As Jews round the world busy themselves with final preparations for Passover, President Barack Obama gets ready for his exodus to Israel.
Surely no one can fail to notice the remarkable symbolic significance of the President of the United States making his very first presidential visit to the holy land on the eve of the Festival of Freedom commemorating the birth of the Jewish people.
On Passover we began our unique relationship with God. On Passover God redeemed our ancestors from the slavery of Egypt. And on Passover He made a commitment to stand by us forever, as we seek to fulfill our mission to be “a light unto the nations.”
Obama will be on the ground for all of 48 hours. Every moment of his trip is minutely scheduled to follow a carefully prepared order – and the Hebrew word for order is of course nothing other than “seder.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, couldn’t resist making the Passover connection. “Everything on the Seder table,” he said, “from the lamb shank to the parsley to the egg is rife with symbolism. So too, with every item on the president’s itinerary.” Simply put, Obama will be observing a hastily arranged political Seder.
Unfortunately, Obama won’t have time to actually sit down at a real Passover Seder nor to be inspired by a reading of the Haggadah. But I couldn’t help thinking of the message from this text that we would most want him to glean from his visit in order to guide him in his policies towards the state of Israel.
The Bush Was Not Consumed
The Haggadah is a long book with many different ideas. Jews spend hours discussing its profound teachings. Yet there is one theme that stands out as cardinal concept. And if I could only have a brief moment with the leader of the free world, I would ask him to listen to these powerful words we read aloud close to the beginning of the Seder:
For not only one has risen up against us, but in every generation they rise up against us to annihilate us, but the Most Holy One, blessed be he, always delivers us out of their hands.
Jewish history is one long story of miracles, of survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds because of divine love and protection.
In the very first meeting between God and Moses, God weighed in on the future of the Jewish people by way of a striking and unforgettable visual image. We all know the story. Moses was tending his sheep in the desert of Sinai when he suddenly saw a bush that was engulfed in flames. Yet strangely enough, although the bush was burning, it was not consumed. That defied the laws of nature. Fire always destroys. At that very moment, as Moses stood transfixed by the miracle before his eyes, God revealed himself and proclaimed, “I am the God of your fathers.”
Couldn’t God have performed another miracle even more striking, more convincing, more indicative of his control over the entire world rather than just a single bush in the desert that was burning and yet was not consumed?
The bush was burning but it was not consumed. So, too, the Jewish people, against all laws of history, will never perish.
God wasn’t simply performing a miracle. He was sending a message. God knew what was uppermost in the mind of Moses. From the time he fled from Egypt and watched his brothers suffering under Pharaoh’s brutal oppression, Moses worried and wondered: Are my people still alive? So the very first thing God did was to reassure Moses – not only for his time but for all of the future as well. The bush was a symbol of the Jewish people. The bush was burning but, against all laws of nature, it was not consumed. So, too, the Jewish people, against all laws of history, will never perish.
When Arnold Toynbee completed his classic 10-volume analysis of the rise and fall of human civilizations, The Study of History, he was troubled by one seeming refutation of his universal rules governing the inexorable decline of every people on earth. Only the Jews survived in defiance of Toynbee’s carefully reasoned analysis. So Toynbee proclaimed the Jews nothing more than “a vestigial remnant,” a people destined to shortly expire.
But somehow, in spite of all those brutal attempts to destroy the children of Israel, Jews have demonstrated the ongoing miracle of the burning bush.
Jewish history defies explanation. Jewish survival is nothing short of a miracle. But it is a miracle long ago predicted by God. And it is a miracle which God assured Moses will never cease to repeat itself until the end of time.
Louis XIV, it is related, once asked his brilliant philosopher, Blaise Pascal, “Do you believe in miracles?” Pascal answered that he did. “If so,” the king asked him, “tell me one miracle.” “The Jews,” Pascal responded, “the survival of the Jews. That is an inexplicable miracle.”
Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, although an Orthodox Christian best known for penning War and Peace, understood this when he wrote:
A Jew is the emblem of eternity. He who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth, he who was the first to produce the oracles of God, he who has been for so long the Guardian of prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world, he and such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.
To understand history and to learn from it is to acknowledge the powerful bond between God and the children of Israel. It is to recognize that in spite of all those who “in every generation rose up against us to annihilate us,” the Almighty always has and always will fulfill the promise of Passover implicit in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” – and I will continue to redeem you and to protect you until the end of days.
And one more thing that the President of the United States needs to know. It is a verse from the Bible, found in the book of Genesis. It is part of a larger promise that God made to Abraham, the first of our fathers:
And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse. And there shall be blessed through you all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).
There has been no greater truth than this in the story of mankind. The nations that treated the Jews well were in turn greatly blessed. Those who abused the Jews found themselves falling from history’s grace. And wherever the Jews lived they made important contributions to every area of life. Anyone who studies the story of their wanderings throughout the centuries knows that through them all the families of the earth were indeed greatly blessed.
The United States of America has treated the Jews more benevolently than any other country in history. Not coincidentally, the United States has also been more blessed by the Almighty than any other country in history.
I pray that President Obama will be wise enough to understand this great message from the Seder of history and be guided by it in his efforts to bring peace to an ever threatened people.