Pesach – Essays from the Jonathan Sacks Haggadah

The clash between Moshe and Pharaoh was between the leader of the most powerful empire of the ancient world and the leader of a powerless group of slave labourers. The slaves had helped to build the monuments which have outlived the winds and sands of time. This was the Egyptian legacy.

Moshe had a different approach.He instructed the people on numerous occasions to educate their children and each subsequent generation about the Exodus from Egypt. R’ Sacks wrote that Moshe was indicating that freedom was not won on the battlefield or in the political arena, but in the human imagination and will. “To  defend a land you need an army but to defend freedom you need education”. He wrote that you need a constant conversation between the generations and you need the kind of group memory that never forgets the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery. Moshe taught and the Israelites learnt that a people can achieve immortality by “engraving your values on the hearts of your children, and they on theirs so that our ancestors live on in us and we in our children, and so on until the end of time”.


R’ Sacks chose to write about history and memory, starting with the quote “Each of us must see ourselves as if we personally had come out from Egypt”. He quoted Isaiah Berlin who  stated that “Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history. They have longer memories and are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived”.  R’ Sacks wrote that there is no biblical Hebrew word for history, and modern Ivrit borrowed the word “historia”. The key word in the Torah is not history but memory. “Zachor”, the command to remember occurs repeatedly in the Torah. Also, the command not to  forget is repeated many times. Sacks quoted YH Yerushalmi who noted “ Only in Israel is the injunction to remember made a religious imperative for an entire people”. Jews were made to become a people of memory.


In another essay entitled “Not one alone”, R’ Sacks wrote about anti-Semitism through the ages. The full quote from the Haggadah is “Not one alone rose up against us to destroy us: in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction. G-d saves us from their hands”. He concluded a long argument with the idea that anti-Semitism is a profound psychological dysfunction, involving the systematic denial of responsibility for ones own difficulties and the belief that a mythical belief that there is a group responsible for the evils of the world which can be attacked with impunity. He wrote that anti-Semitism has been the weapon of choice of tyrants, dictators, and rulers of totalitarian states throughout history. “It appeals because it deflects public unrest at hunger, poverty, ignorance, disease, economic inequalities and denial of human rights. It redirects indignation from its proper object to a mythical enemy”.  He wrote that anti-Semitism – the hatred of difference – is an assault not on Jews but on the human condition. His closing statement is “A world that has no room for Jews has no room for difference, and a world that lacks space for difference lacks space for humanity itself”


The seventh essay is entitled “Pesach and the rebirth of Israel”. It is in response to the quote from the Hagaddah “Now we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free”. He listed the secular Jews who argued that the solution to anti-Semitism was that the Jews should have a state of their own. Moses Hess in 1862, Judah Leib Pinsker in 1882, and Theodore Herzl in 1895 were leaders in the cause. In Altneuland, Herzl wrote of a seder service inspiring a new return to Zion. R’ Sacks argued that the the sequence of exile and homecoming, exodus and redemption seems to have always been part of Jewish cosciousness. He demonstrated the linguistic and substantive parallels between Abraham’s fate and the later experience of the Israelites.  R’ Sacks described the unpredictable reversals of Jewish history from biblical times and this indicated that G-d will bring deliverance in the future because He had done so in the past. Moshe predicted that Israel would not dwell securely in the land, forgetting its moral and spiritual vocation, and becoming attracted to the pagan culture of its neighbours. It would suffer defeat and exile. Several prophets preached the hope that Israel would be rebuilt. R’ Sacks wrote “The Jewish people kept the vision alive, and it could also be said that the vision kept the Jewish people alive”.


After the failure of the two rebellions against Rome, in 66 and 132 CE, the Jews did not again fight for their independence. They had self-governing powers between the 1st and 19th centuries, running their own communities, and this sustained their identity for almost 2000 years in exile. They preserved their hope with “next year in Jerusalem: next year our freedom”. But the Jews were waiting for their redemption rather than initiating it.


There were 3 factors which brought about a change in the 19th century. The first was the rise of European nationalism, the second, the secularisation of Jewish history, beginning with Spinoza, in 1670, and then Heinrich Graetz the 19th century historian. Hess guessed that support for Jewish nationalism would come from the religious heartlands of eastern Europe rather than from the culturally integrated Jews of the west.The third factor was the rise of anti-Semitism in the 2nd half of the 19th century.


R’ Sacks referred to the Judah Halevi having compared the Jewish people to a seed in his book The Kuzari. Sacks argued that this was what Pesach was for 18 centuries of exile and dispersion; a seed planted in Jewish memory, waiting to be activated and to grow. Without it, Jews would have disappeared, but Pesach led the Jews in the 20th century to accomplish the rebirth of Israel.


R’ Sacks quoted the historian Barbara Tuchman who wrote “Viewing this strange and singular history, one cannot escape the impression that it must contain some special significance for the history of mankind. In some way, whether one believes in divine providence or inscrutable circumstance, the Jews have been singled out to carry the tale of human fate”. He asked “then who wrote the script of the Jewish drama, G-d or the Jewish people?” and thought that Isaac Bashevis Singer answered it best with “G-d is a writer and we are both the heroes and the readers”. It is certain that without Pesach being celebrated over the centuries, the State of Israel would not have been born.


There are 21 essays, each beautifully written to enhance our understanding of Pesach and the seder service. They are definitely worth reading before Pesach next year.



The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah 2003. Commentary and Essays by R’ Jonathan Sacks. Translation by R’ Shlomo Riskin.

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