Reflections on Passover
by Jacob Cytryn, Director
The Rabbis of the Talmudic era struggled with a variety of questions endemic to the telling of the Passover narrative as it exists in the book of Shemot (Exodus) as well as related texts throughout the Hebrew Bible. Among these questions: If the Egyptian slavery lasted for over four hundred years (as Abraham heard from God), how were the Israelites recognizable at all as a distinct ethnic group? How had they not assimilated and disappeared?
For the Rabbis living in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, either under Roman or Babylonian rule, this question was not merely hypothetical. They were clearly asking themselves: How are we going to survive? Will we be able to maintain our distinct practices? Can we live up to the model of our ancestors, the first incarnation of the Jewish people, the Egyptian slaves?
One of the Rabbis’ answers to these questions – as much laying out an agenda for their own Jewish community as a best-guess at what may have happened in Egypt – as recorded in the collection of midrashim called Vayikra (Leviticus) Rabbah 32:5, was that the Israelite slaves kept their Hebrew names and, presumably, their language. Language is a crucial part of the maintenance of social and ethnic boundaries.
The founders of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin knew this well, and their emphasis on the usage of Hebrew as a living language in the culture of the camp is one of our founding tenets. In the late 1940s as the camp was founded, spoken Hebrew was undergoing a renaissance both in Israel and North America. At a time when it seemed much of urban America were immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, language did indeed maintain social and ethnic boundaries. In response both to the unfolding horrors of the Holocaust and the soon-to-be-realized dream of the Zionist cause, preserving and spreading Hebrew language were values at the cutting edge of Jewish education in that era.
Our world today is much different, often for the better. The multicultural America of 2015 is far more accepting, yet with that acceptance and the dissolving of many of the ethnic and religious boundaries that were prevalent through much of the twentieth century, we face our own challenges. Modern Hebrew remains a core value of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, but the rationales for and methods with which we promote Hebrew must continue to be refreshed and rethought.
A contemporary agenda for the usage of modern Hebrew at camp is one that we will continue working on this summer. Over the last two summers I have spoken with our Roshei Aidah (Division Heads), and this year we will involve more staff and campers, to help produce materials that reframe the conversation about Hebrew for a new generation of Ramahniks and American Jews.
Early in the Seder we read, “Had God not redeemed us from Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” I believe the message of this text is that we must address every year the questions articulated above: How did our ancestors survive 400 years of slavery in Egypt? And how did the Jewish communities in the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, German, Spanish, and other eras survive as well? How will we survive? On the one hand, as we can all proudly attest, one of the legacies of the Israelite slaves was that the Jews, arguably unique in world history, can survive defeat, slavery, and persecution. On the other hand, as the Rabbis of the midrash knew well, our survival is dependent on our own actions and ingenuity in each generation. How do we do it today? How do we pass along these lessons and the wish to succeed again to our children?
With wishes for a sweet and redemptive Passover to the entire Ramah Wisconsin Community,
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.