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When An Introductory Essay Becomes An Intellectual Tour De Force

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This is essentially a review of an introduction to a book. Not a few readers are no doubt wondering just how much one can say about an introduction, especially an introduction to a machzor of nearly 1,300 pages. The answer: a lot.

Koren Publishers has just come out with The Koren Pesach Machzor with an introduction, translation and commentary by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In addition to the traditional liturgy, the work includes the Mishneh Masechet Pesachim with a clear translation by Aviva Arad and a stellar commentary by Rabbi David Fuchs.

What is most endearing to this reader, however, is the nearly one hundred-page introductory essay by Rabbi Sacks – endearing because of the intellectual depth the essay offers us.

Titled “Finding Freedom: Essays on the Themes and Concepts of Pesach,” it goes into great detail in blending theological ideas with history, bringing together both disciplines in a unique symbiotic relationship that truly enhances one’s appreciation of the Pesach holiday experience.

The several examples of the “Sacks method” that follow will no doubt whet your appetite for more of the rabbi’s work. While reading his quotes, consider the tone and use of phrase employed by Rabbi Sacks.

He begins his essay stating what should be the obvious:

“Pesach is the oldest and most transformative story of hope ever told. It tells of how an otherwise undistinguished group of slaves found their way to freedom from the greatest and longest-lived empire of their time, indeed of any time.”

Now, did you know that last fact?

Please continue to take note of the rabbi’s narrative tone:

“It tells the revolutionary story of how the supreme Power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. It is a story of the defeat of probability by the force of possibility. It defines what it is to be a Jew: a living symbol of hope.”

Further on in this segment Rabbi Sacks teaches us some global history in the context of a religious lesson. Fasten your intellectual seat belts as you read the following historical observation:

“At the heart of the festival is a concrete historical experience. The Israelites, as described in the Torah, were a fractious group of slaves of shared ancestry, one of a number of such groups attracted to Egypt from the north, drawn by its wealth and power, only to find themselves eventually its victims. The Egypt of the Pharaohs was the longest-lived empire the world has known, already some eighteen centuries old by the time of the exodus. For more than a thousand years before Moses, its landscape had been dominated by the great pyramid of Giza, the tallest man-made structure in the world until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.”

Please be honest with yourselves: Did you learn that in school? And now that you have learned it, consider that this is but a sample of what this introduction has to offer.

Rabbi Sacks’s teachings, as demonstrated here, reach out to others whose writings help us further broaden our appreciation of the Pesach observance:

“Heinrich Heine said, ‘Since the exodus, freedom has spoken with a Hebrew accent.’ But it is, as Emmanuel Levinas called it, ‘difficult freedom,’ based as it is on a demanding code of individual and collective responsibility. Pesach makes us taste the choice: on one hand the bread of affliction and bitter herbs of slavery; on the other, four cups of wine, each marking a stage in the long walk to liberty. As long as humans seek to exercise power over another, the story will continue and the choice will be ours.”

Finally, consider this teaching, as relevant today as it was so long ago:

“The journey to the Promised Land had to pass through Egypt because Israel was to construct a society that would be the antithesis of Egypt. Therefore, they had to know Egypt, experience Egypt, feel it in their bones, carry it with them as an indelible memory that they would hand on to all future generations.

“They had to experience what it was like to be on the wrong side of power: strangers, outsiders, metics, apiru as they were known in Egypt in those days, people without rights who were subject to the whim of a merciless ruler. The taste of that affliction was never to be forgotten.”

All the above comes from an essay that, far from being a mere introduction to a holiday prayer book, is a thematic and theological entrée to the very essence of Passover.

Rabbi Sacks is soon to retire from his post as British chief rabbi. Surely it will take a team of rabbis to replace him. No one, however, is likely to supplant the force and power of his literary legacy.

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About the Author: Alan Jay Gerber, a prolific book reviewer, is a life member of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers. He teaches history at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Derech HaTorah High School.


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Gerber-032213

This is essentially a review of an introduction to a book. Not a few readers are no doubt wondering just how much one can say about an introduction, especially an introduction to a machzor of nearly 1,300 pages. The answer: a lot.

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