Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: ‘Pesach provides a template for our fractured civilisation’

As Pesach approaches, the Chief Rabbi talks about the importance of family on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day segment.

Transcript

“A deeply moving story caught my eye yesterday.

Elan Shoffman has been raising awareness in the national media about Parkinson’s Disease. Diagnosed in 2006, he explains that one of the hardest symptoms to come to terms with is the difficulty he now has interacting with others and particularly his family. Suddenly he can’t smile at his granddaughters or stick his tongue out at them to make them giggle.

Indeed, any kind of speech has become a real challenge. But his daughter’s wedding this summer has focused his mind. He is determined to give his father-of-the-bride speech and nothing will stand in his way. Such is the power of his love for his family.

In a few days’ time, Jewish families around the world, will be sitting down to the Passover feast, known as the Seder.

At the beginning of the Seder we dip vegetables in salt water. It is a custom known as ‘Karpas’, which has a fascinating origin. Karpas was a material, used by the Biblical Jacob to make the special coat he gave to his favourite child, Joseph.

‘A family was divided by tragic enmity and friction and it altered the course of history.’

Our custom recalls how Joseph’s brothers, after selling him into Egyptian slavery, dipped his coat into the blood of a goat. Returning home, they declared to their father: “Joseph is gone. A wild animal has devoured him.”

During the Seder, we tell the story of how we left Egypt. This dipping reminds us how we got into Egypt in the first place. It was the result of a bitter feud. A family was divided by tragic enmity and friction and it altered the course of history.

It is a powerful and universal warning. The fragility of the modern family has a direct impact on the stability of our society. Families bring together a variety of characters and personalities with different strengths, priorities and aspirations, yet they work together as a unit. Thus, at Passover-time, we celebrate family by making a clear distinction between unity and uniformity.

‘unity is achieved when the flowers are gathered together and differences of form, colour and fragrance enhance the beauty of the collective bunch’

Whereas uniformity is achieved, for example, by a standardised arrangement of flowers, grown in the ground according to colour and size, unity is achieved when the flowers are gathered together and differences of form, colour and fragrance enhance the beauty of the collective bunch, bound by one single cord.

Our Passover celebration of the unity of the family provides a template within our fractured civilisation for all people who believe that there is no contradiction between treasuring union and celebrating diversity.

The Shoffman family would no doubt appreciate this ancient African proverb, which I love, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”