Haggadah & Jewish Survival
Since the dawn of Jewish time, the Pesach Seder has been a communal affair. Families and groups of friends have gathered every year for thousands of years for this most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. This year, our Pesach tables will look different. But as we contemplate our current world, there is another virus we consider at the Pesach Seder.
The Anti-Defamation league and an array of news outlets have reported that the Coronavirus pandemic is a fertile ground for antisemitism. Whether on Zoom or on Facebook, blood libel accusations fester even in our modern age. In the face of these threats, the Pesach Seder teaches us how we endure.
When our sages formulated the Maggid section of the Haggadah, the miracle of Jewish survival was forefront on their mind. In fact, the Haggadah guides every generation of Jews to contemplate a key issue.
Throughout Jewish history, the enemies of Israel have been sworn to our destruction. How is it that we have survived to celebrate yet another yet Seder?! The Haggadah indicates that our eternal survival is rooted in an event that took place in the life of Avraham, the Bris Bein HaBesarim, or “The Covenant Between the Parts”.
The Mystery of Survival
As the Haggadah remarks, “Initially, our ancestors were idolaters, but now G-d has brought us close to his service.” This “service” began with Avraham, whom HaShem took to the land of Israel and promised a great future. Then, we continue:
Blessed is He who keeps his pledge to the Jewish people. For HaShem calculated the end of bondage in order to do what He said to our father Avraham at the covenant between the parts, ‘You shall surely know that your offspring will be aliens in a land that is not their own…’-Haggadah
Then we go on to quote the verse that states that G-d will judge Egypt, and Israel will leave Egypt with great wealth. Finally, the Haggadah concludes:
And this is what has stood for our fathers and for us. In every generation, they rise up to annihilate us, and G-d saves us from their hand.-Haggadah
From the phrase, “and this is what has stood for us”, it is apparent that the “Covenant Between the Parts” is the reason for Jewish survival. That covenant was the basis of the Exodus and continues to be the foundation of Jewish survival. After all, immediately after summarizing that covenant, we declare, this is what has stood for us in each generation.
So when the Haggadah probed the mystery of Jewish survival—from the Exodus to modern times—it found an answer hidden deep within Genesis, an ancient covenant between G-d and Avraham. But that leads us to another question: what can we possibly learn TODAY from a covenant that took place 4,000 years ago in the land of Canaan?
The Split Animals
The actual covenant described there was a response to Avram’s question:
How will I know that I will inherit [the land of Israel]?Genesis 15, 8
In response to that question, HaShem commanded Avram to take various animals and to split them in half: a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, and a turtledove and a young dove. The animals were cut in half while the birds were not.
Then, birds of prey descended upon the carcasses and Avraham drove them away. Rashi notes that cutting animals in half and walking between them was emblematic of entering a pact. But why is the pact made via split animal carcasses?
Rashi explains that these animals represent various Korbanot (sacrifices) that would later atone for our sins. Each animal represented a different Korban, such as various Yom Kippur offerings. So, on one level, the Brit (covenant) points to the future sacrifices and the Jewish people serving G-d in the land of Israel.
But there is yet another level of meaning that Rashi notes. In addition to representing the Korbanot, the animals represent the nations of the world who are compared to heifers, rams and goats.
The Whole Bird
In contrast, Israel is compared to various birds such as the dove. The splitting of the animals portends the eventual demise—splitting—of the nations. On the other hand, the birds remain whole, suggesting the eternal survival of Israel.
The Radak (11th C Commentary) writes that the split animals represent the nations who self-destruct due to inherit factionalism. They fall short of forming a harmonious whole. By contrast the birds, representing the Jewish people, remain complete.
Next, we find in that scene that that birds of prey descend and attack the “Pegarim”, or animal pieces. While most commentaries consider these “Pegarim” to be the split larger animals, Radak understands this to be a reference to the smaller birds (symbolic of Israel) that are not split. He explains:
“This is an allusion to the fact that in each and every generation the nations of the world stand ready to destroy us and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us in the merit of Avraham.”Radak
These words of the Radak are obviously taken from the Haggadah. He is suggesting a deeper meaning of the Haggadah. In every generation, nations rise up to destroy Israel. The vultures attempt to harm the pure and whole bird. And yet, Avraham drives them away.
My Perfect One
What is it that has stood for us in all generations? It is the idea that is implicit in the Covenant Between the Parts. The nations—with their competing ideologies—will be torn asunder. In contrast, Israel—that perfect whole—endures. Israel is singular amongst the nations. It is one, internally and intrinsically.
The beasts of history may be large and mighty in the moment. Yet, their power dissolves as they split into their factions. But the bird—which flies above the ground—remains whole and perfect.
On the night of the Seder, we recall that message of The Covenant Between the Parts, a message has stood with us for all time. In each generation they seek to annihilate us, and G-d saves us from their hand.
Why do we survive? We survive inasmuch as our people are “one”, united in our service of G-d.
The Seder highlights the unity of the Jewish people. In ancient times, all Jews ascended to Jerusalem in unity. In modern times we observe this Seder by gathering in groups. For Pesach 2020, groups will not gather outside immediate family, and many people will experience the Seder by themselves.
We Are One
In such a time, it is even more vital that we remember that we are ALL one, even if we are separated by physical space. Our Seder will be a time to remember our fellow Jews, and to reflect upon the fact that we remain connected.
When I was a student at Brandeis University, the Israeli politician and human rights activist Natan Sharansky visited with my class. Sharansky recalled his days in Soviet prisons. He told us how he would sit in the solitude of his dank cell and remember that he was a part of the eternal Jewish people. These thoughts helped him survive those dark days.
At our Seder this year, wherever we may be, we will reflect upon this.
Each of us is an integral part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. Our unity in serving G-d is the key to the mystery of Jewish survival in all generations. This Seder night try to reflect on the fact that G-d is with you and that you are an integral part of the Jewish family.
Even if you dwell in solitude, you are not alone.