Home March 2013 Stuck in the Desert

Stuck in the Desert

Passover is the formative event in Jewish religious memory.  With the Exodus, the twelve Israelite tribes become one Jewish people.  The Passover Seder is in part designed to awaken a Jew’s national consciousness.  From the traditional Haggadah’s perspective, a Seder will be successful if it does indeed enable participants to see themselves as those “who personally went out from Egypt.”  This theme of the Exodus was used repeatedly by Jewish writers over the millennia to characterize Jewish migration to the Land of Israel.  Second Isaiah, for example, the great prophet of the return to Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, says, “A voice rings out: ‘Clear in the desert a road for the Lord!  Level in the wilderness a highway for our God!’”  Knowing of the powerful account of the Exodus in the Pentateuch, it was only natural for Second Isaiah to depict the Jews’ trip from Babylon to Israel (toward the end of the 6th century BCE) as going through a desert wilderness.

As we take stock on this Passover holiday in Israel, it is obvious to everyone that we are still somewhere in the desert of our national aspirations — we have experienced the Exodus but we are not yet in the Promised Land.  Up until fairly recently, though, there was a certain excitement and charm to these desert-like conditions.  (Indeed, it was possible to forget that we were even in the desert.)  There are still plenty of Israelis who can regale you with first-hand accounts of smuggling Jews into Israel in the years before 1948 and of battle stories from the War of Independence.  And with the soon-to-be nonagenarian Shimon Peres as President of Israel, it is no exaggeration to say that the influence of the generation of Israel’s Founding Fathers is still being felt.  This would be like waking up to find that America’s most famous father-son political duo is not George Bush junior and senior but John Adams junior and senior.

What’s happened over the last few years, however, has caused most Israelis to see our desert existence in its true dimensions: We may have declared our independence on May 14, 1948, but it feels as if the State of Israel is still in the process of being born.  Everyone now knows that until we settle our business with the Palestinians, we will continue our wanderings.  Yet unlike the Jews in the Biblical desert, it’s hard today to even imagine the Promised Land.  The Bible tells us that the adults who were destined to die in the desert could at least take comfort in God’s promise that their children would inherit the Land — and they, of course, also had the great blessing of Moses’ leadership.  In Israel we are not united by any kind of vision for the future.

Perhaps what we really need this Passover is not a Seder through whose experience we can relive the Exodus from Egypt, but a Seder through which we are led to imagine our Exodus from the Egypt of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  This surely would make it easier to believe that “not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One Blessed Be He, but even we were redeemed with them.”

Happy Passover.

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