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Isaac Abarbanel

Sometime in 1496, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) completed his commentary on the Pesach Haggadah, which he named Zevach Pesach (The Passover Offering). He had been working on the commentary ever since the expulsion of the Jews from Castille and Aragon some four years earlier. It was on his mind as he witnessed the destruction of (at least) 1500 years of Jewish life and dazzling creativity in Iberia. It accompanied him as he left his exalted position as chief financier to their Most Catholic Majesties, Don Fernando and Doña Isabella. He continued to work on it when he found respite and renewed status in the Kingdom of Naples, only to be exiled again. Finally, in a rare period of respite, in the little town of Monopoli on the Southern Adriatic coast of Italy, he completed the work.

Don Isaac’s musings and insights on the Haggadah and Pesach bear the deep imprint of the personal and national disaster that he had witnessed and experienced. It could hardly be otherwise, for Pesach was particularly challenging and problematic for Jews throughout the millennia; ever since the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE. Its message of past and future redemption contrasted sharply with the reality of oppression, humiliation, persecution and expulsion that characterized Jewish life from Afghanistan to Morocco and from England to Eastern Europe. Abravanel gave expression to that dissonance when he pointedly asked:

What did we gain, exiles like ourselves, by virtue of the fact that our ancestors left Egypt, as the Haggadah states: For if the Holy One, blessed be He had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. For it is possible that that we would have lived there more peacefully than our residence in the exile of Edom and Ishmael (i.e., Christendom and Islam), as our ancestors said: It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness of the nations (cf. Ex. 14, 12), amid forced conversions and expulsions; where some are doomed to the sword, some to death by hunger, some to be sold into captivity, and especially the abandonment of our religion, by force of our travails.

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Abravanel was expressing the pain of his generation, but the dissonance between the inner experience of Pesach, and the reality within which Jews lived, is a permanent moment of Jewish history. That reality is summed up in the defiant, painful, determined and hopeful assertion of Ve’hee She’amdah, that G-d’s promise to Abraham to preserve His people and redeem us is eternal, and even though “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

Ve’hee She’amdah strikes a very discordant note at the Pesach Seder. It conflicts with the unmitigated celebration of G-d’s salvation that lies at the center of the Exodus from Egypt. And yet, that inner contradiction is a permanent part of our lives as a people. Tragically, it is not a relic of the past. Jew-hatred is ever manifest around the globe.

Here in Israel, as the entire country prepares for Pesach, we are again in the midst a wave of terror that has left 13 people murdered, among them 11 Israeli Jews. The murders were carried out by radical Muslims who, on religious grounds, deny the right of the Jewish people to a state in our G-d-given ancestral homeland. In a sense, our travails are worse than those decreed by Ferdinand and Isabella. For now, both our lives and our faith are being targeted, as evidenced by the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb this past week.

How are we to negotiate this contradictory reality? How did Don Isaac deal with it? What did he tell his fellow Jews who really had been murdered, abandoned to starve, or sold into slavery by the ship captains who agreed to transport them from Spain? How did he seek to strengthen his people’s morale, in a seemingly interminable exile, when there was no respite, certainly no Jewish State on the distant horizon?

He did it by first validating the pain and despair of his fellow Jews, and by showing that both the author of the Haggadah and King David had already anticipated it and provided an answer. It is embedded in a verse in the middle of the part of Hallel that we recite after the meal. The Psalmist declares: “I said in my haste, all men lie” (Ps. 116, 11). Don Isaac comments:

Then, at the time of the Final Redemption, when I will be free, I will recount and tell that in my haste, and humiliation, I said that all men lie. In other words, [I had said that] all of the prophets who foretold my redemption and salvation, they were all liars. After all, ‘the harvest has passed, and summer has ended, yet we have not been saved’ (Jer. 8, 20) …Yet when the destined redemption arrives, the entire nation will recall all those statements of despair that it expressed in its exile.

Underlying this passage is the profound faith of Don Isaac Abravanel in G-d’s promise for protection and redemption, despite his intimate familiarity with the dark side of Jewish existence. His solution is to encourage his readers to transcend that dark side, and to imagine the shining reality of G-d’s redemption that awaits them. For Abravanel, both implicitly and explicitly in this commentary, that ability to anticipate a glorious future, to see a world that lies beyond the challenges of the present, is what ensures Jewish survival. That is how we will navigate and negotiate this Pesach and every other Pesach, until the Ge’ulah arrives in full.

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Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey R. Woolf, studied for almost ten years under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, and received semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He has taught for thirty years in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, as well as in many Hesder Yeshivot and Seminaries.