As we approach Pesach, we find ourselves facing a world that seems to be going through tumultuous times. Everywhere we look, we see war, unrest, and uncertainty. Ukraine is mired in conflict, the political landscape in the USA is volatile, and Israel is on the brink of civil war. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the chaos and despair of it all.
However, as Jews, we have a unique perspective on these challenges. We have faced difficult times before, and we have emerged stronger each time. Our history is a testament to our ability to turn weakness into strength, adversity into advantage, and darkness into light.
The story of Yosef and his brothers in Mitzrayim illustrates this concept. Despite being oppressed and enslaved, the Israelites grew stronger and more numerous. As it says in the Torah, “But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.” (Shemos 1:12)
This resilience and determination are at the heart of our identity as Jews. It goes back to the moment when Jacob wrestled with an angel and refused to let go until he received a blessing. As it says in the Torah, “And he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.'” (Bereshis 32:26)
This refusal to let go until we receive a blessing is the essence of our national character. We may have fought all night, we may be tired and on the brink of exhaustion, but we will not let our adversary go until we have extracted a blessing from the encounter. This turned out to be not a minor and temporary concession but became the basis of Yaakov’s new name and our identity – Israel, the people who “wrestled with God and man and prevailed.”
This ability to turn tragedy into creativity has been a hallmark of Jewish history. After every disaster, Jews have renewed themselves, discovering hitherto hidden reservoirs of spirit that fuelled new forms of collective self-expression as the carriers of God’s message to the world.
After the division of the kingdom following the death of Shlomo HaMelech came the great literary prophets, Amos and Hoshea, Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu. Out of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile came the renewal of Torah in the life of the nation, beginning with Ezekiel and culminating in the vast educational programme brought back to Israel by Ezra and Nehemiah.
From the destruction of the Second Temple came the immense literature of rabbinic Judaism, until then preserved mostly in the form of an oral tradition: Mishnah, Midrash and Gemara. From the Crusades came the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the North European school of piety and spirituality. Following the Spanish expulsion came the mystic circle of Tzefat: Lurianic Kabbalah and all it inspired by way of poetry and prayer. And from the worst tragedy of all in human terms, the Holocaust, came the rebirth of the state of Israel, the greatest collective Jewish affirmation of life in more than two thousand years.
But it’s not just about survival. It’s also about thriving. Jews have consistently overachieved, wherever they were and whenever they were given the chance. We have found ways of turning every curse into a blessing, of enriching poverty and humanising wealth.
As we sit down to our Seder this year, let us remember that we are part of a people that has endured and overcome the greatest of challenges. Let us draw strength from our history and our tradition, knowing that even in the darkest of times, we can find a way to transform the bad moments of life into a spur to creativity.
This idea is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. The Talmud teaches that “The world was created in darkness, and from that darkness, God created light” (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 12a) We are reminded that even in the beginning, there was chaos and confusion, but out of that darkness, God brought forth light.
The Haggadah also teaches us to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt and that HKBH redeemed us with an outstretched arm and great miracles. We are commanded to retell this story every year to our children and to all those who will listen. But it’s not just about remembering the past; it’s about recognizing that our redemption is ongoing. As the Haggadah says, “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Mitzrayim.” We are called upon to see ourselves as part of a continuous process of redemption, both as individuals and as a nation.
This idea is also reflected in the Pesach sacrifice, which was offered in the Temple in Yerushalayim. The Pesach sacrifice was not just a commemoration of the Exodus; it was a statement of faith that God would redeem us again in the future. As it says in the Torah, “And it shall be when your children say to you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is the Pesach sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians and delivered our households.'” (Exodus 12:26-27)
The Pesach sacrifice reminds us that even in times of darkness and uncertainty, we can have faith that Hashem will redeem us. It is a reminder that our history is not just a story of suffering and survival but also of creativity, renewal, and transformation.
As we celebrate Pesach this year, let us draw inspiration from our past and have faith in our future. Let us remember that we are a people of resilience, determination, and creativity, and that even in the darkest of times, we can find the light that shines within us. Let us hold on to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Yeshayahu 60:1) May we all be blessed with a Pesach of renewal, redemption, and joy.