic situation, with the divide in society becoming increasingly wide and worrying. It is in this situation that we must manifest both love and generosity. Unfortunately, the new economic programs here in Israel are not designed to help the poor, and I am afraid that we are not paying enough attention to the situation of the most unfortunate in society. This is extremely dangerous, because despair generates hate and can lead to very serious social trouble. On the other hand, I note with sadness that a privileged part of our society behaves very arrogantly in respect of those among us who are in difficulty, which is contrary to the very essence of our identity. Generosity is in fact a part of our fundamental nature, of being Jewish, for it comes directly from the Patriarch, Abraham. I have unfortunately heard that in certain better off areas in Israel, the residents have stated: “We are prepared to pay higher local taxes, but only on condition that this money is used to enhance our own neighborhood, and that not a cent be spent on the poor areas”. This is not just a question of money, but a problem of attitude, mentality and arrogance. I have also heard well-to-do people say: “We are happy to pay more in taxes, but not in order to help large families. Who asked them to have so many children?”. This type of behavior has nothing whatsoever to do with true Jewish behavior and tradition.
This situation was foreseen in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:11-19), of which I will just quote a few key parts: “…lest when thou hast eaten and art satisfied, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy G-d… and thou say, 'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.' No! But thou shalt remember the LORD thy G-d, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth…”.
It must be well understood that unfortunately, these days, a goodly proportion of those who have succeeded in life and who have both money and success, believe that they are the only ones responsible for their success. They forget that it is G-d who directs everything and that the one who today is at the top of the ladder could very rapidly find himself relegated to the bottom. That is why it is imperative to honor and respect the less fortunate ones among us and to help them, without prejudice and with dignity, particularly in the way we talk to them. Not to do anything about it risks in the long run causing civil war. The arrogance of some wealthy people thus carries with it the germ of destruction. Incidentally, the consequences of such behavior are also foretold in the Torah, where it says at the end of those verses I have just quoted, “if thou shalt forget the LORD thy G-d… ye shall surely perish!”. This sentence starts in the singular and ends in the plural, to remind us that the actions of each one of us definitely have a national impact. I think our generosity should also be directed to our brethren from Ethiopia, including the Falash Mura, whom I believe to be completely Jewish.
Passover 5764 challenges us to abandon our social prejudices, to accept our responsibilities towards our less fortunate brethren, whatever their opinions, the color of their skin, their character or their ideas. Passover this year reminds us that it is our responsibility to make sure that those who are in need, those who suffer, the unhappy, the sick and the weak of society, live in dignity. This is the true path that leads all of us from the darkness into the light, and to true individual and national freedom, both physical and spiritual. Our responsibility is to help those of our brethren who are living through difficult times to free themselves from the economic yoke. By acting like that, we strengthen our national well-being, including that of the communities of the Diaspora, and the well-being of each and every one of us.