Zach Beer: What History Requires

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Zachary Beer is a junior at the City College of New York studying History. He is an ORA Campus Fellow and a Nachshon Project Fellow.

Rejection is one of the hardest emotions to feel. It is a canceling of not just one’s hopes and dreams, but a denial of the self.

For me, during this pandemic, I find it natural to feel rejected by God. Our shuls and batei midrash are empty. There are no minyanim. We cannot even go out or go to school. It feels like the rebuke of the Prophet Isaiah applies to us:

‎וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶ֣ם כַּפֵּיכֶ֗ם אַעְלִ֤ים עֵינַי֙ מִכֶּ֔ם גַּ֛ם כִּֽי־תַרְבּ֥וּ תְפִלָּ֖ה אֵינֶ֣נִּי שֹׁמֵ֑עַ יְדֵיכֶ֖ם דָּמִ֥ים מָלֵֽאוּ׃

And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are drenched with blood

(Isaiah 1:15)

However, I think Pesach, and specifically the Haggadah provide a model for responding to our historical situation, throughout Jewish history, and especially now. This model is present throughout the Haggadah, but Avadim Haiynu, in my mind, is the clearest depiction of this idea:

‎ וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.

And even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold they are praiseworthy.

(Haggadah, Magid)

The Haggadah, starting with the Four Questions, going through this text and onto the rest of the Seder night, invites us to delve into our situation. We cannot take our historical experience at face level. Even if we are wise, we must still question. We tell stories, teach Halacha, dive into biblical ideas, all to connect our history and tradition to the present day.

We say to ourselves, our family, and our community- I can’t just accept this history as history. I have to ask what my responsibility is, communally, personally, and spiritually, to this story. Each part of the Seder emphasizes this. Be it from the child who doesn’t know how to ask, for who we help him start the story, to the story of the five rabbis, and more.

Ultimately within the Seder itself, we make halachic and personal obligation the name of the game, with the various mitzvot, but most famously, the idea of:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם,

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt

(ibid)

We are clear that we have a historical-personal obligation to view ourselves as exiting the slavery of our ancestors as if it occurred today. On many previous Passovers this was a tough line to truly comprehend. We live in countries that, while imperfect, are democratic and have human rights, and strive for the good. We all live relatively comfortably. Things are easy.

This year, however, we live like slaves, in a way. Our social bonds are broken, and we often are alone. It feels like slavery. But the Seder provides us with two important messages- Firstly, we will get out of this, this will pass, and we will be freed. Secondly, we can not let this moment go by without introspection into our historical situation and our relationship with it, especially in how we feel and act.

It would be remiss of us to pass over the Seder night without thinking about how we relate to our history. All the more so if we let this pandemic pass us by without truly investigating it, like we do at the Seder. We must take this opportunity, at home and during the Seder, to ask “What does my history require of me?”

We should all merit a free Pesach, both this year, and for many years to come. And the promise of Ha Lachma Anya should be applied to us:

הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין.

Now we are here,next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free.

(ibid)

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