Jerusalem forest is bursting with life. Every obscure bush is flowering, the weeds are waist-high, the thistles strut their bright purple flowers, while the orange-beaked blackbird sings his courting song. Each blackbird has a unique call, a five-second improvised series of riffs and whistles and rapid-fire chirps, then a pause, and then again, sometimes repeating the earlier call, sometimes breaking into something new. Springtime jazz! As Spring peaks, it is Passover, the Jewish calendar providing a full moon, so pilgrims of yore might make out the path on their way to Jerusalem to pay homage to God at the holy temple. We feast, we sing, we remember when we were slaves in Egypt, and we celebrate liberation.
And yet, our celebratory joy is restrained, impaired. The Talmud tells us that God chastised the angels who were about to cheer the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian soldiers: “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying.” We drip ten drops of wine onto our plates as we recount the plagues, remembering that the cup of our redemption cannot be full when the Egyptians, cruel masters as they were, are suffering and then losing their first-born.
The joy of freedom, mixed with quiet empathy for the other’s suffering….this is a key mandate of Passover. While Jerusalem forest blooms, we remember that there among the pines, on a dark night in 2014, 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir was beaten and burned to death by three religious Israelis.
While we celebrate, the Palestinians are the new Israelites, “oppressed so hard they could not stand…” as we sing in “Go Down, Moses.” For Palestinians, Passover is marked by “closure,” when all Palestinian workers and permit-holders are barred from entry into Israel. No vacation days for them. There will be no compensation for the work they miss. We at the Sulha Peace Project will have to drive to Jericho or Ramallah if we want to meet with our fellow activists. This week, we cannot welcome them to our homes.
A young “Breaking the Silence” activist writes: “Although our service in the occupied territories was part of mandatory military service.… we each carry the responsibility to look deep within ourselves and seek out the moment that our heart hardened. Hardening our hearts is our defense mechanism against the daily madness in the occupied territories, a personal moral dissonance in light of human rights violations and continual violence.”
In this, the 50th year of occupation, so many Israelis are willing to ignore that our “liberation” remains very partial. For the Palestinians, we are the Pharo. As Moses sought to soften Pharo’s heart, so must we Israelis soften ours.
So this Passover is a somber celebration, a mixed blessing. Around the Passover table, the delighted squeals of our children and grandchildren must remind us of the frightened cries of children, down the road in Issawiyeh, who cower as Israeli border guards burst into their homes at two in the morning, seeking nine-year-old rock-throwers.
Sadly, we Israelis must defend ourselves, for we live in a dangerous neighborhood. But we must also raise our heads above the frightening daily headlines, the endless cycle of violence, and ask, “Where is our Red Sea now, when will the waters part to enable us to finally rid ourselves of the roles of persecutor and persecuted?”
And what sort of leadership will carry us forward? We remember that the Sea did not open to the Israelites wailing and trembling on the shore, until Nachshon waded into the sea, having no idea what would happen. He plodded forward into the waves, and only when the water reached his nose did the waters open the way forward. Where are our Nachshons today? Certainly they are not in Washington or in the Prime Minister’s residence. Is Nachshon not we, the peace-makers, who plunge forward into an unknown future with a song of peace and justice throbbing in our hearts?
How will we reach out to Israelis who blind themselves to the untenable present reality? Will we harangue them from some righteous perch? No, this has not and will not work. Rather, we must sing our song, improvising like the blackbird, in the certainty that the she-bird will eventually come to us, and together we will conceive new life and together we will celebrate freedom.