“Optimism and Faithfulness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, Jews the world over will experience “Spring fever.” Since the Bible states (Exodus 23:15), that Passover is to be observed in “Aviv,” the festival is also known as “Chag ha’Aviv,” the festival of Spring.

Passover is a time of renewal, a time in which the aspirations of our hearts, which have been kept under wraps during the long winter, are now budding and blossoming. The period of Passover is a period of optimism and anticipation of better times ahead. The dark winter sky has grown clear again. We behold the budding of not only flowers, but also of hope.

Judaism and Jewish tradition have a unique perspective on optimism and hope. Our tradition maintains that in order to truly appreciate the better days that will be coming, we need to understand and examine the bitter days that we have already endured.

And that is why, at our Passover seder, when the glorious story of the Exodus and the salvation of our people is told, the author of the Hagaddah included a critically important verse from Deuteronomy 26:6. There the Torah tells us, “Va’ya’ray’oo oh’tah’noo ha’Mitzrim, va’y’ah’noo’noo, va’yit’noo ah’lay’noo ah’voh’dah kah’shah,” The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us, and placed hard work upon us.

The Jews cried out to the Al-mighty, Who heard their voices, saw their afflictions, and took the Jews out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, ultimately bringing them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The above words are excerpted from the ancient declaration that every Jewish farmer recited in order to acknowledge G-d’s greatness and beneficence, when he brought his Bikurim, first fruits, to the Temple.

Although we have previously explored this passage (Passover 5768-2008), there are multiple lessons to be learned from these words. The common translation of the expression “Va’ya’ray’oo,” is that the Egyptians mistreated us, harmed us, afflicted us, from the root of the word, “rah,” to do evil. And indeed they did. The evil inflicted upon the Israelites was unmitigated. The Egyptians turned the Israelites into slaves and made them work rigorously. They forced the Israelites to perform inhumane tasks, drowned their children in the Nile, and plastered Jewish babies into the walls when the Hebrew slaves failed to produce sufficient bricks!

However, the word “Va’ya’ray’oo” may possibly have a different origin, from the word “ray’ah,” meaning friend. As the Torah famously states in Leviticus 19:18: “V’ah’hav’tah l’ray’ah’chah ka’mo’cha,” Love thy neighbor as thyself. This alternate  interpretation of the word “Va’ya’ray’oo” is based on the Midrash that says, that at least initially, the Egyptians embraced the Israelite citizens as friends. In fact, according to the Midrash, King Pharaoh himself volunteered to join the civic-spirited Jews, helping to build the great storehouses of Pithom and Ramses. Eventually the Jews found themselves no longer volunteering, but enslaved. It is this same theme, expressed in another Midrash, which asserts that the same Egyptian masters who beat their slaves brutally during the day, befriended them at night and invited them to celebrate together at elaborate orgies of blood and wine. As a result, the Jews sank to the 49th level of spiritual impurity, almost losing their total humanity.

Several years ago, I heard an interesting interpretation of this same verse from Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a very learned and astute Jewish leader. He pointed out that “Va’ya’ray’oo” may mean that the Jews in Egypt were deeply influenced by the Egyptians to be evil like them–-not unlike the effects that contemporary blandishments are having on our people today. The sterling traits of the Jewish people, for which Jews were renowned for many generations, are being lost. Their unusual charitability, abhorrence of violence, the stability of Jewish family life, pursuit of advanced education, all these qualities are declining among contemporary Jews. Because of the challenging environment, our people are being subtly reduced to lesser human beings.

Another way of looking at the verse, suggested Mr. Hoenlein, is that the Egyptians saw all the Jews as evil. They could find absolutely nothing redeeming in them. At first the Egyptians suspected that the Israelites would serve as a fifth column, should war come upon Egypt. All Jews were conspirators, working to undermine the exalted Egyptian civilization. Perhaps it was the goodness, the kindness, the charitability and the exceptionalism of the Jews, that was already known in the time of Joseph, who had saved all of Egypt, that so irritated the Egyptians. The “goodness” was so “in-their-face,” that they felt compelled to turn the Jewish people into pariahs, into a hated nation.

How true that is today.

A story is told of an Israeli who was visiting a zoo in London, when a caged lion stuck out his paw and grabbed an unfortunate little girl who was leaning too far over the rail. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Israeli sprang into action to save the child, striking the lion on its nose, so that it would release the child.

A local reporter standing nearby came running and exclaimed that this was the most gallant act he has ever seen a person perform in his lifetime. The modest Israeli shrugged it off, saying that it was not only the right thing but also the only thing that he could do. The reporter insisted that it not go unacknowledged, and demanded some details from the hero. The Israeli replied, “I am from Israel, I serve in the Israeli army and I support my government.”

The next morning, the Israeli saw the headline on the front page of the newspaper describing his actions. It read: “Right-wing Israeli Mercenary Assaults African Immigrant and Steals his Lunch.”

While this particular portrayal is certainly exaggerated, it very much reflects the way that parts of the world perceive Jews today. They see our people as evil beings, unable to find any redeeming qualities.

This is the message of the festival of Springtime. While we celebrate our salvation by the Al-mighty, we must remember the challenges that our people endured and continue to endure today. We must not allow others to see us as evil, or allow them to influence us to do evil. We must step forward to show our own personal goodness and, by extension, the extraordinary goodness of our faith and our tradition.

This is the message of Passover.

Wishing you all a very Happy and Healthy Passover.

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year (2012) on Friday night, April 6th, and continues through Saturday and Sunday, April 7th and 8th.  The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 12th, and continues through Friday and Saturday, April 13th and 14th. For more information see NJOP’s website www.njop.org.