Guido Cohen

The bags on their shoulders

For most children, the most notable part of the Seder is Tzafun, the moment in which we get to search for the Afikoman. However, for some reason, the most vivid memories that I have of my childhood Sedarim is not at the end of the Seder but at the beginning. Growing up in a traditional Sephardic family with roots in Aleppo, in my grandfather’s house the most sacred, the most memorable moment of every Seder was during and right after Yachatz.

Following a mystical tradition, my grandfather would concentrate his efforts on trying to break the Matzah with the shape of a letter Dalet, which after decades of trying myself I know it’s highly do it to achieve. And after separating the portion for the Afikoman, he would wrap the rest on a large napkin, hold it with his right hand over the left shoulder and recite in Hebrew a phrase from the Torah that says:

.מִשְאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְשִׂמְלֹתָם עֵל שִכְמָם. וּבֵֽנֵי יִשְרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶה
Mish-arotam serurot besimlotam ‘al shikhmam. Ubene yisra-el ‘asu kidbar Moshe.
“…their remaining possessions tied up in their bags on their shoulders. And the children of Israel did as Moses commanded “(Exodus 12:35-36)

At that point, someone else would ask the Seder leader in Arabic: “Min Jayye?”, which means ‘’where are you coming from?” My grandfather would answer “Mitzrayim.”

“Lwen Rayech?” he would then be asked (where are you headed?). And he would answer “L’Yirushalayim” and everyone would say “L’shanah Haba’ah bYirushalayim”, next year in Jerusalem.

The Seder leader would then pass the napkin with the Matzah to the person closer to him in age and so the ritual was repeated again and again until the youngest has said the words of ‘’Misharotam.”

Every person at the table, from the oldest to the youngest had to perform this reenactment of the time when we left Egypt just with a few possessions in a bag on our shoulders. I think that sentence was probably the first thing I ever learned to say in Hebrew. I remember the uncle that always joked when asked where he was coming from and said ‘from work’. I remember how, for many years, the idea of being headed towards Jerusalem was a distant dream. I remember how weird and distant from my reality the idea of leaving your home with just a bag over your shoulder sounded to a young kid living a life of comfort in the twentieth century.

Perhaps it wasn’t until this year, that I fully understood the powerful symbolic meaning of that ritual. Three weeks ago, exactly ten days before Passover I traveled with a group of colleagues to Poland and visited the Polish-Ukranian border. The goal of our trip was to bring supplies that were needed there, to raise financial resources that will be used to help the efforts of the Krakow JCC in helping the Ukranian refugees in that city, and to show our support to the victims of the Russian invasion to Ukraine by telling their stories and bearing witness to their suffering. As Jews, we know more than any other nation how tremendous are the consequences of a world that remains indifferent to human suffering. We have learned precisely in those same lands how easy it is for the average citizen of the world to continue his daily routine without having empathy towards his fellow human being who is being massacred, oppressed, persecuted. And we wanted to make sure that when in a few decades our grandchildren learn about this humanitarian crisis of tremendous magnitude they read that the Jewish people were not indifferent to the suffering of the Ukranian .

There are many aspects of the trip that I could highlight, and I will probably write another piece to tell more in detail the moments that touched me the most. However, as I start to write these lines, just a few hours after the conclusion of the time in which we commemorate our own Exodus, I cannot help but reflect on the similarities of one image from that trip with that ritual that once again, my family and many others will perform at the Seder table.

It’s the second day of the trip. We are at the Medyka border crossing. A few steps divide us from Ukrainian territory. And there, we meet Anatoly and Irina. They meet us after days of running away from the dangers of the invasion. They had left behind their home many days ago, when central Ukraine became the target of heavy attacks by the Russian troops. From there, they had relocated in Lviv, until that was not safe either. They were able to get on a military transport to the village of Shehyni on the Ukranian side of the border. And they walked to the other side only carrying their backpacks on their shoulders. Just like our ancestors 3,500 years ago, leaving behind a land that was oppressive but that was also their home for generations. In a very similar way to that of the symbolic ritual that my family performs every year around the Seder table. Their possessions on their shoulders, knowing where they are coming from and hoping that whatever destination they are headed to becomes a land of promise. Leaving behind everything that was known to them and embarking on a journey to the unknown, to a desert that promises nothing but the hope for a temporary haven in a hotel in Krakow.

We were awaiting them on the other side, with the responsibility of driving them to a hotel that the Krakow JCC had arranged for them thanks to the generosity of many compassionate people who are contributing to their efforts to help guided by most noble values of our sacred tradition. They will stay at that hotel for a week, and then probably figure out how to continue their journey.

