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Thought for the Day: Pesach 2021

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Growth through adversity: The Paradox of Pesach


A second consecutive Passover in lockdown will commence tomorrow evening 

Passover is a festival which usually brings several generations of even the most secular Jewish families together and so, for many, having to mark it alone yet again feels particularly incongruous.  

However, Passover has always been a festival of paradoxes.   

At one and the same time, it calls upon us to remember the suffering of our ancestors while slaves in Egypt, but also the joy of their liberation. The ‘Seder’ meal, which forms the centrepiece of the festival, illustrates the inherent contradiction perfectly. We eat unleavened matza crackers and bitter herbs, which symbolise our slavery, but we also sing jolly melodies, recline in regal fashion, drink wine or grape juice and dip foods, all of which represent our freedom. 

Nothing encapsulates this inconsistency better than the hors d’oeuvres served at every one of our tables. It’s a hard-boiled egg in salt water. 

The salt water represents our tears, while the egg sends out a profound message. Nearly all other foods, when boiled, get softer. The egg, however, becomes harder. It reminds us that, when the heat is on in life, we can summon our inner resolve and stand firm. Therefore, in the very same dish, we combine pain and fortitude; desolation and hope. 

This is a theme which I have found to be particularly evident over the past week. Tuesday’s ‘Day of Reflection’, marking a year since the first lockdown began, prompted many of us to grieve for what we have lost, whilst many nevertheless continue to feel positive and even excited at the prospect of better times to come.  

The two sentiments together might give rise to feelings of awkwardness or even guilt, but in Jewish tradition, we frequently make a point of recalling the deep traumas of our past at moments of great celebration.

For example, the Bible instructs us to celebrate all major Jewish festivals in memory of our exodus from Egypt and, at Jewish weddings, a glass is broken to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. 

We do this because it is from within the tragedies of our past that our resolve to build a better future was forged. The depths of our pain and the heights of our joy are therefore inextricably and permanently linked. 

That’s why, even at this moment of profound adversity for our country and indeed for the whole world, we can, nonetheless, excitedly and passionately ask ourselves: When the restrictions are lifted and our freedoms return, what kind of society will we seek to rebuild?