September 19, 2018

Passover: A lesson in political science

Decades ago, before the creation of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion gave a brief lesson in Jewish history: 

“Three hundred years, ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on the voyage? What quality of bread did they eat? 

“Yet more than 3,300 years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia, knows what kind of bread the Jews ate — matzah. Even today, the Jews worldwide eat matzah on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all of the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled, saying: This year, slaves; next year, free! This year here — next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisra’el. That is the nature of the Jews.”

Later, on May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion stood before the provisional government in Tel Aviv and pronounced these historic words: “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisra’el, to be known as the State of Israel.”

Many take Israel’s existence for granted, forgetting the political condition of the Jews before Ben-Gurion’s declaration. Lest we forget, this week — Shabbat ha-Gadol, the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover — presents a good time to start thinking about the Passover story and its powerful lesson in political science.

In its transition from Joseph’s death to a new era, the book of Exodus records: A new king arose over Egypt, who did know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). This “new king” proceeded to enslave the Jews.

Who was this “new king”? The Talmud (Sotah 11:a) records a debate between Rav and Shmuel on the meaning of the words “new king.” According to Rav, the “new king” was actually a new pharaoh. Never having met Joseph, this new king ignored his predecessor’s policy of friendship with the Jews. 

Shmuel argued that the “new king” was actually the same pharaoh under whom Joseph served. The word “new” does not imply a “new person,” rather “new policies.” This means that the exact same pharaoh who was friendly to the Jews ultimately turned on them. 

Through their sharp political interpretations of the Passover story, Rav and Shmuel described the political condition of the Jewish people long after the Exodus from Egypt. Rav teaches that cordial relations with one leader in no way guarantee that the next administration will behave the same way. Things are as good as they are today, but in no way can today’s policies indicate what tomorrow will bring. Leaders change, and each administration will act in its own political self-interest. 

Shmuel’s lesson is a bit harsher. When it served the pharaoh’s political interests with Joseph, he was friendly toward the Jews. But now that he perceived them as problematic, he changed his policy from friendship to enslavement. Shmuel reminds us that even while in power, the same leader who acted as our friend yesterday can change his policies at the drop of a dime.

Rav and Shmuel never lived in Egypt under the pharaoh. They offered their interpretations thousands of years later, through the lenses of their own political reality in third-century C.E. Babylonia. They were Diaspora Jews whose people had by now been exiled from their homeland twice. Jewish self-determination was gone, replaced with prayers for the government that reflected our innermost political fears: “May the supreme King of Kings in His mercy put into the hearts of all officials to deal kindly with us.” We recited these prayers with the hope that “new kings” would not arise — neither Rav’s version nor Shmuel’s version. 

We went on to see many “new kings who did not know of Joseph.” In medieval Spain, we went from the Golden Age to expulsion, and in Germany we were intellectual elites who became concentration camp inmates. 

In light of our experiences in the Diaspora at the mercy of different leaders and governments, it is peculiar that in 1948, after Ben-Gurion’s historic declaration of the State of Israel, the rabbis did not change the opening words of the haggadah to reflect our new political reality: “Last year — slaves, this year — free. Last year in exile, this year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisra’el.”

As you sit down to your Passover seder, contemplate the magnitude of Ben-Gurion’s declaration of Jewish independence. He may not have caused a change to the words of the haggadah, but his historic words certainly changed the political course of the Jewish people. Had this been all Ben-Gurion did for us — Dayenu. 

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its a historic campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow his writings at jewishjournal.com/through_sephardic_lenses, timesofisrael.com, or subscribe to his weekly Torah Thoughts at info@secjerusalem.org.