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Rabbi Sacks on Passover

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Shalom, Shalom, and Pesach is on its way. So, as we’re getting ready for the great moment, let me share with you a story that I have. We’ll throw a little light on the extraordinary nature of Pesach as a festival, and what it teaches us about Jewish identity and Jewish history. Some years ago, I was watching a documentary on the discovery channel. It was about the great temples built by Ramses II, the Pharaoh of Egypt that many people think was the Pharaoh of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, of the Pesach story. And it showed the extraordinary temples he’d built, like the iconic Abu Simbel. And they’re still there today, extraordinarily defined time in their majesty. And for a while, I was carried along by the enthusiasm of the documentary’s narrator. And then, all of a sudden, I stopped and I thought, hang on. Who built those temples? Your ancestors and mine.

These were the slaves that had Ramses building as the Torah tells us by Pitom, and Ramses the town that he built in his own honour. And I suddenly wondered what would it be like if we could go back in time and actually meet Ramses II. And I imagined myself saying, “Oh, mighty Ramses, I am a visitor from 3,300 years in the future. And I have some good news for you, and I have some bad news.” And, curious, he might say, “Okay, what’s the good news?” And you say, “Well, mighty Ramses, there is one civilisation now existing now that will still be alive and strong 33 centuries from now.”

“What’s the bad news,” he says. Well, the bad news is, it’s not going to be you. “Who then?” he says.

You say to him, “Ramses, you see those slaves in the distance, labouring at your building works. The people you call the Hebrews, the abirim? They are going to be alive and well, everything they believe in will still be strong 33 centuries from now.”

It would sound like the ravings of a madman. Ramses II was the greatest leader of the longest lived, the most powerful empire of the ancient world. He bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus. And as for the Jews, the Hebrews, they were the most powerless of all slaves, no freedom, no liberty, no rights, no dignity. And what’s more, we even know what the ancient Egyptians thought of them because the oldest reference to Israel outside the Bible is on a tablet of stone engraved by his successor Farrah Moneta, which contains the words, ‘Israel is laid waste. Her seed is no more.’ The ancient Egyptians thought the Israelites were finished. So how was it that this tiny people were able to survive while the mighty empire of Ramses II began a decline and very soon disappeared from the pages of history?

Well, I think there’s an answer. Ancient Egypt and ancient Israel were two civilisations that asked the deepest question any of us can ask. How, in this finite, ephemeral, all too short, a span of years that we call a life, can we achieve immortality? The Egyptians gave one answer: You achieve immortality by building monuments of stone that outlive the sands and the winds of time. Do you know what? In a sense they were right, because the buildings are still there. But the civilisation that brought them forth, the values for which they lived disappeared long ago. Ancient Israel said: “No, to become immortal, you do not need to build monuments of stone. All you need to do is engrave your values on the hearts of your children, and they on theirs. And so on across the centuries of time.”

Jews built living monuments. And how did they do it? By the process of handing their story on to the next generation. That is what we do on Pesach. We give the next generation the gift of the Jewish story, and that slender ritual turned out to be longer lasting than the mightiest empires and their greatest monuments.

So, pause this Seder night, as you’re just about to begin and realise that you, too, are part of this miracle, the endless story of the Jewish people seeking freedom in the promise land.

Chag Kasher V’sameach. Have a wonderful Pesach and may it be a time of shalom b’Yisrael.