This time of year I break out the collection of Haggadot, both to get into the spirit of the holiday and to find new chomer (resources) for my sedarim. Sometimes what I find seems worth sharing with you. The Haggadah of former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Jonathan Sacks came out about ten years ago. It is one of my favorites. I share with you a portion of one of the introductory essays that tells the story that each of us is trying to tell on seder night. He just tells it better than we do. It’s much longer than my usual, but I think it’s worthy of your time.
“I begin with a personal reminiscence of an occasion where I had an unusual opportunity to say what the story of Pesach meant to Jews and why it is, for me, the story of stories. It took place in Windsor Castle, home of Britain’s kings and queens and the oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world. In 2000 I was invited to deliver the St. George’s lecture, an annual address in the presence of Prince Philip. As the first Jew to be accorded this honor, I thought hard about what to say. I thought of the history of Jews in Europe, driven for so many centuries from country to country without rights, power, or a home. I found myself thinking back across the centuries to an earlier and painful age in British history: the first blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190, and the expulsion of the Jews by Edward I in 1290. Those events set a pattern that was to be followed in one European country after another during the following 200 years. What would our ancestors, harried and afflicted, have said had they been able to foresee that one day one of their number would be invited back to the home of the king who had sent them into exile?
I wanted the honor the memory of those Jews of an earlier age, to tell of their courage and tenacity and thus say something of what it meant and still means to be a Jew. In the course of my remarks I said this: ‘I try to imagine what it must be like to inherit a building like Windsor Castle. To live in such a place, so steeped in history, is to want to know that history – how this building came to be, and why. In the course of asking the question, I would learn about how it began, in the days of William the Conqueror on the legendary site of King Arthur’s Round Table. I would discover that it had been added to, rebuilt, extended and change many times in the course of the ensuing centuries…
‘Learning this history would be more than simply discovering facts. Because I had inherited the building it would be my history. I would not have chosen it. It would have chosen me. Inescapably though, I would’ve entered into a set of obligations, a moral relationship with the past and future. I would be part of the story of the castle and its heirs. The very fact that it was still here, still dominating the landscape, part of the historic legacy of Britain, would tell me something of great significance to my life. I would slowly realize that generation after generation of the kings and queens of England had endeavored to preserve the castle and hand it on intact to future generations. They had vested their hopes in those who would come after them, that they too would do the same. And now that it had come to me, I would know beyond doubt that I too was morally bound to protect it, and that if I failed to do so I would have betrayed the trust of those earlier generations, as well as failing to honor my responsibility to England as a whole. The result would be that when disaster struck – as it did in the great fire of 1992 – I would know that I had to restore the damaged buildings, not necessarily exactly as before, but at least in keeping with the whole. That is what it is to live in the context of history.
‘Jews,’ I said, ‘will never own buildings like Windsor Castle. We are not that kind of people. But we own something that is, in its way, no less majestic and even more consecrated by time. The Jewish castle is built not a bricks or stone, but of words. But it too has been preserved across the centuries, handed on by one generation to the next, added to and enhanced in age after age, lovingly cherished and sustained. As a child I knew that one day I would inherit it from my parents, as they had inherited it from theirs. It is not a building but it is, nonetheless, a home, a place in which to live. More than it belongs to us, we belong to it; and it too is part of the heritage of mankind. What we have is not a physical construction but something else – a story.
‘It was given to me by my parents when I was a child. I received it on the festival of Passover. It is an exceptionally moving story. It tells of how our ancestors were once slaves who, through a succession of wondrous events, were given their freedom. They then began a journey across the desert for 40 years, and later through a wilderness of dispersion for 2000 years, in search of a home, a promised land, a place of grace and justice and freedom and dignity. Though at times the destination seemed to lie beyond the furthest horizon of hope, they did not give up. They never ceased to travel. And I am part of that journey. I did not choose to be, any more than the member of the royal family chooses to be born into royalty; but this is my legacy, my heritage. It defines who I am.
‘I know, just as does the heir to a castle, that I am a link in the chain of generations, and that I owe a duty of loyalty to the past and the future. That is what Edmund Burke had in mind when he called society a partnership “not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” I am part of the story whose earlier chapters were written by my ancestors and whose next chapter I am now called on to write. And when the time comes, I must hand it on to my children, and they too theirs, so that the Jewish story, no less than Windsor Castle, can live on.’”
Next Wednesday is Yom Sheni Shel Pesach, the second day of Passover, a holiday, so this column will take a brief recess. Do have a wonderful Pesach. Bill Rudolph
P.S. For information about services, fast of the firstborn, our shul second seder, resources for your own seder, do look around on our website, www.bethelmc.org. For the regs about Passover kashering and eating, check out www.rabbinicalassembly.org for the Pesach Guide 5774. Write to me (address below) or Rabbi Greg Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have questions, even about legumes.