Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Presidential Seder

Let me share with you a fascinating article from the Ha-aretz Newspaper: for the third year running President of the United States; Barak Obama, the leader of the free world has held a Seder in the White House.

Agreed that Kosher for Pesach food was not used, and it was only Kosher style, with Matza ball soup and Gefilte fish served up for the first time in the executive Mansion. Then again – no Jewish leaders were invited.

But-no kidding they did this properly. They used the text of the Maxwell House Hagadah which is a full unmodified traditional text. And each member of the White House staff who attended, were given a chance to read from the Hagadah in turn.

Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha hid the Afikoman which apparently took over 45 minutes for the members of the Secret Service to find.

This was all instigated during the 2008 elections whilst Obama was running in the Pennsylvania Primary elections for President. He walked in on the basement of his HQ where some of his Jewish staff were conducting a Seder, and instead of putting a stop to it, Obama asked to stay. According to those who were present, instead of saying at the end of the Seder; Leshanah Habah biyrushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem, Barak Obama said Leshana Habah beWhite House- which came true.

He decided from that day on to hold a White House Seder every year.

So we laugh.

This is clever politicking by the leader of the free world. Roughly 2% of his electorate are Jewish, a majority of whom are Democrats. It makes sense therefore for the President to hold a yearly Seder in the White House to demonstrate to his electorate- “maybe I’m not so anti Israel or anti Jewish as people make me out to be”.

But I believe there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

In a statement to the press, Obama said that with the Arab revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, the Passover message, the story of freedom is particularly poignant this year and the message is: quote: “We need to alleviate the suffering, poverty, injustice and hunger for all those who are not free.”

Barak Obama is not the first world leader who has used the Exodus motif in relation to the striving for freedom.

I think of Nelson Mandela in his fight against South African apartheid or black civil rights leader Martin Luther King who persistently harped back to the Exodus theme. “Let my people go” became a battle cry not just for the Israelites in Egypt but a modern day cry for freedom. Oliver Cromwell in his first ever speech in parliament, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklyn, all used the Exodus image in their portrayal of freedom from the oppressor.

So what?

In the Hagadah we read the following:

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And if the Holy One Blessed Be He had not brought our forefathers out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

So the question is- we make this statement in the Hagadah every year, but does this theory really hold water? Would we really still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt if G-d had not taken us out? Would we not have fought for the freedom by ourselves? Would freedom not have come by itself as a natural consequence of the oppression of a people?

So would we really still be slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt?

Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook suggests the following thought: The Exodus from Egypt where G-d miraculously brought Israel out of Egypt, injected and infused an atmosphere of CHANGE in the world.

Without the Exodus story the world would remain stagnant- nobody would ever have struggled for freedom because they would never expect change.

However, the Exodus injected the motif of freedom in the world.

Therefore we can understand how any modern day movement of freedom draws its roots from the Exodus theme.

In every generation a person is duty bound to look at his/herself as if he/she came out of Egypt.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Stop now?

“Eighth child?” You say to me. “Did I hear that right? You’re on to your eighth child. How do you manage? Are you absolutely mad?

Can you really share that amount of love? Don’t your children get neglected?”

These are the standard questions that people pose to me all the time.

It reminds me of the following story that happened after my seventh child was born; I met a Jewish lady outside my house, somebody I didn’t really know, not from my community.

“Mazal Tov” she said to me. “Nice to hear the good news, so, how many do you have presently?” I told her how many. “Are you going to stop now?” she asked. I quipped: “We’re not going to stop till we have a full size football team with substitutes.”

There is a legendary family in Gateshead who has eighteen children in the family. The story is told that their father once got on a bus with nine of them and they were making a bit of a noise. “Couldn’t you have left half of them at home?” Asked the bus driver.

“I already did!” he responded.

But seriously, what drives people like us to build big Jewish families?

A number of years back I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre. If you haven’t been, you must go-it’s a place that you need to spend a long time in contemplation. The next time you visit Jerusalem, take a day out and absorb the exhibits, the photos, and the memorials.

Whilst there in 1991, I went to see the children’s memorial dedicated to the children who died in the Holocaust. I better warn you-it is extremely powerful. One and a half million children perished in the Holocaust. That is a mind boggling number. We can’t even think that amount of people. You enter a cave and there is a single candle reflected by mirrors giving the appearance of hundreds of candles. A voice plays over giving the names of children. The voice is never ending, it keeps on going, and you appreciate the magnitude of the loss.

On that particular visit there was a special photo exhibition about the Warsaw Ghetto. This was a harrowing exhibition; it portrayed graphic images of life in Warsaw, before, during and after the liquidation of the ghetto. You see in vivid detail people lying dead on the streets as others walk past carrying on their business as if nothing had happened. A lady next to me breaks down in tears. She said to me: “My best antidote to Hitler is that I have ten children!”

To a certain degree I agree with her. On the one hand Hitler is dead, but the Jewish people live on. In our long history we have experienced numerous societies who-in the words of the Haggadah “stood up against us to destroy us.” But hey, we are here; Am Yisrael Chai- The people of Israel live on. The antidote to a Hitler is to ensure our survival and continuity.

On the other hand, should my identity as a Jew be affirmed by the negative impact of the holocaust? If I say that we have to be Jews and assert that because of Hitler, what am I teaching my children? That through living the life of the Jew you look forward to death and persecution? Is that what being a Jew means? Is that what this lady meant in her tearful assertion?

I don’t think she meant that at all. Simply put, we need to replace the Neshamot (souls) of those people who perished. Jewish people are a vanishing entity. The average Jewish family is not replacing itself. We are minus minus the average birth rate. It makes sense therefore that Jewish people have children. We need not have to apologise for that.

As to the question as to whether one can give love to many children. Let my children be the judge of that. Ask them.

Am Yisrael Chai!!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

It's very personal

It is with a great sense of exuberance that I share these thoughts with you today. Last week my wife gave birth to our eighth addition to the Black clan. Even after eight children I cannot cease to be in awe at the birth of a little baby. There is not a lot I can do there in the Labour ward as my wife goes through the travail of the labour. For reasons of Tzniut I stand back, but it is an over powering moment. As I see our little child for the first time I hold on to his petite manicured fingers. If there is a time to bless Hashem for all the goodness that He has bestowed on us, this is it as I witness first hand the wonder of His hand. I thank Him and I thank my dear wife Yehudit for being so good.