Wednesday, 13 Apr 2022

Written by Anthony Lazarus Magrill

Pesach message for Kehilla

Rabban Gamliel famously teaches that, on Seder night, ‘one who does not explain these three things–Pesach, Matzah and Maror–has not fulfilled their obligation.’ But shouldn’t the order be reversed? A chronological account would presumably teach Maror (representing the bitterness of slavery), followed by Pesach (the slaying of the first-born) and finally Matzah (the sudden flight to freedom). But here lies Rabban Gamliel’s wisdom. The comedian David Mitchell observes that the very notion of ‘living in the moment’ is a fallacy: we cannot know whether any given moment was positive until we can put it in context. We do not know if we enjoyed a football match until the last-minute winner confirms it as either an enjoyable or a bitter experience. Just so, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshishcha taught that we could never know the full bitterness of slavery until we had experienced a more complete human dignity after the Exodus. This is why Gamliel teaches Maror last–we did not know what bitterness we had suffered until we suffered it no longer. I hope your Seder nights will offer rich insights into what we have, where we’ve come from, and where we might be going.

In the meantime, I hope I will not be taken too seriously if I engage in some (partly ironic) number play. Our eight days of Pesach begin on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This is also the culmination of a particular cycle of the Jewish liturgical year: the custom to recite the 15 so-called ‘Psalms of Ascent’, or Shirei HaMa’alot, between Simchat Torah and Pesach on Shabbat afternoons. The Mishnah (Middot 2.5) associates these 15 psalms with the 15 steps the Levites would ascend, singing their psalms, between the Temple’s Ezrat Nashim and Ezrat Yisrael. And now we are coming to the Seder, on the night of the 15th, which the Haggadah will begin with our recitation of Simanei HaSeder, the major portions of the Seder. And how many steps in the Seder? 15 again! If you’re not yet bored, let’s add a few zeros.

The Torah claims, at Exodus 12.37, that 600,000 men of fighting age went out of Egypt. From that figure, trying to assess the total Israelite population is more than tricky. One reading of the Targum Yonatan (an ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah) suggests that 600,000 represented one fifth of the population, which sounds about right to me (if we include women, children, pensioners etc). So, 3 million would not be too far off. Hold that number for a moment. Rashi brings a truly bizarre midrash to Exodus 13.18. There, we read that the Israelites went out of Egypt chamushim. This word is often translated as ‘armed’, but it shares a root with the word for 5–chameish. Rashi therefore suggests that, perhaps, only a fifth of the Jews left Israel. And the rest: didn’t fancy the journey? Were wiped out in the plague of darkness? Various solutions (mostly implausible or symbolic) are suggested by the commentators. In any case, if 3 million Jews left Egypt, and 80% of the Jews died in the 9th plague, we would be left with a pre-Exodus population of 15 million.

And how many Jews are there in the world today? Well, the best estimate–provided by Sergio della Pergola, whose criteria for deciding who counts as a Jew are admittedly complex–puts the number at about… 15 million. Although by 1939 the Jewish population of the world may have been somewhat larger, roughly 1930 was the last time that the world’s Jewish population passed 15 million.

Just to be clear, I’m not particularly a mystic, and I believe that when numbers coincide in the Jewish tradition it is normally because Rabbis and Priests have found ways to make them align (sometimes knowingly, as is the case here). Nevertheless, I do believe that even coincidences-which-are-just-coincidences can be powerful tools of reflection. There are three, and only three, times in history when there have been 15 million Jews. One (midrashically, at least) was on the eve of our greatest redemption–the Exodus from Egypt. One was on the eve of our most terrible destruction–the Shoah. Another, more-or-less, is today.

I mention this not to herald some doomsday-ish alternatives of rapture or crisis. Rather, I bring it because when I noticed this strange coincidence of 15 millions I felt deeply challenged by it. It feels like we live in a speeded-up part of history. The list of events of astonishing, impossible, sometimes-monstrous import we have witnessed over the past 6 years needs no rehearsal. Brexit, Trump, Covid, now Ukraine. Our world has been drastically changed in ways we could not have anticipated. And yet, we can draw some comfort from certain continuities, not least within our Judaism.

I wonder whether people know when they are living through a turning point in history? My feeling is that it is an awareness which people can choose to embrace or to ignore. That is the important meaning of Rashi’s midrash on chamushim: for all the Jews who took the chance to leave Egypt, how many more stayed behind, doubted, failed to commit? Those Jews who were lost in the Plague of Darkness were those who rejected the possibility of redemption–preferring the status quo which was, at least, a known quantity.

I do not believe that we are on the threshold either of an Exodus or of a Holocaust. I do believe that Passover calls us, every year, to participate in history, to be mindful of the upheaval around us, and to seek involvement rather than evasion. And with these number games from our tradition, I hope only to remind us of the urgency of that task–the task to bring Judaism and its hard-fought values into the world, and to do something with them. Chag Sameach v’Kasher.

Anthony Lazarus Magrill   LBC Rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.