In a couple of weeks, we will sit down for Seder night, and we will read the story of the famous Seder in Bnei Brak. I remember growing up with the cute song, that I am sure many of you know.
Of Rabbi Eliezer a story is told, of Rabbi Yehoshua, that scholar of old,
Elazar ben Azariah, Akiva the sage, And Tarphon, for wisdom renowned in his age.
In Bnei Brak they at Seder dined well, And the whole long night through the old tale did retell.
How God in His power humbled Egypt’s great might, and brought out our people from darkness to light.
Whilst they were held rapt by the wondrous old story, dark night passed away and dawn came in its glory.
Then entered their pupils, “Our Rabbis” they say, “’tis time for Shema, for behold it is day!”
Over the years I have realised that this story is far more than a cute rhyme. It took place at a time of deep division and a desperate situation for the Jewish people.
As Rabbi Sacks says in his essay in his Hagaddah (p86)
For almost a century the Jewish community in Israel had been in a state of disarray. There were profound religious divisions. Josephus tells us that the nation was divided into three groups: the worldly and powerful Sadducees, the religious and popular Pharisees, and the sectarians known as the Essenes, among whom were Qumran community, known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls….The overwhelming impression conveyed by the documentary evidence of the time that the Jewish community was hopelessly factionalized.
Rabbi Sacks goes on to describe what happened at around that time.
Looking back on the tragedy the Talmud says, ‘Jerusalem was only destroyed because of sinat chinam, the internal conflict between Jews’. It was an immense and epoch-making defeat. The Temple went up in flames, the second time it had been destroyed. The rebellion was suppressed, the last outpost at Masada committing suicide rather than being taken captive alive. Outwardly Jews had been defeated by the Romans. Inwardly they knew they had defeated themselves. A thousand years later, in a letter written to the sages of Marseilles, Maimonides put it simply. The Jews of the time had not learned the lessons of government and military command. They had not learned how to maintain unity.
People will obviously find a link from the above statement to the current events in Israel. I can only add my support to the words of our Chief Rabbi and the President of Israel, calling for unity and praying for success of those trying to find solutions to the situation.
I was not going to write about this at all, but then I was sent something last night which made me think in a whole different way about the current crisis and linked powerfully to what you read above.
Last night the protest made its way to the site of that Seder night two millennia ago, it came to Bnei Brak. People expected tense confrontations. The protestors, many of them secular liberals coming into the city of seemingly the ‘other’ side. There was fear of clashes and potential violence – God forbid.
What happened was, from what I saw and read, the complete opposite. The protestors marched peacefully through Bnei Brak and were met by the locals handing out cholent and drinks and playing Shalom Aleichem!
However, it was this video that really affected me, Please view.
For those who can’t view. It is a short video of an elderly man. He is wearing a helmet, with a go pro unit on, presumably to record events and for his protection. Shalom Aleichem is being played over the loudspeakers. He takes off his helmet and with his Israel flag around his body he cries as he sings together with the music. He holds his arms up in prayer and seems immersed in a different world. It is a beautiful video to watch.
Now I don’t know what is going through this person’s mind. I can only suppose. He may be a religious man who loves Shalom Aleichem. However, from his reaction and tears I would think a different story. A man who is secular, coming on a protest against the other side, suddenly connects to a world that he is no longer a part of, a world of Shabbat, of zemirot, a world that is still part of him, that maybe used to be part of him, and he realises, as we all should realise – there are more things that unite than divide us. And he cries – hopefully with joy.
So what did the Bnei Brak community do last night. They followed the advice of the leader of that Seder all those years ago in their city.
Why was the Seder in Bnei Brak? That was where Rabbi Akiva lived, he was the host for the Seder. However why come to him? He was the most junior Rabbi of the five, yet he was already perceived as the supreme Torah sage of his time. Maybe because he was known as a unifier as Rabbi Sacks says:
‘Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehoshua were not interested in personal victory. They cared about the integrity of the Jewish people and its spiritual leadership.’
And of course Rabbi Akiva’s famous dictum shows his colours in terms of Jewish unity.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself: Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a fundamental [all-inclusive] principle of the Torah.” – [Torat Kohanim 19:45]
Yesterday two sides were brought together with ahavat chinam. Torah can and should be a unifier. That is our heritage, for all Jews, of whatever political or religious stripe. Rabbi Akivas’ dictum was applied by the residents of his city, 2000 years later.
No problems have been solved and we are no closer to a solution, but last night we saw a potential way out of the darkness with a night of ‘protests’ that would have made Rabbi Akiva proud.