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Passover Violence and Vision

By Jonathan Wittenberg

Passover: seventh day, Exodus 13:17-15:26; eighth day, Deuteronomy 15:10-16:17

On Scripture Jonathan Wittenberg 2The ancient rabbis chose Isaiah’s vision of peace on earth as the prophetic reading to accompany the Torah reading for the 8th day of Passover, the Festival of Freedom.

The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, calf and young lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…(Isaiah 11:6)

“Indeed!” observed one of my teachers with cheerful cynicism, “but every day another lamb and every night a different kid”–understandably skeptical about just how repentant those new-fang[l]ed wolves could really be.

But the very familiarity of the image testifies to the enduring power of Isaiah’s vision. In most Jewish commentary, what he is taken to be describing is the redeemed reality of the messianic age; to Christians, it is the world as it will be after Jesus’s second coming.

What I find most moving are the circumstances out of which the vision is conceived in the first place. The prophet describes a seemingly hopeless military situation. In the closing years of the eighth century BCE, the city of Jerusalem, the sole remaining stronghold of Judea, is under threat. The northern kingdom of Israel has already been defeated by the invading Assyrian army and its population deported to the far corners of its vast empire, where they will become known to history as The Ten Lost Tribes. Most of the southern kingdom of Judea has also been laid waste. Isaiah now envisions the Assyrian Emperor standing on the overlooking hills, shaking his fist at the beleaguered city. “Did I really enlist my entire army to wage war on such a puny place as this?’”

In is the midst of this crisis that Isaiah formulates his prophecy. And he is not alone in creating an extraordinary vision of redemption from the midst of the horrors of a siege.

Dmitri Shostakovich completed the work that came to be known as The Leningrad Symphony in December 1941, when the city was virtually surrounded by Nazis armies in the first months of what became a 900-day siege, perhaps the longest in recorded history. Though the premiere took place in Moscow, the most famous performance of the symphony was in the besieged city itself on August 9, 1942. The musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra were starving; several collapsed during rehearsals. The drummer was rescued by the conductor from the brink of death in the city morgue. The rendition was accompanied by Red Army actions, to prevent the Nazis from interfering with the event.

One Wehrmacht officer interviewed after the war said that when he realized the importance attributed to the music by the city’s defenders, he understood that they would never conquer the stronghold. His words serve as oblique testimony to a profound truth in the words of the Song at the Sea in the Book of Exodus, “God is my strength and my music” (Exodus 15:2).

In the small town of Pale, occupied by the Serbian army in 1991 as a base for shelling the besieged city of Sarajevo, the screenwriter and editor Mladen Vuksanovic recorded his striving to retain an inclusive vision of humanity, as the fighting dragged apart Muslims and Christians who had lived together for centuries. When, after the owners had been deported, people come to ask, “Are there any Muslim houses around here?” his wife retorted, “No, there aren’t! Neither Muslim nor Croat ones! There were only human houses here.” (From Enemy Territory, p. 151, italics in original)

It is the power of our visions and the depth of our values, not merely the force of our arms, which bring humanity its deepest and most enduring victories.

Isaiah’s prophecy opens with an overview of human justice. The redeemer will “judge the poor in justice and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11: 4). It continues with a vision of a transformed natural world, in which there is no longer hunter and prey but a tranquil sharing of the pasturage of the earth. The most important idea here is not that carnivores will turn vegetarian; rather, it is that nature will be allowed to sustain all of its creatures and not be subject to the tyrannous exploitation of one single species–man. For, as the prophet continues, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, because the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (11:9). Isaiah may well have witnessed the devastation of the lands around Jerusalem, but could surely not have envisioned the threat to the ecological viability of the entire planet, to which we are summoned to respond today.

What may have motivated the rabbis responsible for determining the Jewish liturgical calendar to choose this passage with which to conclude the scriptural readings for Passover? It seems likely that the question they wanted their communities to consider at the close of the Festival of Freedom was what the purpose of that freedom might be. Neither in the Hebrew Bible nor in any rabbinical writings was freedom ever taken to be an end in itself. Freedom itself was, and must be, in service to redemption, to bringing about the day when none will “hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain”.

That mountain represents the entire earth. Its future depends not on God’s sudden and miraculous intervention, but on how we use our liberty. The messianic vision of peace between nations and co-existence between species is the goal to which that freedom must be directed.

Guest blogger Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi at New North London Synagogue and the Senior Rabbi of The Assembly of Masorti Synagogues and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism. Rabbi Wittenberg was born in Glasgow to a family of German Jewish origin with rabbinic ancestors on both sides.

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