Pesach: From slavery to freedom, to nation building, to prosperity.
My wife and I and our 14-year-old granddaughter, recently returned from a trip to India. Commenting to a teacher about the trip, our granddaughter said that, notwithstanding the poverty, it seemed that people were at peace with whatever their situation was. Curiously, this led me to thinking about Pesach.
The histories of India and Israel have many parallels. Both fought cruel wars with Muslims upon gaining independence in the late 1940s. Both were hosts to displaced and poor populations after World War II — Holocaust survivors and Jews from Arab countries came to Israel; Hindus from what had become Pakistan to India. Both nations were impoverished; in Israel rationing allowed for only 1,600 calories a day.
And yet the Jews in Israel have built a modern, vibrant country, while the Hindus in India have not. A visitor to India is struck by the poverty, the colorless and decayed living and working conditions of so many people, villages with only muddy roads, schools without desks or chairs with multiple classes held simultaneously in the same dismal room. Clean water — indeed any running water — is often unavailable. Litter and animals are everywhere. The gross domestic product per capita of India is about $2,000; in Israel it is over $42,000. Israel is 22nd on the United Nations Human Development Index; India is 129th. The takeaway for a visitor to India is a drab and impoverished nation.
There are many reasons for the vast differences in development. Israel, for example, received significant German reparations after World War II as well as Jewish dollars from abroad. Still, might some of the differences be explained by their respective religious cultures? In the words of scholar Huston Smith, for Hinduism, “… human destiny lies outside history altogether. … Good and evil, pleasure and pain, right and wrong are woven into [our world] in relatively equal proportions as its warp and weft. And so things will remain. All thought of cleaning up the world and changing its character appreciably is mistaken in principle.” The highest state is the removal of desire, “[d]etachment from the finite self . … Pleasure, success and duty are never humanity’s ultimate goals. …. [W]hat people would really like to have is infinite being, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss. … The problem life poses for the human self is to cleanse the dross of its being to the point where its infinite center can shine forth in full display.”
How different the Jews are, writes Smith, who “refused to abandon the physical aspects of existence as illusory. … In Judaism, by contrast [to Hinduism, a] sharp tension exists between the ought and the is. … When things are not as they should be, change in some form is in order. … It is in the lands that have been affected by the Jewish historical perspective … that the chief thrusts for social betterment have occurred. The prophets set the pattern.”
“Our highest goal, as demonstrated by our prophets, is not detachment, but involvement.”
As the Torah’s creation story relates, humans are given “dominion” over the Earth. Our highest goal, as demonstrated by our prophets, is not detachment, but involvement, an obligation to make things better, speaking truth even to kings. The ultimate goal is involvement in the “dross of life.”
Pesach brings these points home. While God plays His part, the slaves are expected to act on their own behalf. They go to their neighbors for reparations; they put blood on the mantles of their homes; the sea parts only when they take the first step of entering it. The Ten Commandments that we hear at Sinai emphasize a life involved in the physical: honor your parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t pervert justice.
When we look at India and compare what it has accomplished since independence to what has been done in Israel in the identical time period, the importance of culture, encapsulated in the Pesach story, is driven home. In celebrating Pesach, we reject passivity. We rededicate ourselves to being part of history, part of the struggle to improve our lives as individuals and as a nation. May we be successful in our endeavors.
Gregory Smith is president of Westwood Kehilla and an appellate attorney practicing in Los Angeles.