The young woman below, whose face is deliberately hidden from the camera, is entirely enfolded in the arms of her older relative. She had just arrived in Israel, one of 40 Jews from Iran.
Their embrace is the full-strengthed twining of two hearts that have travelled from trembling hope to soaring happiness.
Their embrace is the young, weary immigrant’s first joyful moment of freedom in the land of her ancestors.
Not quite like the 40 years of wandering by her forebears, hers, however, was also an indirect route to the Jewish homeland.
The passports of Jews in Iran are stamped with the warning that the “bearer of this document is forbidden from travelling to Israel.” This woman’s aliyah and that of her 39 fellow olim was, therefore, necessarily covert and dangerous. The Jewish Agency brought them to freedom through an unnamed third country. It was the largest group to move to Israel from Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. They left behind all their property and all their possessions, not to mention additional family as well.
Despite public pronouncements by Jews in Iran – made, obviously, out of a sense of vulnerability and fear – that Iran protects them and their religious practices, many have recently left, or tried to, because of the persecution and discrimination by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Before the Islamic revolution, an estimated 100,000 Jews lived in Iran. About 25,000 live there today.
Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians, whose group has assisted the Jewish Agency in the rescue of Iranian Jews, says he believes Iran’s remaining Jews are in danger.
“Many of the Jews there think that this will pass, meaning Ahmadinejad and the mullahs,” he told the media in Israel. “But our feeling is that this is very similar to the situation of Jews in Germany in the 1930s. By the time they realize it’s not going to blow over, it’ll be too late.”
The journey and the courage of the group of 40 recent arrivals in Israel are a vivid, chilling passageway for us to the Pesach holiday that we will be celebrating this week.
“Hashata avdei; l’shana haba’ah b’nai chorin,” we proclaim at the seder table. “Now we are slaves; next year, free human beings.” Could any words more poignantly convey the significance of their arrival in Israel?
Could any holiday more poignantly lead us to a deeper appreciation of their courage and a deeper understanding of their freedom?
In his prodigiously instructive work Haggadah and History: A Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries of the Printed Haggadah (The Jewish Publication Society, 2005) Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes: “As evening descends in succession over five continents, Jews have gathered in their homes for the seder, the one great liturgical celebration entrusted, not to the public worship of synagogue, but to the intimacy of a family meal. Even before the well-rehearsed questions are asked by the youngest present, all are intuitively aware of the distinctiveness of this night.
“Passover is pre-eminently the great historical festival of the Jewish people. Here the memory of the people is annually revived and replenished and the collective hope sustained. The ancient redemption of Israel from Egypt is recounted and relived, not merely as an evocation from the past, but above all as prototype and surety for the ultimate redemption yet to come… The participant is adjured to regard himself literally ‘as though he himself had emerged from Egypt,’ and in that phrase lies the latent power of the Haggadah to move the hearts of Jews.”
Pesach is, therefore, a celebration that must inspire in us the hope at least, if not the certainty, that all Pharaohs, all oppressors, ultimately will be vanquished.
And as Yerushalmi points out, the latent power of the manner of our celebration – namely, through the Haggadah – is that it conscripts us to the hope – more correctly, to the belief – that it is not just in ancient times that the oppressor is defeated, but in our time, indeed, in all time, as well.
The journey and the courage of that group of 40, in a vivid and chilling echo of the words of the Haggadah, also remind us, alas, that there is no shortage of modern Pharaohs.
“Sheloh echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaluteinu…” “For more than once have they risen against us to destroy us; in every generation, they rise against us and seek our destruction. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”
In his famous letter to the troubled Jews of Yemen in 1172, the sage Maimonides, wrote the following words of encouragement and hope: “Be strong and of good courage… It is your duty, brethren of Israel, who are scattered over the whole earth, to strengthen one another. The older should encourage the younger, and the prominent men, the multitude. The nation should be united… rear your children to understand that great event [on Mount Sinai]… hold fast to the covenant and be steadfast in your faith.”
Maimonides’ words are as true for us as they were more than 800 years ago. And the holiday of Pesach, with our children, grandchildren and other brethren around the seder table, is where that duty is most manifest. Chag samayach.