Passover is coming soon, later than usual this year because of the extra month, a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so we are already well into the swing of spring, sunshine and the renewal of greenery all around us.
The overall theme of Passover is not only particular to the Jewish people, as we retell the story of our nation’s origins from slavery in Egypt to freedom on the road to Eretz Yisrael. It also has universal implications.
Freedom, both of the physical and spiritual kind, is a special gift. We know that the human soul cannot function for long without it. Unfortunately, even today, most people on this earth of ours do not enjoy full freedom.
We also know that even when democracy takes place at the ballot box, there is no guarantee that freedom will flourish. The will of the people can be a dangerous thing, as we know from 20th-century history, when the National Socialist Party – the Nazis – gained power in Germany under the guise of a fair democratic election. In Gaza, Hamas, a violent terrorist organisation, was “elected” by the people. And now we are experiencing the wildest election campaign I can ever remember in the United States, with all the features of mudslinging, baiting, occasional violence, promises that can never be fulfilled and plenty more.
Freedom can also lead to a breakdown in Jewish education and commitment. Physical freedom is not enough to sustain our faith and people. As a result of our love affair with being unburdened from the weight of commandments, study, tzedakah and all those other obligations that Jewish tradition imposes on us, we are liable to disintegrate quite quickly.
That is why Passover leads into Shavuot, why we carry out sefirat ha’Omer, counting the Omer for 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in order to remind us that freedom without the acceptance of responsibility cannot sustain itself. It is our ability to accept the notion that with freedom comes the mitzvah, the sense of obligation to others, that ensures our survival not only as Jews but as a viable society.
Making Visits Meaningful
We have yet another month at Belsize Square offering opportunities to make this Nisan/April, the month of Passover, a meaningful one for us all.
Firstly, Dr Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, will be our scholar-in-residence and special guest. On Friday night, 1 April, after the evening service, there will be a Shabbat dinner when Professor Wertheimer will speak on Judaism in an Age of Recession. Next morning after Shabbat service and Kiddush, he will address the congregation on The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews.
At the Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group from 10.00am-12.30pm on 3 April, he will present Orthodoxies in Transition, followed by a discussion. In the evening there will be a reception at the home of Miriam and Richard Borchard for those who contributed to making this weekend possible, and an opportunity to hear a final talk in an intimate setting on Community in an Era of “Do-it-Yourself” Identity.
Do take advantage of this incredible opportunity to learn from one of the scholarly luminaries of our day.
Secondly, on Sunday 10 April and Tuesday 12 April we will be visited by Reverend Craig Brown, a Methodist bishop from Southern California, who is coming to London with a party of 30, including leading Christian clerical figures. Rev’d Brown, who is a dear friend of mine, will speak to our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group on 10 April. On 12 April the whole group will visit our synagogue to meet me with Reverend Paul Nicholson of St Peter’s (Church of England) and anyone who would like to join us. Another great opportunity!
And thirdly, Passover. It is time to clear the house of chametz and make the final preparations for Pesach, which begins Shabbat evening, 22 April. There is a wonderful mitzvah that is too often neglected, the mitzvah of Ma’ot Hittin, selling the chametz and making a wonderful contribution to the poor. This is a great way to make the message of Passover clear and relevant.
The freedom we have must be shared with those who have less than us, and we are collecting funds for Manna, an organisation that raises critical funds for Jewish poor in Israel, and with a special purpose of subsidising Holocaust survivors. Ten per cent of these now elderly survivors, mostly from the former Soviet Union, live in poverty conditions. Help them celebrate the yom tov!
A time for renewal, new hopes for freedom and a greater commitment to Judaism and to our shul. Come and learn and give to those in need.
I wish you and your loved ones a delicious and blessed Pesach.
Chag kasher v’sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler