The word Pesach alone invokes conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we dread the hard work, labor-intensive cleaning, shopping, cooking, preparing, and of course the exorbitant expense involved. On the other hand, we hear the word Pesach and we immediately picture our grandparents and parents, our family’s Seder songs and tunes, we nostalgically remember the recipes and specialty dishes, and most significantly we sentimentally remember talking, laughing, and even fighting with our family and friends.
Pesach makes us feel many things, but thank God, one of them is not fear for our lives. This was not always the case. For Ashkenazi Jews in particular, Pesach historically was a time that our enemies emboldened themselves and rose up to persecute us. Blood libels, pogroms, and massacres abounded during the Pesach season in particular.
For centuries, Pesach meant a time of great fear, threat and danger for countless Jews. Rabbi Nachman Cohen, in his Historical Haggadah, suggests that this is likely the source for two Ashkenazic customs we have at the Seder that have no source in the Talmud. Some suggest that the wearing of a kittel, our regal white garment, is a sign of joy for our deliverance and freedom. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon maintained that the egg that is eaten at the beginning of the meal is the egg from the Seder plate, a reminder of the Korban Chagiga, the special holiday sacrifice in the Temple. That reason, however, doesn’t explain why we dip it in salt water.
Others suggest, therefore, that in fact, the egg is not from the Seder plate; it is to remind us of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Not coincidentally, the 9th of Av always falls on the same day of the week as the first day of Pesach. The Kittel, suggests Rabbi Cohen, is in fact not a symbol of royalty, but of mourning. Jewish men are buried in their Kittels and therefore the Kittel is a symbol of the fragility of life.
We dip the egg in salt water and wear a Kittel to the Seder table to remind ourselves that even in the midst of celebrating freedom, liberty, and emancipation, we don’t yet have peace in Israel and we remain bereft of our Holy Temple. Even at the Seder table, and even on the night of our freedom, we remain acutely aware of our Galus and how vulnerable and threatened we stand.
Most years, we who are blessed to live in a Medina shel chesed, a benevolent country that protects us and preserves our freedom to practice Judaism fully, cannot relate to Pesach as a time of mourning, loss, and tragedy. However, this year is different from others. As we come to the Seder, we need no extra reminder that there are yet people in the world and yes, even right here in America who hate Jews and seek our destruction.
Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., a 73-year-old former member of the Ku Klux Klan, screamed “Heil Hitler” as he sat in the back of a police car after killing three people outside Overland Park’s Jewish Community Center and at a nearby Jewish assisted living facility. Three people, murdered in cold blood on the eve of Pesach, simply because they were on a Jewish campus and associated with the Jewish community.
While we would like to see this as an isolated incident and the work of a madman, unfortunately, we can’t. The Times of Israel reported on Sunday that the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist organization, announced that it would picket the funerals of the three people killed in Sunday afternoon’s shooting attacks. The church sent out a tweet shortly after the shooting saying, “Thank God for shootings at Overland Park KS jewish centers! Westboro to picket funerals. God did not passover.”
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said, “This is a very serious and distressing incident for those who were impacted by it, and also because of what was behind it — anti-Semitism and hatred have not disappeared from the world. We wish Jewish communities around the world a happy and kosher Passover. Despite the difficulties, we’ll celebrate Passover. Though the existence of the State of Israel, we ensure an alternative to which everyone can come.”
Lt. Gantz is absolutely correct in reminding us that we are incredibly blessed to not only sing Next Year in Jerusalem, but to be able to make it happen by moving to Israel. Israel, the Jewish homeland, is now under Jewish sovereignty. Rather than outsource our protection to others, in Israel we can ensure it ourselves and care for our people with the level of love, dedication, and sacrifice that a family provides for its loved ones.
But as we know well, even Israel is not immune from Pesach tragedy. In the deadliest attack during the second Intifada, on Seder night in 2002, a suicide bomber killed thirty people and injured 140 at the Park Hotel in Netanya in what became known as the Pesach Massacre.
In the wake of the Kansas City incident, though we have no reason to be alarmed locally, our security committee has reviewed the security on our campus. Jews in America are blessed to live in a country that cherishes our freedom of religion and works diligently to protect us in every way possible. Jews of Israel are protected by the finest, most courageous, and dedicated soldiers and security forces in the world.
However, that said, the Haggadah’s message for us is “b’chol dor vador omdim aleinu l’chaloseinu, in every generation they rise up to annihilate us, v’hakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu mi’yadam, it is Hashem who ultimately is responsible for saving us from their hands.”
On this Pesach, as we don our Kittels and dip our eggs in salt water, let us pray that our brothers and sisters in Overland Park and Kansas City find strength, solace, and comfort and that they can soon return to life as they knew it. On this Chag Ha’Emunah, let us beseech the Almighty to foil the plans of our enemies and to bring everlasting safety and security to our people through the rebuilding of His Beis Ha’Mikdash.