I am writing this during the week of Passover and want to share something from Rabbi Benjamin Blech; The Five Most Important Things to Know about Passover—our greatest contributions to the world summarized in five words: memory, optimism, faith, family, and responsibility. My comments are woven in, too, so you understand that we all will face crossing life’s desert at some time and the lessons we can learn from the message.
Jews, who number less than one quarter of one percent of the world, have had such a profound influence on almost every field of human endeavor. What accounts for the remarkable fact that in the 20th century, Jews, more than any other minority, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize?
Perhaps it all goes back to the birth of our people and the Passover holiday. Passover conveys five major concepts that became our mantras for how to lead successful and productive lives. They are the five most important things to know about Passover, and to incorporate into every day of the rest of the year.
They can be summarized in five words: memory, optimism, faith, family, and responsibility.
The Importance of Memory
The Irish Catholic writer Thomas Cahill was so overwhelmed by how the Jewish people transformed the world that he authored what proved to become an international bestseller, The Gifts of the Jews. One of the major gifts he credits to Jewish genius is the invention of the idea of history.
“Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Remember that the Lord took you out of the bondage of slavery.” Remember is a biblical mandate that had never seemed important to anyone else before the Jewish people came on the scene. It was the Passover story that initiated a commitment to memory. History is the only way we can learn from the past. History allows us to grow by standing on the shoulders of giants. Make a mistake once, and you’re human. Never learn from what happened before, and you’re brainless. That’s why it’s so important to heed the famous words of George Santayana that “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We know how horrible it can be to live without a personal memory of events. Alzheimer’s is a disease we fear perhaps even more than death because it leaves us living corpses. Strangely enough, we don’t have a similar word for the condition that describes ignorance of our collective past. I would add we do have a word: amnesia. Amnesia disconnects you from life, reality and meaning. Knowing what came before is almost as important in an historic sense as it is in a personal one. Only by being aware of our past as a people can our lives become filled with purpose and meaning. Memory links our past to our future. It turns history into destiny. Learning to treasure it was the first step in our climb up the ladder of greatness.
The Importance of Optimism
To study the Passover story in depth is to recognize that the most difficult task Moses had to perform was not to get the Jews out of Egypt, but to get Egypt out of the Jews. They had become so habituated to their status as slaves; they lost all hope that they could ever improve their lot. Without hope they would have been lost. I see this with cancer patients too. The true miracle of Passover is the message that with God’s help, no difficulty is insurmountable. The oppressed could break the shackles of their captivity and the incurable cured. Anything is possible, if only we dare to dream the impossible dream.
In the story of America’s Great Seal, a particularly relevant chapter is the imagery suggested by Benjamin Franklin in August 1776. He chose the dramatic Red Sea scene described in Exodus, where people confronted a tyrant in order to gain their freedom. The motto he suggested, based on the Passover story, inspired George Washington and the founding fathers of the American colonies to rebel against their British oppressors: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
It was the biblical record of the Exodus that enabled the spirit of optimism to prevail for the followers of Martin Luther King in their quest for equal rights, because they were stirred by the vision of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land. It was the hope engendered by recalling how God redeemed our ancestors that allowed even Jews incarcerated in Auschwitz to furtively celebrate the Festival of Freedom and believe in the possibility of their own liberation. That optimistic spirit, based on our own miraculous history, is the second great gift we have given to mankind and defines our identity. Let us all have a dream and help it come to life.
The Importance of Faith
A pessimist is someone who has no invisible means of support. Jewish optimism is rooted in a firmly held belief that we are blessed with support from above by a caring God. And that faith in a personal God gives us faith in ourselves, in our future and in our ability to help change the world. I have seen cancers disappear when people left their troubles to God and had faith. The God of creation could theoretically have forsaken the world once he completed his task. The God of the Exodus made clear He is constantly involved in our history and has a commitment to our survival. Thomas Cahill credits the Jews not only for monotheism, but for this additional groundbreaking idea of a Divine being with whom we share a personal relationship.
The Passover story conveys that history follows a Divine master plan. It has a predestined order. “Order” in Hebrew is “Seder” – and that is why the major ritual of Passover is identified by that name. Coincidence is not a Jewish concept. Coincidence is just God’s way of choosing to remain anonymous.
Faith gives us the certainty that whatever our present-day problems, history moves in the direction of the final messianic redemption. That is what has always motivated us to believe in progress and to participate in tikkun olam, efforts to improve the world.
The Importance of Family
Passover taught us the way to perfect the world is to begin with our own families. God built his nation by commanding not a collective gathering but by asking Jews to turn their homes into places of family worship at a Seder devoted primarily to answering the questions of children. It seems all too obvious. Children are our future. They are the ones who most require our attention. The home is where we first form our identities and discover our values. Love the kids is what I said in the first paragraph. It is in our homes that we sow the seeds of the future and ensure our continuity. No wonder then that commentators point out the very first letter of the Torah is a bet, the letter whose meaning is house. The world may mock Jewish parents for their over-protectiveness and their child-centered way of life, but they are the ones chiefly responsible for the extraordinary achievements of their progeny.
The Importance of Responsibility to Others
One serious question begs to be asked. We thank God for getting us out, but why did God allow us to become victims of such terrible mistreatment in the first place? We were slaves in Egypt – and so we have to have empathy for the downtrodden in every generation – and so we have to be concerned with the rights of the strangers, the homeless and the impoverished – and so we must understand more than anyone else the pain of the oppressed.
The tragedy of our encounter with injustice was in no small measure meant to prepare us to serve throughout all future generations as spokesman for those with whose pain we can personally identify. The purpose of our suffering was to turn us into a people committed to righting the wrongs of the world, to become partners with God in making the world worthy of final redemption. And I may add when you find purpose you stop suffering.
We begin the Seder by inviting the hungry and the homeless to join with us and conclude by opening the door for Elijah. It is our acceptance of responsibility to others that is the key to hastening the arrival of Messiah.
The following comes from our daughter’s experience with our grandson Jason. Notice how it relates to the experience of the desert we all must cross in our lifetime.
CONDITION: Pyruvate carboxylase deficiency – 2nd rarest metabolic disorder in the world. You don’t live past toddler years. My son is 16.
STRUGGLES: My son spent a good 8 years of his life in the hospital.
TRIUMPHS: The day we got the diagnosis was a blessing.
CONCLUSION: Jason is one amazing boy. My father has helped me learn to adapt to many situations especially emergency crises and living with a positive outlook.
BERNIE HUMOR: If I wasn’t my dad’s daughter he says he would have charged me for the 101 phone calls a day with questions about my son.
Amen, Peace, Love & Healing,
Bernie Siegel, MD
T.S. Eliot wrote ~ “I said to my soul be still, and wait without hope; for hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith. But the faith, and the love, and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: so the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”