Pesach: A Story to be Lived!

The Passover Seder requires us to do something quite special; rather than simply learning about the Exodus we are instructed to experience the freedom felt by the Israelites as they journeyed out of Egypt all those years ago.

It is this experience – the idea that “in every generation a person is obligated to see himself or herself as though they had actually come out of Egypt” – that elevates the Seder from mere words and lessons into a personal journey.

On the surface the story of the Exodus appears quite simple, but embedded within it are a series of provocative explorations around ideas of belonging and peoplehood and the commemoration and reliving of our shared history. The Seder guides us through its insights by invoking our intellect, but just as importantly, our senses and emotions. Each year we experience the bitterness of slavery with each taste of horseradish, the sense of urgency in which the Israelites had to leave Egypt with each bite of Matzah and the desire for a place to call home as we sing out “לשנה הבאה בירושלים” (Next year in Jerusalem!).

In creating the Seder our Rabbis knew that true understanding comes from igniting all our senses. Each year as I sit round the Pesach table with my family and friends I am reminded that many methods, approaches and activities are necessary in order to inspire people to connect to what it means to be Jewish.

So far this year, NLS’s superb team of educators and assistants have led the children in a range of activities including building a Sukkah, exploring Tefillah (prayer) through meditation, making a Mezuzah, opening up a Torah Scroll, baking bourekas and latkes, making and lighting their own Chanukiot and singing a special Adon Olam in front of the community at Shabbat Shirah. The goal here is simple, rather than telling children a story we want to make them a part of one.

Now that I am over halfway through my first year at NLS – being both more settled in my role as Head of Youth and also having had the pleasure of getting to know many of you a little better – I look forward to working together to find new and dynamic ways of bringing the story of the Jewish people, our story, alive. Pesach is a reminder that this story is already a living, breathing journey. In order for it to remain fresh and relevant we need to ensure our tradition, so grounded in text, springs to life and is able to live outside the pages of a book.

As we move forward as a community I will be reaching out to you so we can look at new and unique ways of igniting both the intellect and imagination of NLS’s children. My wife, Robin, and daughters, Aviva and Ora, join me in wishing you and your family CHAG SAMEACH.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Pesach Magazine 2016

Disney’s Aladdin is the ultimate Passover movie!

For almost 100 years Hollywood has attempted to capture the Passover story on film: The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) to name a few. Film producers have spent millions of dollars recreating the dramatic scale and spectacle of the Israelite journey out of Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds and into the wilderness. (Charlton Heston looks even more spectacular as Moses when viewed in 3D!).

There is one film, not a typical ‘Passover movie,’ whose themes go right to the heart of the Israelite journey; Disney’s Aladdin (1992). Set in the fictional city of Agrabah, at first glance this story of princesses, evil sorcerers and magical genies appears far removed from our own story.

However, the Israelites and the entire cast of Aladdin share a longing for one thing above all else; freedom. Aladdin himself longs to be free from poverty, Princess Jasmine wants freedom to choose who to marry, Jafar and Iago want to be free from the Sultan’s rule and Genie ‘wishes’ he was free to be his own master. As the story of Aladdin illustrates, freedom is a shared ideal but the form of an individual’s bondage as well as the motivation that encourages one to seek freedom can differ dramatically.

The human catalyst for the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom is Moses. The first event of Moses’ adult life that is described in the Torah tells how he, disgusted at the brutality of the Egyptians, comes to the defence of an Israelite who is in the middle of being beaten by a taskmaster. Moses (at least at this point in the narrative) does not seek his own freedom but that of those around him. His first ‘grownup’ act is to try and reduce the suffering of those around him who are too weak to pursue liberty for themselves. Like Moses, Aladdin also desires freedom for others as demonstrated when he promises to use his third and final wish to set the Genie free. However, Aladdin’s own desires lead him to hesitate in granting this wish and this action becomes the catalyst for much of the tragedy that takes place later on in the story.

When Moses sees suffering around him his first instinct is to intervene, irrelevant of the consequences of these actions on his own liberties. In fact, it is this early action that leads to Moses own liberation later on in the Torah narrative. As central characters in our own journeys to freedom we must remember that by working to secure the freedom of others we are in fact working to guarantee our own freedom.

This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’.

‘If you could add a new item to the seder plate what would it be?’

If I were to add an item to the seder plate it would be a pocket diary. The traditional seder plate helps us to tell a sensory-story of Israelite liberation out of bondage in Egypt. This was not only a physical enslavement but a spiritual one as well. Today we enjoy many different types of freedom but we must also be aware that ‘freedom’ itself can be a barrier to enjoying the very rights for which the Israelites so desperately struggled. The 21st century, perhaps more than any other point in history, is a moment where we are afforded tremendous choice and control over our personal, professional and recreational pursuits.  The difficulty in deciding what to do and when to do it is no longer a struggle based on limitations but on the immense control we have over our lives. I feel fortunate to have the freedom to make decisions about how I use my time based on my own needs, wants and desires.  A pocket diary can act as a reminder that with the freedom to choose which tasks fill our calendars comes a responsibility to use our time wisely. This means making decisions that bring us closer to our fellow beings and empower us to maintain the spiritual freedom that the Israelites won so long ago.

Originally published in the Jewish News, ‘Progressive Jews page’s 2 voices feature’