Springtime in Judaism


A quick word about the holiday of Passover.  April in New England can be tricky: I still remember the blizzard of April 1982.  I'd prefer Tel Aviv for the holiday, in fact pretty much anytime save the hot sticky summertime. The name of the city tells you all you need to know about being Jewish, being a Zionist, being a human being.

Herzl dreamed his great dream of a new Jew and a new Jewish society, and after some hesitation, he finally listened to some of his friends and wrote Old New Land in 1902. A wooden utopian tale of the rebirth of a family and of the Jewish people, the story's quirky combination of plan and romantic hope quickly captivated Jews around the world and the novel received manifold translations into many of the various languages in which diaspora Jews lived.

Unsurprisingly, one of those languages was Hebrew. It certainly was far less popular a tongue than Russian, German, English, Ladino, or Yiddish, to name some of the most well-used Jewish  vernaculars at the time. But it had history and piety, and the dream of revival going for it, with the ultimate claim of being the only language that could unify all Jews in time and space (unlike Esperanto, which aimed similarly at the goal of tying Jewry together but precisely by transcending the past and creating a brave new utopian language culture and identity).

The Hebrew translation of Herzl's dreamwork took the title of Tel Aviv, a somewhat poetic rendering of the old and of the new braided together.  And so, when those intrepid pioneers gathered on the beach north of Jaffa to draw lots for their new bedroom community, they gave the new place-in-the-making the name Tel Aviv, in honor of Herzl and his dream-plan.

To make way for the new, we sometimes must do violence to the old.  This morning, we burned our hametz, our physical remainders of the year with all of its dreams and accomplishments, its failures and dross, and a metaphysical remainder of the hametz in our souls, the stuff we'd like to change, or eliminate as we gather for our very own new birth of freedom, the new year Passover marks.

Tel Aviv rose from the sand dunes, the first modern Jewish city, the first Hebrew city, a symbol and reality of the new Jew, the new Jewish place, the new beginning that Jews hoped the twentieth-century would bring to replace the old, the tired, and the dysfunctional in traditional Jewish life and the shallowness of its modern assimilated successor.  Tel Aviv represented the city as the ultimate spring festival as it were. 

The problem with living cyclically is that it sometimes lulls us into thinking that nothing ever changes.  Every year, we sit with the same people, eat the same foods, tell the same story, sing the same songs, fight the same fights. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

The comfort we take in the familiar feels double-edged: it fools us into denying our freedom, our agency, our ability to make change.  That's the raw power of Zionism — its newness, its radicalness, its faith in the future that the eternal present can dream and plan and fashion.  We may tell the same story, but to sit in Tel Aviv at the seder really, if not actually, brings us face to face with the central lesson of the holiday and of the holiday's book: we can leave Egypt for Israel, we can eliminate slavery and become free.

Enjoy the spring. Enjoy the festival. Enjoy the hope. This year can truly be next year.