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September 30, 2014 / 6 Tishri, 5775
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The Meaning of Freedom

Obama's visit remains a symbol that among us are those who still carry the ghetto mentality.
Mideast Egypt

It’s an interesting time in Israel now. The Passover holiday is days away. It’s a holiday that I mostly dread because it comes with immeasurable work and only spare moments to enjoy – at least for me and for many women who are still fulfilling the more traditional roles of caring for home and food and such. No matter how much help I get in the house, it seems I am still the planner, the coordinator, the ultimate one responsible for seeing, checking, and often doing what it takes to bring the holiday in.

I have come to dread it – from the start to the end and have yet to learn how to enjoy the more important aspects. There is an amazing rabbi who was asked how long it should take to clean for Passover. I remember more the principle of what he answered than the clear numbers he cited. It was something like a day or two, perhaps three. The person then went and asked his wife how long it takes her to prepare and she answered, three weeks, just like everyone else. Perhaps it was four.

Passover is often lost in the details and it is a shame. The details are cleaning your home – your office, your car, etc. – but sadly, too many turn it into spring cleaning and so you see the neighborhood, in fact the country, alive with those who are painting their apartments, fixing railings outside, buying new furniture and appliances. None of that is really connected to the holiday and yet my windows are dirty from the long winter and I want them cleaned.

Already, my arms are starting to hurt – the deep inside pain I get when I strain them. I’ve carted out garbage, washed cabinets, sorted through drawers and more. This year seems especially tense and stifling. We crave freedom – and yet we are being smothered from the holiday on one end and Obama’s visit on the other. I need to travel to the center later this afternoon – how will Obama’s arrival impact on that? One major highway will be closed for some time – the second, to which traffic will be diverted, is a road that was built to by-pass Arab villages and protect Israelis as they drive to Jerusalem. It is called Route 443. People have been murdered on that road – shot at point blank range. Regularly there are stoning attacks. The army promises to put more surveillance on the road, more jeeps and soldiers.

I travel that road regularly – often out of the Israeli principle of dafka. Dafka is an amazing Israeli word that defies translation. I learned it decades ago, long before I lived here. I remember way back in college, freshman English course at Barnard College. We were having an intellectual discussion and I disagreed with the previous person. It was a free-flowing, open conversation among the entire class, with the teacher (the only male in the room) looking on proudly.

“Dafka the opposite,” I said and began to explain. A few, very few, looked confused and so the Jewish professor smiled and said, “explain ‘dafka’, Paula.”

I tried..Dafka means…on purpose…dafka means…intentionally so….deliberately so…but it has a twinge of insolence, resistance. If you tell a child to stand over there, they will dafka sit down. Defiance, pride, intention. I can’t explain dafka but it is the dafka principle that has me driving on 443, even when they throw stones there. I will not let them keep me from my country.

So Obama will come to Israel today and Israelis will be diverted to a road on which there are often more stoning attacks and likely there will be more because the Arabs too want to deliver a message to Obama. I doubt Obama will know that yesterday in Ramallah, they were driving cars over pictures of his face, burning American flags, and painting big red X’s over his nose.

Meanwhile, Obama seems to be the only one truly free here. He has freely chosen to insult Israel by deciding that students from one university will not be invited to his meeting with university students. Ariel University is located over what Obama calls the “green line” – how convenient it is for him to ignore the fact that Ariel, like  ALL universities in Israel, admit hundreds, even thousands of Arab students and provide them with access to educational degrees widely honored and respected. The last I heard, three of Israel’s five universities are in the top 100 in the world. This is the education we make available to Jew and Arab alike – but Obama will insult us be showing his selective prejudice.

We are a democracy – the only real democracy in the Middle East. We have no king, no dictator who can dissolve our Knesset, our parliament, at a moment’s notice and a whim. And yet, again, Obama will insult us by ignoring an invitation to speak before the 120 members of our elected government. He has chosen, instead, to speak in the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.

Obama comes here, free to deliver his insults, and we cower before his entourage.

We left Egypt to be a free people. This is the lesson of Passover. Freedom is not just a concept to us; it is the foundation of our lives, celebrated as a part of what we must be. In the hell of Europe and the darkest days of persecution, we remembered that God took us out of Egypt and made us free. Others have tried to take our freedom away but we have fought long and hard to reclaim it.

Our greatest lesson that came out of the ovens and ghettos of Europe, out of the prisons of Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and Russia, is that we will determine our future, our present, our reality. We hold the keys to any prison in which we put ourselves; we alone can redeem our captives.

Obama’s visit remains a symbol that there are among us Jews who still carry the ghetto mentality inside. Those students who go to hear Obama speak, after he has announced that he will separate from among us – good Jew and bad Jew…you to the left and you to the right…they are announcing that this same ghetto mentality has been transferred to their generation. It is a sad and depressing thought.

Those who go to hear him speak – marvel in the streets that the great man from America has deigned to visit while ignoring that he continues to hold Jonathan Pollard prisoner, that he comes to dictate to us if or when we will have his permission to act against Iran or Syria – all these come from our history in the ghetto.

The meaning of freedom will come to Israel next week when we sit down to the seder on the first night of Passover.

This is the plain, poor bread that our parents ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, come eat with us. Whoever needs a place to say, come make Passover with us. This year we are here – next year may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are not free – next year, may be we be free to serve our God in freedom.

We used to be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but  our God reached out His strong arm and took us out from there. If God had not saved us from Egypt, all of us – even our children and grandchildren – would still be slaves to Pharaoh.

And finally, as we come close to the end of the seder, we will stand and hold up our cups of wine. We will open the front door and invite Elijah the Prophet to visit our home and we will believe…and as we do, we will recite these words to a God who protects us from evil, even the evil that comes from friends.

God, pour our your anger on the nations that do not want to know You and on the kingdoms that do not pray to You. For they tried to destroy Yaakov and desecrated your holy places. Pour out your anger on them and let Your burning anger catch them. Chase them with rage and destroy them from under the heavens of God.

I have no doubt we will survive the visit of Obama, a bit worse for the traffic he will cause and a bit dirty for the insults he delivers during his staged visit. I do not know if we will ever be free of the ghetto. That, I think, is my greater fear.

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About the Author: Visit Paula Stern's blog, A Soldier's Mother.


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