From Light to Darkness to Light: A Time for Hope

By sheer coincidence, the Torah portion (parsha) reading for Shabbat following the inauguration is Shemot, the first five chapters of the book of Exodus. Anyone who has taken part in a Passover Seder will be familiar with much of the meaning of Exodus. The story is one of darkness, followed by redemption and light, ending on a note of faith in great things to come.

 

Turning Curses into Blessings

In the aftermath of what must be the most depressing and nasty election campaigns in U.S. history, capped by a very dark inaugural address, the story of Exodus gives hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in December 2015 wrote an inspirational commentary on this very parsha, “Turning Curses into Blessings.” He remarks on how the book of Genesis ends on “almost a serene note.” Then there was a new Pharaoh, who set into motion oppression against the people of Israel. Then, continues Rabbi Sacks, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and the more they spread.” In other words, he says, “The worse things get, the stronger we become.”

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“Departure of the Israelites,” by David Roberts, 1829 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Women’s March, by VOA Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The multitudes of the Israelites said they would not have any more of Pharaoh’s oppression and embarked on a great march. On Saturday, January 21, the day immediately after the inauguration of President Trump, people across the nation and around the world declared they would not stand for the erosion of civil rights his rhetoric and views represent. The story of the protests, like the book of Exodus, offers much reason to hope, for us in the present and, more important, our children in the future.

The book of Exodus tells of suffering under an oppressive tyrant. For the Israelites, things get worse before they get better. However, in the end, they – with divine intervention – rid themselves of Pharaoh.

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“Crossing the Red Sea,” by Nicholas Poussin

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Israel’s Escape from Egypt (illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

 

Hardening One’s Heart

Pharaoh’s heart became harder with each passing plague set upon the Egyptians. During the initial plagues, Pharaoh had the opportunity to let the Israelites go. Eventually, however, God took away Pharaoh’s free will, hardening his heart for him.

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Jacques Joseph Tissot, Moses Speaks to Pharaoh (watercolor circa 1896–1902)

Because everyone is capable of redemption, Pharaoh had one last chance at the Sea of Reeds. With his heart ever hardened, he led his troops into the sea. I find myself asking what will happen to President Trump’s heart. Will his heart soften, or will he lead his followers into the salty depths?

 

Speaking for All People

In this parsha, Chapter 4 (verses 10 through 17), Moses tells God, “Please, O Lord, I hav never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation). The text continues: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'”

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Jacques Joseph Tissot, Moses and Aaron Speak to the People (watercolor circa 1896–1902)

In other words, all people – despite their disability – are equal in God’s creation. His brother, Aaron, assists him with speaking, but eventually it is Moses who leads his people out of darkness to a land of milk and honey.

From Darkness to Light

She’repith hapletah – the Saved Remnant, the “few who escaped,” they were known.  The Final Solution during the Holocaust was supposed to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe, literally roots and all, and it nearly succeeded.  In the spring after World War II, in 1946, a group of these displaced persons met in Munich, Germany, to celebrate one of the most poignant and meaningful Passover Seders in history.  In normal times, the theme of the holiday is the escaped from servitude and darkness, and looking with hope and deliverance in better times.  Of course, this year, those themes would take on added meaning.  The Haggadah (meaning “retelling”) used at that Seder reflected that in both traditional and novel ways.

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A Survivor’s Haggadah. Front Cover, Dustjacket/.
Saul Touster, Ed. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 2000

A Survivor's Haggadah

The “A” Haggadah, published for the Passover service of 1946, Munich, Germany.

Our book actually begins almost exactly a half century later, in the spring of 1996, when a Brandeis University professor named Saul Touster was going through one of his father’s files, when a most unusual booklet fell out.  Beneath a simple letter A enclosed in red and blue circles were the words “Passover Service,” with the year 1946.

   Within the covers Dr. Touster found pages with Hebrew type surrounded with borders that contained striking images contrasting the symbols of the Holocaust with others of the Promised Land by a Polish survivor named Yosef Dov Scheinson, interspersed with striking woodcuts depicting the toil of enslavement by a Hungarian artist, Miklos Adler, all supplementing the usual visual representation one would expect to find in a Haggadah.

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The enslavement under Pharaoh in the book of Exodus provides a metaphor for the more recent ordeal in Germany   One of the most dramatic pages is dominated by a large Hebrew letter Beth, symbolic of the phrase “Bechol dor” (In the beginning…), the very first words of Genesis, the first book of the Torah.  Here it also stands for “Brause Bad” (shower bath), as well as “brichal” (fleeing west), two themes that recur throughout this Haggadah.  Other border designs incorporate images of the Promised Land and the Holocaust – on the same page!  “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany,” our Haggadah opens, before going into the Seder, the order of the Passover observance.  Ancestors were forced to make bricks for Pharaoh under bondage in Egypt, but the same trowels shown would (it was hoped) be used to create the foundations for new homes in the Holy Land.

   The high quality of the A Haggadah is fascinating in its own right, but Dr. Touster’s insightful commentary provides an invaluable context, making this excellent volume much more than a coffee table book that is pretty to look at.  Much more, it preserves – through retelling – the precious memory of a history that must be told, when Passover was truly a t’shuvah, a redemption, coming home, a passing from darkness to light.

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This is one of the woodcuts by Milkos Adler, which the author of the Haggadah, Yosef Dov Sheinson, selected to supplement his own illustrations and writing.