While war in Israel causes divide, rabbis say Passover can bring peace at home
PassoverSome quiet on the domestic front

While war in Israel causes divide, rabbis say Passover can bring peace at home

Key to cooperation is conversation

Raise a glass to intergenerational conversation this Pesach. (Photo by monkeybusinessimages via iStock)
Raise a glass to intergenerational conversation this Pesach. (Photo by monkeybusinessimages via iStock)

Unlike matzah, the conversation this Pesach won’t be stale. Whether recounting the exodus leads to discussing Israel, statehood or the Diaspora, seder celebrants have plenty on their plates this year.

More than six months into the Israel-Hamas war, local rabbis recognize the upcoming holiday will spark different reactions around the table.

Leaning into that sense is helpful, according to Temple David’s Rabbi Barbara Symons.

“I think inviting guests to each bring an item — whether edible or not — for the seder table to display, or taste, how they feel about the situation would be powerful,” she said.

Placing a basket of cherry tomatoes next to the shank bone may raise some eyebrows, but that’s the point.

“It would potentially open up conversation in a creative way,” Symons said.

For those seeking to talk about text, the rabbi pointed to the Haggadah’s final line: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Exploring that passage “before the end of the seder would allow it to have deeper meaning,” she said. “Is it about Jerusalem or Israel as it is? As it could be? As it was? What does ‘in’ mean? Is it literal? Is it a promise, a prayer, a hope, a text from bygone days when getting to Israel was nearly impossible for many?’”

Southwestern Hebrew School students attend a model seder in the 1940s. (Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum of Maryland via Flickr at https://rb.gy/eakr0j)

Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom likewise encourages table-based dialogue.

“We want to have conversations, but we want to make sure that they are respectful,” he said. “So remember that you have two ears and one mouth. You have to listen. If you hear something that really upsets you, try to remember that your relationships with your family are ultimately more important than what might potentially divide us.”

“People disagree with each other about lots of things. And passions can run high, particularly about Israel,” he continued. “It’s important that we do not necessarily avoid the conversation, but also, when it comes to the Passover seders, to actually talk about our history and how we read that in our current context.”

Passover is definitionally an intergenerational experience.

During the seder, Haggadah readers are reminded: “In every generation, one must see themself as if they had personally left Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 13:8): ‘And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, it is because of that which the Lord did to me when I went forth from Egypt.’ Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem; He redeemed us too, with them, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 6:23): ‘And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.’”

Although the narrative is among the holiday’s central themes, generational divides reflect disparate views on Israel and its war against Hamas.

A February survey of 12,693 U.S. adults by Pew Research Center found that 78% of respondents aged 65-plus consider Israel’s reasons for fighting Hamas valid; however, the number was only 38% among adults ages 18-29. Similarly, while 29% of adults 65-plus strongly favor U.S. military aid to Israel, only 7% of adults ages 18-29 agree.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer of Temple Emanuel of South Hills said that although members of the Jewish community are split over Israel and the war, the Haggadah prompts a path forward.

“Immediately following the statement that it’s ‘meritorious’ to discuss the exodus from Egypt late into the evening, we get that text about Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon sitting at — what we presume to be — their seder discussing things so long that their students have to tell them it’s time to recite the Shema,” Meyer recalled.

Cloaked within the story is a modern lesson, he said. According to some scholars, the five rabbis weren’t actually discussing the exodus but the Bar Kokhba revolt.

“They were five influential figures of their time thinking through either joining with the rebellion — as they were all supporters of it — or the aftermath of its lack of success, depending on exactly when it is dated,” Meyer said.

Haggadah readers and seder-goers should see that story as proof that “there is a long history of discussing uncomfortable things that comes with Passover,” Meyer said. “So, we’re not alone, even though it feels more pressing this year.”

The line between loneliness and individuality is a binding tie in Jewish thought, Rabbi Chananel Shapiro, executive director of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, explained.

“We have to remember we are all human beings created in the image of Hashem and that a person’s right to exist is because Hashem created them, and not because of their political views or other views,” he said.

The Haggadah offers keys for understanding. (Photo by Israel_photo_gallery via Flickr at https://rb.gy/umcimk)

This year, a topic at many seder tables will likely be peace, but peace isn’t simply a slogan, Shapiro said.

“Peace or Shalom is actually one of Hashem’s names and is a description of Hashem. So if Hashem is peace, then we have to do that as well,” the rabbi explained. Practicing peace, or embodying that divine quality, “doesn’t mean we all have to think the same thing and agree — we are people not robots, people have their own opinions — peace means that if people have their own opinions that you still respect them as human beings.”

For Shapiro, classic Jewish texts demonstrate a tradition of seeing the greater good beyond fiery disagreement.

The Babylonian Talmud describes a dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding whether certain women and their offspring were fit for marriage. Although each school of thought reached a fundamentally different conclusion, members of Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai. According to the Talmud, “This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated (Zechariah 8:19): ‘Love truth and peace.’”

At the heart of Torah study is a commitment to finding truth and pursuing peace, Shapiro said.

People in a yeshiva, or study hall, will learn together and debate one another “day after day for years, and to an outsider it looks like they are mortal enemies. But it’s the opposite. These can be the best of friends because they are arguing for the truth, and that’s what we are trying to get at here.”

Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation said she encountered a teaching from Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, that proves instructive this holiday.

Synagogue-goers on Shabbat Chol HaMoed of Passover will hear an excerpt from Ezekiel 37 in which the prophet is divinely taught how to revive dry bones. The biblical text (Ezekiel 37:11) calls the scene a parable: “And I was told, ‘O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel.’ They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.’”

The Hebrew phrase “avda tikva-teinu” (our hope is gone) is reappropriated millennia later within Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” to become “od lo avda tikva-teinu” (our hope is not yet lost), Henry said.

Transforming biblical despair into a national anthem lyric is not just wordplay but a call for patience and appreciating the unimaginable — especially this year — Henry said: “‘Od lo avda tikva-teinu’ inspires us that we can have peace, cooperation and understanding. It’s still possible.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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