Our Monuments – Passover Inspiration
I remember when I walked around Washington DC, seeing statues of the greats. I remember Jefferson and Lincoln, Martin Luther King and even Tadeusz Kościuszko on horse opposite the White house at Lafayette Park (to name just a few). Yet, when I walk around Israel, I don’t see statues. Of course, there is that bust of Ben Gurion at the airport and the statue of him doing a headstand in Sde Boker. But when compared to the regal statues of the leaders in Washington DC, BG standing on his head seems almost, well, cute. It could be that in Israel, we observe the commandment of not making graven images and so we don’t have many statues. However, even in secular kibbutzim I can’t recall a statue of the fighting Maccabees or any other statue of our people’s heroes (except Mordechai Anielewicz at Yad Mordechai and also at Yad Vashem in the ghetto square). What other statues can you think of in Israel that I am missing? But the point is, we have so few statutes.
I think that we as a people, made a choice, that’s in accordance with not making graven images and not marking Moshe’s grave (and making sure, lehavdel or excuse the comparison, that Eichmann did not get one), that our “statues” were going to be living ones. Statues of faith and commitment and that we educate our ourselves, our friends, our children and students to embody this idea. Therefore, I want to share 3 stories, that were shared with me, to try and illustrate.
Story number 1. In 1962 in the El Chemdia Shuk in Damascus, a person walked into a Jewish owned shop. The man was, Kamel Amin Thaabet, and he turned to the owner of the store and begged. “I’m starving, what food do you have for me?” “Food? It’s Passover today, the only food I have is matzah”, replied the owner. “Matzah? What’s that? I’m famished, I’ll take anything, give me some of this so-called Matzah”. Kamel took the piece of matzah he was given, hurried to the side of the shop, mumbled some words and wolfed it down. With that, he scurried off into the busy streets of the El Chemdia shuk. To the Jewish storeowner this was a seemingly bizarre and random occurrence.
3 years later, 1965, shocking news spread. A spy of Israel had been found in middle of Syrian! Kamel Amin Thaabet was, in truth, the most well known Israeli spy- Eli Cohen. The storeowner, remembering now the odd encounter he had 3 years before, smiled in pride of his people. Wow! While his life was at stake, and on the most dangerous of missions, all Cohen wanted was to be able to celebrate Passover. To eat that one piece of Matzah, he will do whatever it takes. Even in the middle of Syria, Cohen did whatever was needed to celebrate his heritage.
Story number 2. Reb Aryeh Levin of Yerushalayim a pious and saintly rabbi. On the eve of his wedding day, when some have a custom of giving their spouse a gift, Reb Aryeh, poor and without much wealth, made a promise to his bride. “Riches and wealth I do not have to give, but I promise you now, that in every single argument we will have in the years to come, I promise to be the one to give in. I can’t promise you gold, but I can promise you all my heart.” And towards the end of his life, his wife testified that he was true to his word. Reb Aryeh Levin was faithful to his heritage.
Story number 3. Yuli Edelstein (currently a member of Israel’s Knesset) was, many years ago, a Russian citizen sent into prison for attempting to go into Israel. For 3 years Yuli sat in a dark and lonely cellar awaiting his trial. Finally, his day of judgment arrived. One ray of happiness stood in his mind, and that was the knowledge that his mother and wife were coming to support him as he stood his case. Yet, in cruelty and spite, the NKVD officers stood in rows, barring the sight of Edelstein from his loved ones. Realizing that his future was already predestined in his superiors’ hands, having nothing to lose, Edelstein pushed the soldiers aside and caught sight of his bride.
Just imagine and think. If you had one sentence to say, one last question to ask in such a situation, would what you say? What words to keep you strong?
The words he cried out to his bride were, “Tell me please. What number night of Chanukah is it tonight?” She lifted her two fingers and he lit that night two candles.
He knew that it was the holiday of Chanukah, but what bothered him most at his darkest, most fearful moments were, the question only a Jew with such strength and conviction would ask, “Tell me please what night I should celebrate?!” Edelstein did whatever was needed to celebrate his heritage.
We don’t have many stone or metal statues, but we do have the life and empowerment our ancestors and heroes gave us. Especially at our seders, when we celebrate with pride and we hold the past, present and future of Israel in our living deeds and actions, we are the true monuments.
Adapted from Rabbis Wolf’s and Bluming’s writings