All Jewish festivals connect us to past events, none so more than Pesach, which takes us back to the birth of the Jewish people as a nation.
Modernists of various stripes often take the position that the past is past and of no relevance to the present. With regards to the Jewish people in general, and the Jews of Israel in particular, it is increasingly clear that a loss of the past endangers our future. Jews without a strong connection to Jewish history will not be particularly exercised about whether there is a Jewish future. Intermarriage and assimilation are the inevitable result.
Simple inertia will keep most Israeli Jews here in the short run; people do not leave their native lands easily. But the absence of any hope for an end to the seventy year war with the Palestinians and ongoing terror will eventually lead many of those with the money and talent to relocate to less stress-filled places, particularly if they do not have any clear idea of why it is important that the Jewish people should have a state or should continue to exist at all. Already close to 20% of Israeli Jews live abroad.
The Palestinians have been far clearer about the connection between past and future than we. Palestinian legislator Selah Temari records in his memoirs how as a security prisoner in an Israeli jail he decided that Israel was simply too powerful, and the Palestinians would never have a state. He even began to study Jewish history in search for the secret of Jewish endurance.
Then one night, he noticed his Jewish jailer eating bread. It was Pesach, and he asked the jailer how he could eat bread on Pesach. The jailer answered, "Do you really expect me not to eat bread because of something that happened over 3,000 years ago?"
In the course of the sleepless night that followed, Temari relates, he completely reversed his previous position, and decided that not only could the Palestinians win a state, they could one day evict the Jews. Without an attachment to the past and the land, he concluded, the Jews could be worn down.
Israelis’ alienation from the past was the subject of Ari Shavit’s recent interview with novelist Aharon Appelfeld in Ha’Aretz. Though Appelfeld is himself the product of a completely assimilated home, "the major sickness of Israeli society," in his view, "is . . . that so many have cut themselves off completely from their past. They have amputed their past," leaving in place of the "internal organs of the soul" a "black hole of identity."
Zionism, with its negation of the Exile, and all other Jewish movements, charges Appelfeld, "internalized the hatred of Jews." "Modern Jews don’t want to be Jews. They flee from being Jews. Everything that forces them to remember that they are Jews makes them flinch, arouses disgust in them, is unaesthetic to them," he says.
Lack of empathy for fellow Jews, Appelfeld argues, explains modern Israel literature’s lack of interest in the "collective Jewish soul," and more tellingly, the intellectual elite’s view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That elite is too eager to embrace universalism and flee from any hint of Jewish particularism. "It’s time we showed ourselves a little compassion, too," says Appelfeld. "To have mercy on the Arabs, yes; but to have a little mercy for the Jews, too. . . . We’re allowed to love them too."
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav recently called for Arabic and Arab culture to be part of the mandatory curriculum, and the Education Ministry immediately went to work preparing a curriculum for Haifa schools. Yahav based his proposal on the need for "the majority to understand the minority."
Fair enough, but shouldn’t we first understand ourselves. Why not, for instance, a return of Talmud to its place in the basic curriculum? Not, of course, the study of ritual law. But let Israeli students study the ancient sources on mitzvos between man and his fellow man – e.g., prohibited speech, honoring one’s parents, copyright, visiting the sick, brokerage, price gouging – and see how the debates of two thousand years ago are applied to the most pressing contemporary ethical dilemmas. Offer them an exposure to the sheer intellectual excitement of the thrust and parry of Talmudic disputation, and a chance to feel themselves participants in what Appelfeld calls the "ongoing Jewish story."
The single best antidote to the lost connection to the past can be found at the upcoming Seder table if we use the opportunity to relive the enslavement in Egypt and our redemption, and do not just hurry through the Haggadah on the way to a family meal. Those who reflect on all the signs and wonders that Hashem multiplied on our behalf in Egypt have no doubt that nothing is more important that the continued vitality of the Jewish people.
Just as we know that a G-d Who is of necessity complete unto Himself would not have created the world unless He had a goal for mankind, so we know that He did not perform great miracles in order to give birth to the Jewish people and bring us to Sinai unless He intended us to play the central role in the drama of human history.
That role continues today.
Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach