The following story is a personal one, our family story. One that my grandfather of blessed memory would tell us time and time again. It was about his lucky escape from Lithuania as a 17-year-old boy with his family on one of the last boats out of Europe before the outbreak of World War Two.
Louis Gecelter was young man from Kovno, a keen sportsman who participated regularly in Maccabi sporting events. In the summer of 1937, he represented Maccabi Kovno at a regional sports festival for young Jews from across Europe. Here he met young German Jewish boys his age for the first time. While talking to them, he was shocked by the stories he was hearing – the yellow star, public discrimination and disgrace at all levels of German society.
He immediately sensed he must tell his mother to come and hear these terrible stories for herself. Although the sports grounds were miles away – and he would only be coming home after the festival had ended – he found a creative solution. He wrote a note to his mother and asked the captain of one of the steam ships on the river next to the grounds to deliver the note to the lady who runs the kiosk further upstream. Thankfully, the note made it to his mother, my great-grandmother Sonia, and its message was clear: “Come now on the very next boat and hear what’s happening to the Jews in Germany!”
And she came indeed, listening very intently to the young German boys and girls. The moment my grandfather returned home, she gathered the family together, and – in my grandfather’s words – she declared to the family in Yiddish, “Mir muzech packen, dir kinder zogen dem emes” – we must pack, the children speak the truth.
Thank G-d, my great-grandmother had the wisdom and insight to decide it was time to leave and within months they had gone. They wanted to go to Palestine but the gates were closed due to British immigration restrictions, so they made their way to South Africa.
Tragically, all extended family who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust.
My grandfather arrived in South Africa and married my grandmother (a marriage that lasted 75 years!), built a family, became a Jewish community leader, and they made aliyah when he was 59. All his direct descendants subsequently followed suit and live in Israel today. He passed away peacefully a few years ago at the age of 97. He would always say how he owed his life to that fortuitous meeting at the sports festival and his mother’s great wisdom and foresight.
From potential destruction to ultimate deliverance. From clouds of darkness to radiant light, and from the brink of despair to a bright and hopeful future.
Like myriads of other Jewish family stories, I believe our family story reflects the essence of Jewish history as told in the Haggadah and provides a pertinent perspective as we combat the global corona crisis.
After all, no festival shapes our collective identity more than Pesach. It is the time we engage in national storytelling. We sit together as a family and attempt to crystallize the meaning of our people’s very existence – our birth, our suffering and our salvation. We aim to tell our children what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.
We tell our collective family’s story.
Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves are critical to our collective identity. According to Harvard History Professor, Jill Lepore, this is the crisis facing America today. She argues that Americans have forgotten how to tell their national story with clarity. She suggests the reason for this is that over the last 50 years, much of academia has shunned any discussion of nationalism, seeing it as something negative and dangerous. By doing so, others step into the vacuum and create stories which don’t necessarily reflect the true American story.
Lepore says a country must have a national story, otherwise it risks losing its way. Yes, writing national history creates plenty of problems.
But not writing it creates more.
Our Prophets and Sages understood this well and created our national narrative at the very dawn of Jewish history. They defined what our collective identity and destiny are all about. This is the story of Pesach and this of course is our Haggadah.
So what is the essence of our story? What is the foundational idea at the core of the Haggadah?
Our Sages posit that the quintessential theme of the whole story can be captured in four words – מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח – begin with shame, end with praise. This short and sharp insight not only captures the primary plot of the Exodus but reveals an underlying pattern in all of Jewish history.
Life comes with difficulties and challenges. But it is in no way defined by them.
Whether the challenges are physical or spiritual, one thing is clear. It is the beginning of the story and not the story itself. The story may begin with darkness, pain and suffering but somehow always ends with light, hope and redemption.
The Jewish story contains tragedy but is never tragic.
Life has bitterness, lots of it, but it is fundamentally sweet.
There is evil in the world, but good will eventually prevail.
As these lines are being written, Covid-19 has caused the most unimaginable and drastic consequences all over the globe. We are living through chaotic, daunting and uncertain times.
Nevertheless, our challenges – just like in Egypt – are both physical and spiritual.
Physically, tens of thousands have died, hundreds of thousands more are ill and we are experiencing an unprecedented spread of the virus to almost every country in the world in such a short time. Israel is approaching a full national lockdown as are many countries around the world causing unprecedented physical isolation and social distancing. The financial ramifications for so many individuals and countries are staggering.
Spiritually, a host of religious and halachic challenges, such as the shutting down of all synagogue services, public Torah classes and shiurim and many regular chessed services, to mention but a few. Instead of the natural scenario of grandparents sitting with grandchildren on Seder Night, countless families will be separated, many for the first time ever.
However, thankfully, the Pesach Haggadah grants us a unique paradigm through which to view these events.
Although the future remains uncertain and none of us know how things will unfold, we believe and know that they will end, and somehow for the better. We know from our collective family story that pain, suffering and uncertainty will transform into a better and brighter future. Perhaps even to a more mindful and balanced world, more humble and appreciative societies demonstrating more creativity and interconnectedness. Perhaps a better world somehow strengthened with new purpose and vigor, better equipped and resolved to face life’s great challenges and opportunities ahead.
Please G-d, let it be soon!
 Foreign Affairs Periodical, March/April 2019, p. 10.
 Mishna Pesachim, 10:4.
 With respect to the Haggadah’s theme of מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח, the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) mentions two opinions. Rav says it’s referring to the spiritual realm, the journey from idolatry to belief in G-d, and Shmuel says it’s referring to our physical survival – from suffering and servitude to freedom and redemption. Rav Yitzchak Alfassi rules that both opinions are accepted in practice and both appear in the Haggadah.
This article appears in the Pesach edition of HaMizrachi, published by World Mizrachi in Jerusalem and distributed around the world.