The Base synagogue in Johannesburg was a hub of festivities on Sunday evening as various groups were hosted by the South African Friends of Israel at a celebratory Passover seder ahead of Israel’s 70th birthday today.
The seder meal recounts the biblical story of the Israelites’ journey from oppression to freedom. Taken as slaves more than 3 300 years ago the Israelites never gave up their quest for freedom. Going out of Egypt where they were slaves, to wandering in the dessert, God’s chosen nation endured much.
The seder is about telling the Exodus story through symbolic rituals, stories and songs that are meant to bring one to imagine the hardships that the Israelites went through. Today Israel celebrates 70 years of independence since its founding as a modern nation in 1948.
During the course of Sunday evening I and other invited guests, including politicians, members of NGOs and of different faith groups, were taken through the different facets of the meal. Matzah flat, dry cracker-like bread was put on tables and ceremonial foods were arranged on different platters. A platter is called a ka’arah or seder plate. The procedure is all laid out in a book called a Haggadah.
The Haggadah used at the event was written in both Hebrew and English and explored different aspects of freedom pertaining to the Jews and compared these with the state of South Africa and the South African Freedom Day on April 27.
One of the traditional goals of the seder is to make those present feel they are part of the journey as they appreciate what their forebears went through. The stories include the sufferings of the patriarchs of the Jewish nation, the plagues God sent to punish the Egyptians into letting the Israelites go, and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea.
Gabriel Sacks, executive director of South African Friends of Israel said: “We are here to celebrate the Passover seder which marks the journey of the Jewish people out of Egypt and commemorates their arrival in the Holy Land. We focus on the celebration of moving ourselves from Egypt and we finally arrive in the Holy Land.
“We have marked this occasion and we have also celebrated the freedom out of oppression against the struggle of apartheid here in South Africa so we celebrate the two causes of oppression to freedom.”
He said they invited communities from different backgrounds, faiths and cultures to experience Jewish culture.
The Passover falls at a similar time to Easter and provides a convenient time for Christians and Jews to get together and recognise this important time in their cultures. Jewish culture, Sacks said, can be understood as to love your neighbour as you love yourself; to teach people that they need to accept every person irrespective of their creed, race, religion and ethnicity. Jews value love, compassion, forgiveness and understanding, he said.
Criticising recent extensive media coverage of events in Israel and alleged mistreatment of Palestine, Sacks said: “Israel is a democracy. All religions and ethnicities and races are welcomed to travel and even be part of the Israeli community. If you look into Israeli culture you will see that people from different backgrounds — black people, Indian people, Jewish, Muslim — are all living together in the Holy Land and there are laws that protect them. There are laws that ensure that there is equality between people.”
On Israel’s Independence Day today SA Friends of Israel is hosting will be hosting a number of different celebratory events. And in Israel, Sacks said, the country would almost come to a complete stop as everybody celebrated the fact that Israel has returned to the Jewish people. It was a huge celebration that came with great responsibility and pride from a people that were pushed out of by so many different empires and regimes before finally coming home, he said.
SA Friends of Israel’s goal is to teach and share their culture with others. One of the people who has benefitted from this sharing is Apostle Nomagugu Thangelani from the Selfless Foundation which supports mothers who have children on drugs. Thangelani’s son is in prison because of drugs. She said in an interview she was impressed by the culture of the Jews, especially the bond between sons and the fathers. She said the issue of fatherlessness is the root cause of boys turning to drugs, crime and many other social ills. The Friends of Israel have helped the group in many ways, including offering paternal support to the boys.
There is a significant focus on education at the seder. Jews believe that education is an integral part of a successful nation. If a nation is to succeed it has to invest in the education of its future adults. It is not always as important to provide the answers as to create inquiring minds that ask the questions. Questioning is a fundamental component of freedom. People living under oppression and in situations of slavery are not permitted to question. Only people living in a free society have the luxury of looking for understanding and questioning the world around them.
On the seder night Jews dip portions of food twice — to commemorate Joseph’s brothers dipping his tunic into the blood of a goat as the prepared to sell him into slavery, and to commemorate how the Jews smeared their doorposts so that the angel of death who was killing Egyptian first born sons would pass over their houses and not touch Israeli sons.
Among the speakers at the seder was Danny Adeno Adebe, a Jew from Ethiopia, who shared about fellow black Jews in that nation who came from the lineage of Dan, one of Israel’s sons. The story goes that the Queen of Sheba while visiting the great King Solomon had children by him. Adebe and his family — and indeed his village — take pride in being part of the Jewish nation. He remembers a childhood in which his father always spoke of Jerusalem. This inspired a strong desire to visit the city, which he fulfilled by taking his family on a journey of almost a year in which they walked 800km to get to Israel.
King Zwelakhe Mthethwa from the Zulu kingdom of the Mthethwa graced the event. Asked why he attended, he said: “As the Israelites are celebrating their liberation from Egypt and establishing themselves in Israel, also us here our belief and our faith is centred around the history of the Bible.
“The Queen of Sheba went to King Solomon. She is from Ethiopia. The children that came through the union of Queen Sheba and King Solomon are in Ethiopia and all round Africa. We, also as the Southern Ngunis, moved from up in the central part of Africa and we came down here. We do have a DNA of the story. We believe the story of Israel without seeing Israel.”
Mthethwa said South Africa could learn from Israel’s development. Their GDP is six times ours, despite our much greater landmass and the barreness of their land, he said.
Another seder guest, ACDP leader Rev Kenneth Meshoe, who is co-founder of an organisation DEISI which aims to educate people about Irael, said: “We need to understand that the land that the Jewish nation are living on in the middle East is the land that was given to them by God Almighty. From more than 3000 years ago.
“The Bible gives a history of when God gave Abram the land and then gave it to Isaac to Jacob and to their descendants. When He gave it to them He did not say temporarily, He said forever — I am giving it to you and your descendants forever — but now the lie that is being perpetrated by the people such as the Palestinian organisations is that the Jews have stolen land from the Palestinians. That is a lie that South Africans and people of the world should know, so that they do not fall in the trap of believing a lie.
“The second thing that we are correcting is an allegation that Israel is an apartheid state. I have been to Israel 18 times. I know apartheid. I grew up under apartheid. There is no apartheid in Israel. I have been to the north, west, east and south; it is a lie to say Israel is an apartheid state. Whoever came up with that idea knew that when you talk about apartheid you are going to touch the hearts of people and get the sympathy of people .
“Israel is the only democratic country in the middle East. Go to Iran. Saudi Arabia, there if no country where the church is growing and the freedom of the church to worship is allowed and protected.”
Gateway News wishes the Jewish nation a good Independence Day today. Mazel tov to Israel!