FOR 30 YEARS, many Jewish children were hidden in European monasteries and other arms of the Catholic Church during WWII, by parents and other relatives in frantic attempts to save lives. After the war, those who survived along with representatives of various Jewish agencies returned to these Christian safe-havens for children, to reclaim them and return them to the decimated world of Jews. Many loving, brave and moral Christians readily returned their charges, at peace with G-d and their collective conscience.
There were others, however, who were not so ready to relinquish their Jewish boys and girls and refused, saying, “There are no Jewish children here. They were returned/died/escaped/etc.” Frustrated and with little-to-no documentation, the rescuers were hard pressed to identify any remaining children from the Jewish nation. But Hark! The tale describes one brave agency representative that abruptly turned to the room of docile students and called out, “Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad.” One by one children slowly stood up and repeated the phrase in unison, adding the refrain, “Ba-ruch sheim k’vod mal-chu-to l’o-lam va-ed.” “(Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”/ “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.”) Thus, they were returned to our people.
The Shema has been the Jewish clarion call for thousands of years and it would be the most rare, secular, agnostic yid among our people who would claim that he never heard of it. Observant Jews hope to remain lucid enough to utter the phrase on their deathbeds and many pork-and-shrimp members of the tribe still manage to whisper this prayer as commanded before falling asleep at night. This prayer, in both its entirety and its abridged forms, throughout eternity stands as a declaration of who the Jew is.
Which brings us to Passover.
Why does a 400-hundred year sojourn in a foreign country become the hallmark of our daily prayers along with an eight-day, cardboard eating gastronomic nightmare? I live in Israel and we finally have a quasi-peace with Cairo. Can’t this recollection stuff be covered in one been-there/done-that ceremony? Why are we exhorted to remember the Egypt bondage ‘all the days’ of our lives? Not to take anything away from Cecil B. DeMille, it happened, it’s over and in despite all of the Technicolor drama and the stoicism of Charleton Heston, I still wasn’t there and the seders seems to grow longer and longer each year.
At the time before the Exodus, the Children of Israel were slaves to the mightiest nation on earth. It had been documented that no slave ever escaped from Egypt. Indeed, the laws of nature made it impossible for an Israelite slave to achieve freedom. But we became free.
Because in commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, we collectively acknowledge that it is not man who runs the show but G-d in Heaven. Whether we are recalling the plague of lice (creatures so minute that they appear nearly invisible) or the deaths of the first born in each family (too horrific event to even contemplate), by remembering our enslavement every day of our lives with every prayer and action, we reaffirm the innate understanding that we are part and parcel of a grander, holier scheme.
The Shema remains the uniform declaration of Jewish belief and connectedness. It is passed down from one generation to the next via formal education or from the whispering lips of a loving mother. The Seder, too, is passed down and declared as the central event that demands a passing over of tradition and communal memory.
Chag kasher v’samayach from Jerusalem!