Vi’hi Sheamda (It is this that has stood): A Different Night

Last week, Jews all over the world celebrated Passover by having a Seder. For those who don’t know, a Seder is basically a long dinner where Jewish people retell the tale of how God saved us from the Egyptians by carrying out a number of miracles, eventually splitting the Red Sea and leading the Jewish nation to freedom.

It’s funny, because at the beginning of the Haggadah (the manual for lack of a better word, from which we read the story and perform the rituals) there is a section called The 4 Questions. It is customary that the youngest child in the family “asks” the 4 questions, and one of these questions- perhaps the most famous one is: Why is this night different than all other nights? The reason why this is kind of funny is because this night it was actually different. I mean sure, Passover is always unlike any other night of the year, but this year it was especially different due to the Corona craziness affecting basically everyone in the world right now.

As a result of Israel’s restrictions in an effort to combat the ever spreading Corona epidemic, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the country’s newest and strictest guidelines, forbidding anyone to leave their cities and essentially putting the state of Israel on complete lockdown, until after the holiday. This was the first Passover in 30 years that I would not be with my family. My parents and sister were in Jerusalem, my younger brother and his wife in their home in Haifa, and my older brother- who actually only lives about a 10 minute walk from me- was in his apartment in Tel Aviv.

My roommate and I were invited to a “Zoom Seder” where just as the name suggests, we all signed into Zoom (an app for video calls) and had a virtual Seder with a few other friends who similarly were stuck in their apartments without their families. So yeah, this night was certainly unlike all other nights, and this year was certainly unlike all other years.

This whole situation was difficult for everyone, and we were all beginning to feel a little homesick. Every Jewish family who is used to having a Passover Seder with their family every year, has their own traditions- for example who reads which part, inside jokes, and each family has their usual Passover dishes eaten at this incredible feast. My sister and I began a custom a few years back (once we’ve lost count of the amount of cups of wine we’d drunk- there are supposed to be 4 altogether) of doing an interpretative dance towards the end for Chad Gad Ya- a song about objects and animals all trying to “one-up” each other until eventually God is on top. I do hope she made me proud at her Seder alone with my parents in Jerusalem.

The most memorable moment of the Seder, and a silver lining in this otherwise depressing situation, was The 4 Questions which I talked about earlier. At exactly 8:30 pm it was decided that everyone would stand on their respective balconies and we would all sing The 4 Questions together. Since our apartment is on the ground floor facing the back of the building, my roommate and I decided to go out front to the street.

The scene we witnessed was spectacular: dozens of families were standing on their balconies and porches singing The 4 Questions together- an entire street reciting this part of the Seder, which is traditionally asked by the youngest child. Afterwards everyone shouted “Chag Sameach!” (Happy Holidays) to each other. At that moment I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride to be a part of this country, and a member of this incredible tribe. Jewish people (and I personally think especially Israelis) will always find a way to make the best out of any situation.

Preparing for our Zoom Seder
Preparing for our Zoom Seder

Vi’hi Sheamda is a section in the Haggadah which talks about the Jewish people’s resilience, despite our enemies who are constantly trying to destroy us. Anyone who’s the least bit familiar with Jewish history knows that for literally thousands of years various people and often powerful empires had tried to destroy the Jewish people. Even to this day there are unfortunately many antisemites who still wish to see this happen.

This section has always been a somewhat emotional part of the Seder for me. At this point in the Seder, my family usually talks about my late Grandmother, who was 4 years old when the Nazis came to her town in Czechoslovakia. Along with her parents she slipped out into the woods and lived among the partisans under starvation and harsh conditions, until the Russian army eventually arrived. Despite the Nazi’s efforts to destroy her family, she and her parents survived and eventually immigrated to the US where she met my grandfather, and became the matriarch of an amazing family. This is the very essence of Vi’Hi Sheamda: despite our enemies trying to destroy us, we come out stronger.

My family moved to Israel from New Jersey in 2003. At the time I was 13, which is pretty much a hard age for anyone, no matter where you are in the world. On top of that I was basically told to say bye to all my friends, learn a new language, and move halfway across the world (at time before social media was really a thing). We were first told by our parents that it was a trial year, and now- well let’s just say that we’re currently in our 17th trial year.

As a 13 year old who was kind of figuring things out (as most 13 year old boys are doing, learning to become a man and such) I never really gave much thought to Zionism, and the importance of the Jewish People to have their own country. I was 13. I missed my friends in America, hated my parents for forcing me to leave them, was beginning to discover (and get discovered) by girls, and was trying so hard to be accepted in a school full of smelly Israeli boys, who shared almost nothing in common with me. Unfortunately for me, you were only as cool as you were good at soccer.

In 10th grade, the 3rd year I was in Israel, a new kid came to our class. Shaked Lasker was Israeli, but had an Anglo father so his English was better than most Israelis and he was therefore put in the English speakers English class. He and I naturally become friends, as my Hebrew still wasn’t so great at the time and we welcomed him into our small crew of English speakers (those with Anglo parents, or those who had come to Israel at a very young age).

Shaked was hilarious. He had a great sense of humor, and especially loved telling jokes in English. I’ll never forget one time when a few of us were all of us sitting at lunch, when he received a phone call from his friend who had just had his first pre-army checkup . Shaked recollected how his friend had to “show the doctor his balls” (referring to the standard medical checkup undergone by potential new recruits, to determine their level of physical fitness), which was already hilarious to a group of 16 year old boys. Shaked’s version of his friend’s experience brought us close to tears. We loved hanging out with Shaked, who was a great addition to our group, adding much-needed humor to our mundane and excruciatingly long days at a religious yeshiva high school for boys.

Shaked was from a settlement in the West Bank, and like many Israelis who live in the settlements, his primary mode of transportation was hitchhiking. In late March of 2006, Shaked, a young girl, and a man dressed as a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) man were picked up by an elderly couple. The Haredi man was actually a terrorist who had a bomb concealed underneath his clothing, which he detonated- killing himself and everyone in the car, including Shaked.

While this tragic event shook me, it also made me realize the reality we’re living in. Politics aside, we (especially in Israel) are to this day surrounded by enemies who want to kill us, and they are not going to stop trying. Having said that, it’s truly amazing that the Jews have been targeted for thousands of years, even by some of the greatest empires in the history of mankind, and we seem to always not only survive, but come out stronger for it. Vi’hi Sheamda talks about exactly this:

And it is this that has stood by our ancestors and for us.
For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us,
but in every generation they rise up to destroy us.
But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.

I know that this was a sad story, but I think it’s important to end it on a positive note- today Israel has a thriving economy, one of the most powerful militaries in the world, and has become a hi-tech powerhouse with innovation disproportionate to its size. Even in today’s times, with the aforementioned global crisis, Israel was ranked the number 1 safest country to be in, in terms of not getting infected by the Covid-19 virus, and there are rumors that our little country may be the first to release a vaccine. We have certainly come out stronger, and I personally believe that Shaked, my grandmother’s extended family who was taken to Auschwitz, and all of the Jews who’s lives were taken out of shear hatred, would be proud to see our nation thriving as it is today

Shaked and I, sometime in 2006
About the Author
Ben is both American and Israeli: born to a religious and Zionist family who moved to Israel in 2003, when he was 13. He has since served in the IDF (Combat Engineer Corps), and graduated Hebrew University where he earned a degree in Hospitality. Throughout his studies and afterwards Ben has worked in 3 different hotels in Israel, and most recently a boutique resort in Fiji (from Tel Aviv).
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