The Modern ‘Hep! Hep! Hep!’ A Pesach Sermon in Honor of Rabbi Samuel Schafler z”l

“We thought it was finished. The ovens are long cooled, the anti-vermin gas dissipated in purifying clouds, cleansed air, nightmarish fable. The cries of the
naked, decades gone, are mute; the bullets splitting throats and breasts and skulls, the human waterfall of bodies tipping over into the wooded ravine at Babi Yar, are no more than tedious footnotes on aging paper. The deportation ledgers, with their scrupulous lists of names of the doomed, what are they now? Museum artifacts.
The heaps of eyeglasses and children’s shoes, the hills of human hair, lie disintegrating in their display cases, while only a little distance away the visitors’
cafeteria bustles and buzzes; sandwiches, Cokes, the waiting tour buses….

Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that the cannibal
hatred, once quenched, would not soon wake again. It has awakened.”

These words were written in 2004 by the Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick in an essay entitled “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” Ozick borrowed the title from an essay
written in 1878 by Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name, George Eliot, reflecting on the condition of the Jews of Eliot’s time when Jews were prominent in liberal parties in England, Germany and France. Eliot heard the ancient cry of antisemitism in the air nearly twenty years before Theodore Herzl first wrote about
the Jewish State. Ozick heard the same cry twenty years ago. We hear it again today.

Hep! – an acronym for the Latin phrase “Hierosolyma est Perdita” – Jerusalem is destroyed — was the cry of the Crusaders in the middle ages as they swept through
Europe destroying one Jewish community after another. Jerusalem meant Jews. Hep! Hep! Hep! was an incitement to pogroms.

Nowadays, Hep! is out of fashion, but other chants are popular on college campuses: FREE FREE PALESTINE; FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA;

We know what these chants mean. They are not calling for a two-state solution or complaining about the current Israeli government. They are calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, the Jewish Homeland, in the wake of the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — a modern Hep! Hep! Hep!

I wish I could believe that these students and their ilk are merely ill-informed. But the problem is much deeper than that. They have swallowed whole a now deeply-
ingrained narrative according to which the Jews are oppressors, colonialists, white supremacists, while the Palestinians are innocent victims for whom slaughter of
women and children is a justified act of resistance. And they believe that with every fiber of their being.

I’ve been delivering sermons in honor of my father, who died in 1991 on the third day of Chol Hamoed Pesach, for more than thirty years, which has given me lots of
time to think about what Pesach is really about. My father, Rabbi Samuel Schafler, was an ardent Zionist and a proud Jew. I can only imagine what he would say about what is going on in the world today. These are momentous times in the history of the Jewish people – a time to tell some hard truths, not so much to those who refuse to hear, but to ourselves and our children. That is what I would like to try to do today.

We begin with the basic obligation of the Pesach Seder – the one that animates the entire structure: “Vehigadeta Levincha,” and you shall teach your children. What
must we teach our children? We must teach them who we are and what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. The story of Pesach is a perfect place to start.

I think it is a mistake to get caught up in the false dichotomy of universalism versus particularism. The Pesach story is a story of redemption that has universal
significance, but first and foremost it is the story of our people. It is not a story about slavery and freedom in the abstract; it is the story of the Jewish journey from
a tribe to a nation – from “arami oved avi,” my ancestors were wandering Arameans”, to Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, with the cultural and moral inheritance we bring to the world – an inheritance that can only be fully realized when the Jews are a free people in our ancient homeland.

We need to do a better job of teaching our children, and appreciating ourselves, the essential role that Israel plays in freeing us to be Jews in the modern world. The
lesson to be learned – or more accurately relearned – from this awful period in our history is that the bargain of emancipation offered to Jews in the Enlightenment –
to be accepted as citizens of existing nation states only if we shed national aspirations and recharacterize Judaism as purely private matter of personal faith – is unreliable and unfair; it is unreliable, because, as see yet again today, our acceptance as Jews, even in this most hospitable of countries in Jewish history, is
subject to the latest antisemitic hysteria. And it is unfair, because we should not have to give up the right to fully express ourselves as Jews to be accepted into
modern society.

The reality is that the Jewish people — a joinable tribal group with a shared history, homeland and culture – predates modern categories of religion, race and
nationality. Our identity doesn’t fit into the box that modern society insists we fit into. And we shouldn’t have to change who we are to be accepted as Jews in the
modern world. As Dara Horn put it recently in an ADL award acceptance speech, “the non-Jewish world doesn’t get to decide how Jews are allowed to exist.”

A popular song in Israel today is “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” — we have no other country. During the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir told then young Senator Joe
Biden this was Israel’s secret weapon – that we have nowhere else to go. That doesn’t mean Jews can’t live a comfortable life in New York or Berlin. We can and
we do. But living elsewhere comes at the cost of at least some level of self-censorship necessary to fit into the current popular culture. We feel this more acutely now than ever, when it can feel dangerous to identify ourselves as Jews in the public square, and Jews are subjected to hateful rhetoric all around us. Only in
Israel can we create our own identity rather than fit into the box created by others.

And that is crucial to what it means to be a free people.

On Pesach, teaching our children – and ourselves – who we are and what it means to be a free people starts with a better understanding of the connection between the
story of the Exodus and the creation of the State of Israel. Perhaps because we have been in exile for two thousand years, we have suppressed the connection
between the story of the Exodus and the Promised Land, but the connection is critical and needs to be emphasized more than it is.

The main “Maggid” – or narrative – section of the Haggadah, taken from Chapter 26 of Deuteronomy, contains the declaration that a Jew was required to recite upon bringing first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the Haggadah stops short of including the final verse, the declaration ends by thanking God for bringing us to this “land of milk and honey.” Thus, in telling the story of Pesach, the Haggadah puts us in the position, not of the Jews leaving Egypt, but of Jewish pilgrims looking backward to their shared history while enjoying the bounty of the Holy Land.

The Song of the Sea, which we recite daily in our liturgy and read from the Torah on the seventh day of Pesach, refers to the future establishment of the Temple in
Jerusalem, connecting the passage from Egypt to the final destination in Israel.

There are not four, but five “leshonot geulah, expressions of God’s promise of redemption in Exodus Chapter 6, the final one being “veheveity,” and I shall bring you to the Land.

The holiday of Shavuot, temporally connected to Pesach by seven weeks of counting the Omer, was originally an Israel-centered agricultural holiday.

And today’s Haftorah, chosen for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach, is Ezekial’s vision of the dry bones – a metaphor for Jewish national revival, whose words are echoed in the lyrics of Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah.

In response to the flagrant calls for Israel’s destruction, at our Seder this year we drank a fifth cup of wine to express thanks for the establishment of the State of
Israel — in the words of the prayer for the State of Israel, “reshit smichat geulateinu,” the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. This elegant
formulation acknowledges that our redemption is not complete, but appropriately recognizes God’s hand in our return to Zion.

And the traditional singing of “leshana habaah beyerushalayim” to end our Seder acquired new meaning for me this year as the perfect antidote to Hep! Hep! Hep!

Instead of Jerusalem is destroyed, it means next year in Jerusalem.

Instead of the Jewish people are doomed, it means the Jewish people live.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

About the Author
Seth Schafler is formerly President and currently Chair of the Board of Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck New York, a member of the Board of the JCC of Mid-Westchester and a lawyer at Covington & Burling LLC in New York.
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