Irina and Anatoly, with their bags on their shoulders

They remained silent for most of the three-hour trip, probably exhausted but  also intimidated by this group of rabbis and Jewish lay leaders from a distant land speaking a foreign language. Thankfully, Rabbi Tina Greenberg was one of the colleagues who joined our delegation. A native of Ukraine, she was able to engage in conversation with them and translate for the rest of the group. Anatoly is a beekeeper. Despite all the things he had gone through and a short term future that had nothing but questions and uncertainties, his main concern was who would take care of his bees. Probably the work of a lifetime, this man was worried that his bees would not be able to survive without him. My feeling is that the bees symbolized much more than the bees. Those bees were symbolized home, stability, normal life, the place where he belonged. The bees also symbolized a dream, a hope for return, they were the paradise he had lost and to which he dreamed of returning. But right now, he was entering a wilderness filled with question marks, a mysterious and silent journey that was at the same time safe and somehow uncomfortable. His concern for those bees made me look at him not just as a ‘refugee’ but as a man, who was concerned about something he had cultivated over many decades. What would I be worried about if I had to leave my home without knowing if I would ever return? My pet? My books? My orchids?

On his shoulder, just like our ancestors when they left Egypt, a small bag. A bag with probably one change of clothes, a couple of apples, whatever valuables he could bring with him, maybe a family picture, and a bottle of water. Just like our ancestors when they left Egypt. Or when they left Spain, England, Portugal, Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union and so many other places. Because, if there is one nation that knows of exoduses and journeys into the uncertainty, it is ours. We have left almost every single land that we have dwelled in. We have packed a small bag and placed it over our shoulder in so many opportunities. Not as a symbolic reenactment of an exodus that is mythical and remote in time but as an actual reality that in almost every generation is experienced by a group of Jews in some place on earth.

Yes, we have preached and denounced unfair and inaccurate comparisons between our past and the current events affecting millions of Ukrainian citizens. We know that no two events in history are the same and therefore comparisons will always be unfair and problematic. And yet, Irina and Anatoly, with the bag on their shoulders, leaving a place they called home since the day they were born and without a visible  promised land as they enter the desert of uncertainty, looks way too similar to the ritual that I treasure from my childhood Sedarim.

Perhaps the fact that we grow up telling the story of a group of refugees who spent forty years in no man’s land explains why, at the Medyka border crossing the number of Jewish organizations helping Jews and non-Jews alike is highly disproportionate with the fact that we are less than 0.2% of the world’s population. The experience of having felt ourselves the cold of the night or the burning heat of the sun when living in a tent makes us see a the tents in the Medyka border crossing and immediately connect with our collective memory of a time in which we were the oppressed and persecuted. The fact that we know how it abandoned you feel when no door is opened, when no country is welcoming is what triggers on us an the sense empathy. An empathy that is not moved only by compassion but mainly from knowing that we are  commanded to open our hands and our doors to those who are now wandering their desert. Isn’t that the whole point of opening our doors as we remember the Exodus? Letting everyone who is facing doors that c

Yes, we struggle with the fact that when we were oppressed the world remained silent and indifferent. We wrestle with the notion that those whom we are called to help may be the descendants of the ones who have oppressed us. And we know that nothing can be compared to that which our people experienced in those lands. The Torah, is aware of the complexity of our challenge but its answer is bold and clear.  Our own experience of oppression must inform our sensitivity towards anyone experiencing any kind of oppression. “For you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” cries the text in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Even those under whose ancestors we were killed and enslaved, as the verse commands when it prevents us from oppressing the Egyptian (Deuteronomy 23:8).
I had spent countless hours wrapping my head around the many complex philosophical questions that our trip had triggered. I had engaged in discussions and arguments with congregants and colleagues about the pertinence of our efforts to help Jews and non-Jews without distinction, opening our hands to a tiny fraction of the more than 10 million people that were displaced from their homes as a consequence of this unprovoked invasion to Ukraine. And suddenly, when I zoomed in and saw how similar their bags in their shoulders were to that tiny piece of Matzah that my grandfather held every Passover at the head of the Seder table, the dilemmas and questions vanish. With their remaining possessions wrapped on their shoulders, they embark on a journey to the unknown as they try to save their lives from the tyranny of another Pharaoh. I want to believe that among the many differences between their journey and ours the main one will be that our collective memory will not allow us to leave them alone. For as long as we remember, we will not remain silent to the suffering of our fellow human beings.



About the Author
Guido Cohen is a rabbi in Aventura, Florida. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he worked from a very young age in formal and informal Jewish Education. He served for 4 years as the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Colombia and then moved to the Miami area where he is one of the rabbis at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.
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