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How Can We Sing The Eternal’s Song In A Strange Land

This week’s d’var Torah on Passover and Yom HaShoah. With gratitude to Rabbi Tali Adler for her lecture “A Seder in Novobirisk: What Seder Nights in Times of Trauma Can Teach us in Times of Joy,” April 7, 2022.

Depending on whom you ask, Passover has either just ended, or the last day of Passover has just begun. Next week, we begin a cycle of Jewish holidays that commemorate meaningful events in modern Jewish history. Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day; Yom HaZikaron—Israeli Memorial Day; Yom Haatzmaut—Israeli Independence Day; and Yom Yerushalayim—which celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.

The cycle begins when we observe Yom HaShoah this Wednesday. There has been a great deal of conversation, both recently and throughout my lifetime, about how we remember and teach about the Holocaust in both Jewish and secular settings, and how that remembering, and learning, can shape our lives today. Having just gone through our people’s most story-telling-centered holiday, we know that how we tell our people’s story can have a tremendous impact on how we understand ourselves.

As an artist, one thing that strikes me is how people were able to maintain their capacity to create, and to forge connections through creativity, even in the most dire situations. Children in the Terezin concentration camp painted pictures and wrote poetry, while their aunts, mothers, and grandmothers wrote a cookbook describing their favorite recipes. The Warsaw Ghetto alone had a symphony orchestra, several chamber groups and choirs, and five theatres with performances in both Polish and Yiddish, one of which put on a production of Sholom Asch’s famous play, God of Vengeance, which later becamethe subject of Paula Vogel’s Tony-award-winning play, Indecent.

As a Jewish person, it moves me that, even as they were being persecuted for being Jewish, even as the horrors of the Holocaust challenged their belief in God and humanity, many continued to practice Judaism in one way or another. Almost exactly 79 years ago, as the Germans were preparing to liquidate the Jews of Warsaw, and resistance fighters were poised to start their uprising, Passover seders were being held inside the ghetto.

There must have been some difficulty deciding whether to celebrate in those circumstances.  How could we celebrate the redemption of our people, in the exact moment when our people are being and persecuted? This question goes all the way back to the book of Psalms, written during our people’s first exile into Babylon: “How can we sing a song of the Eternal in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4). Or a timelier question: what must it be like to observe Passover as a Ukrainian Jew this year?

But indeed, that’s exactly what we do, and what we’ve always done. Though in our generation we experience unprecedented comfort and privilege, we are never far away, geographically, or temporally, from a community that is still in chains.

I recently watched a lecture by Rabbi Tali Adler, of the Hadar Institute, whose prized possession is a Haggadah that has been passed down in her family for generations. This Haggadah was written in 1942, for a seder that was conducted in a gulag in Novosibirisk, Russia. It describes the miracles the prisoners experienced, even in this most hopeless of times and places:  they found dandelion greens to use for bitter herbs, vegetable scraps to make wine, and a sack of flour to make matzah.

The Haggadah’s author, Juda Ari Wohlgemuth, celebrates these tiny miracles, and acknowledges the complexity of the celebration:

“How will I come before God, my Maker

To keep my festival as did my fathers before me?

How to clear away hameitz when I have no matzah?

Captive, how shall I go forth to arrange my seder?

Degraded by hunger, deep were our sighs.

Let all give thanks, bow down to the ground

Recalling how great were the mercies of heaven

For on the Passover seder, which we kept on both nights,

We lacked for nothing, although we had nothing on hand

To fulfill the sacred requirements in the conventional way

Despite Satan’s eye we had matzot twice

The four cups twice, and of bitter herbs also two portions.

…And so my company sat reclining in their cells

To tell the story of how my hosts had gone forth

To cause freedom’s voice to be heard even in prison.”

Rabbi Adler points out that the Jews of Novosibirisk were by no means the first to celebrate Passover in exile. Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, who was expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, also asked the question, How can we give thanks for redemption when we once again find ourselves in exile?

Rabbi Abarbanel proposes that telling the Passover story reminds us of God’s love, of human dignity, and of the gift of Torah, even when we are in exile. Rabbi Adler as that these stories contain truths that our ancestors have given us that the world can’t take away.

It is not enough, however, to tell the story as a community, or to tell it about our ancestors from an observer’s distance. It says in the Haggadah that each of us obligated to regard ourselves as if we, personally had gone out of Egypt. Rabbi Abarbanel adds:

“There are those who have been forced into backbreaking labor…and those who has been imprisoned…and those who have experienced great danger.  There are those who have not been able to observe Shabbat and the holidays because of the wrath of the oppressor.  … This is why they established that each person must see themselves as if they left Egypt, because it is impossible, in our exile, not to experience some of the sorrows of Egypt.  And because the Holy One saves us each and every day, it is appropriate for each of us to see ourselves as if we left Egypt” (Abarbanel, Zevach Pesach).

We retell our people’s stories, year after year, no matter our circumstances, to remind each of us of what past generations endured, and that, in spite of it, our people has continued to survive, and even to find cause for celebration. The Haggadah reminds us that redemption is possible, that miracles are possible, even in the darkest times. When we tell that story from a place of oppression, it can offer us a beacon of hope. When we tell that story from a place of privilege, it calls us to take responsibility, and to work towards a world where all who are hungry can come and eat, and all who are enslaved can hope to one day celebrate the joy of freedom.

As we complete our celebration of Passover, and begin our commemoration of our people’s struggles in recent history, may we find strength and beauty in the stories of those that came before us. And may we draw from that strength and beauty to compose a new chapter in the story of redemption, for our own people, and for all peoples who are not yet free.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz