March 29, 2007
Resident heroes of Sderot mark Pesach under rocket threat
"Ma nishtana halayla hazeh" -- "How is this night different from all other nights? We were once slaves in Egypt, but God redeemed us, bringing us out from the land to freedom."
Very soon, Jews from around the world will chant this familiar refrain, as we have done at the Passover seder throughout the ages. During the reading of the haggadah, we will solemnly recount the pain, humiliation and suffering endured by our people in Egypt, but we will also rejoice at the miraculous turn of events -- the sudden salvation, redemption, and freedom.
Symbolically, we eat bitter herbs, but quickly transition to the sweetness of the wine and charoset (a pasty delicacy symbolizing mortar) and then recline to show that we are as safe and secure as kings in a palace.
There are some, however, who will not share our sense of security this year. These people, although they live in the homeland of the Jewish people, will not be singing joyful songs with full gusto or reclining in freedom with the same sense of relaxation as royalty this coming Passover -- they are the citizens of the city of Sderot.
This Israeli community, which borders the recently declared autonomous Palestinian region of Gaza, is victim to an average of two to three rocket strikes daily. Sirens, which notify residents of an impending attack, can only give an advance warning of 15 seconds. That is all the time that separates between life and death in Sderot.
So this Passover, the residents of Sderot will not be observing the holiday as others will be doing elsewhere in the Jewish world. Instead, they will be confined to their homes, in running distance of a shelter, and parents will have to convince their children of the merits of celebrating the holiday of freedom, when they themselves do not feel free at all.
Guy Nagar is one such citizen. He, his wife and two children have been living in Sderot for the past six years. They came as part of a group of idealistic young Orthodox Jews who wanted to integrate into a city that reflected a cross section of Jews in order to influence and be influenced, that is, to live with Jews from different countries and backgrounds but to share common goals and responsibilities.
Nagar works for the Orthodox Union in Israel, which provides social, educational and Jewish programming to thousands of people all over the country. For the past six years, he and his wife have operated a branch of Makom Balev -- an institution that provides much needed social programs for underprivileged children. Sadly, enrollment increased exponentially when children began to suffer from the psychological affects of something previously unknown to them -- the Qassam rocket.
Nagar and the other parents of Sderot were shocked and saddened when their children's first words were not "abba" (father) or "imma" (mother) but "(code) red, red, alarm, alarm."
How does Nagar deal with this crisis on a religious nationalist level? He struggles, he questions, he even has moments of weakness, mulling over the idea of leaving with his family and moving to a safer environment so he, too, could recline in peace this Passover.
But then he collects his thoughts, stands proudly and says he will not retreat -- he will stay and fight. As a result, Nagar and the other residents of Sderot are truly able to fulfill the rabbinic dictum: "One must picture oneself as if experiencing the Passover story."
Just as Nagar had his moment of truth when he chose to stand up and be counted as a believer, so, too, did the Jewish people have their moment during the Passover story itself. God commands each Israelite to take a lamb, a god venerated by the Egyptians, and to tie it up and prepare it for sacrifice. Sacrifice a lamb in front of the Egyptian taskmasters? It's certain suicide, they must have thought.
Some fled, and some refused to carry out the order. But there were others who had the courage to stand up against the Egyptian regime, who were willing to follow the will of God and unite as one nation, which merited the great redemption of the Exodus.
There is a dark irony for the citizens of Sderot between this year's Passover and the one thousands of years ago that we commemorate. The pinnacle of the Passover experience was the exodus from Egypt, when each family had to pack up, leave the only home they knew and in the middle of the night run and never look back.
Today, each family musters up the courage to stay put, to find the inner strength to believe in the holiness of the Land of Israel and to fight for the right to live freely in our Promised Land in peace.
Nagar, his family and thousands of others in Sderot are standing firm and defending their city, knowing that retreat is only an invitation for those who seek us harm, to terrorize the rest of the citizens of Israel. There is no question that these people are the heroes of this year's Passover story, role models for every Israeli to emulate during the current situation.
With the daunting threat of a nuclear Iran and a difficult war last summer, as well as what looks like another inevitable war, this Passover will be a test for the rest of us, the residents of Israel. We, too, will stay put in our cities and towns; we will not be deterred, terrorized or maligned into thinking that we do not have a right to live in our homeland in peace.
Ma nishtana halayla hazeh -- how different is this Passover from the great Passover of old?
Sadly, in Sderot, in particular, and on some levels, Israel in general, not very different. The same trials afflict us, and the complete redemption still eludes us.
However, like the Israelites of old, we, too, will stand firm in our commitment to follow God's command: We will maintain the inner strength to unite under adversity, and we will strive toward fulfilling our destiny of returning to our homeland and spreading ultimate peace and tranquility throughout the land.
Rabbi Avi Baumol is director of communications for the Orthodox Union in Israel.