What do Pesach and Hamilton have in common?
Watch a short video from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, created for Pesach 2020, about the inherent values to be found within Seder night, and the festival of Passover.
Wishing you all a chag kasher v’sameach, a meaningful and safe Pesach in these challenging times.
The philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, inspiration of the French Revolution, believed that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) was the greatest leader who ever lived because he was able to take a group of runaway slaves and turn them into a nation. And not just any nation, but a nation with the most tenacious identity of any nation in history, because it kept it despite the fact that it lost its land and its power and its home. And he believed that this was the most extraordinary achievement. What he didn’t fully understand was how it was achieved.
A key part of the answer to that question lies in the Seder service and the Haggadah. The way we hand on our story to the next generation as the next generation asks its questions, Ma Nishtana, which are ways of saying, ‘Who am I?’ And we hand on this story.
The story of that first Pesach is remarkable because if you look in the Torah, in parshat Bo, you see that when Moses, on the brink of the Exodus, gathers people together, he doesn’t talk about any of the obvious subjects: freedom, or the land flowing with milk and honey, or the challenges of the journey.
Instead, three times, he talks about the duty of telling our story to our children. Vahaya ki yish’allcha vincha machar (Ex. 13:14)… When your child asks you…v’hayah ki-yomru alaychem b’naychem (Ex. 12:26-27)… when your children say such and such to you… v’higgadeta l’vincha bayom ha’hu (Ex. 13:8)… you shall tell your child on that day. Three times he talks about telling our story to our children throughout the generations.
Why so? Because Moshe Rabbeinu understood that freedom is not won in a single moment. It needs to be fought for in every generation. And that means handing on to our children three very important gifts.
Number one, the gift of identity: who am I? Number two, the gift of values: How shall I live? And number three, the sense of continuity: that they are part of a story which includes us, as our story includes them. Education as the conversation between the generations. Once you do that, your identity becomes extraordinary and indelible.
Some years ago, I was given an award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and I spoke about the difference between the memorials in Washington and in London. In Washington, all the memorials tell a story. You have the Jefferson Memorial with screeds of text, the Lincoln Memorial with the Gettysburg Address on one side and the Second Inaugural on the other, the Roosevelt Memorial with the key sentences from each of the decades he spent in public life, and the Martin Luther King Memorial with more than a dozen quotations from his speeches. Whereas in London, the Memorial for David Lloyd, George consists of a mere three words: David Lloyd George. Nelson Mandela gets two: Nelson and Mandela. And Churchill, deliverer of some of the greatest speeches in history, gets one: Churchill.
In America a memorial is something you read. In Britain it is something you see. In America a memorial tells a story. In Britain it doesn’t. Why? Because Britain took freedom for granted. America knew you have to fight for freedom (fight against the British as it happens, but never mind.) You have to maintain that identity and tell the story.
What Pesach tells us is that values can be and should be universal – freedom, justice, human dignity – but identity is always particular. And it always comes with a story. And that is why, because we never stopped telling the story on Pesach, we never ever lost our identity in all those many centuries and all those many dispersions.
That is what we give our children on Pesach. Number one, the knowledge of who they are. Number two, a sense of how to live, and a number three, a sense of continuity that they are building on what we began. Those three things are great gifts.
A very gifted young composer and dramatist called Lin Manuel Miranda, some years ago, wrote a musical, (you may have heard of it) called Hamilton. It ends, with the last song in the musical, with three questions: Who remembers our name? Who keeps our flame? Who tells our story?
Because of Pesach we will always remember our name. We will always keep the flame. And we will always tell the story. The longest oldest, most inspiring story the world has ever known. Chag Kasher V’Sameach. A good Pesach to you.