Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis - 22/03/2018
Thought for the Day
Over recent weeks, a story from Australia has been making international headlines. The world’s oldest message in a bottle was discovered on a beach. It was written 132 years ago by the Captain of a German vessel, attempting to map ocean drift patterns. The content of the message itself was unremarkable – the name of the ship, its coordinates, the date and so on. Yet, the message has captured the imagination of people around the world. Tonya Illman, who made the discovery, called it, “the most remarkable event” of her life and her husband, Kym, said, “It won’t get better than this.” So, what made this discovery so extraordinary?
The idea of receiving a message from someone who sent it, in this case, five generations previously, gives a stirring sense of them reaching out through the annals of time to connect with us – and that carries a power in and of itself. But what if the message had contained within it the most profound, life-changing wisdom? And what if it had reached across not hundreds, but thousands of years?
This is the power of Passover, which Jewish households are now busily preparing for. Approximately 140 generations ago, the Israelites emerged from bitter slavery in ancient Egypt and impressed upon their children the importance of conveying their experiences to all subsequent generations. That chain of communication remains unbroken to this day and the Passover celebrations, in which we recount the Exodus with readings, songs and special foods, are not merely a time to recall history. They teach three essential and timeless messages: the centrality of family, the value of education and an understanding that freedom must always be accompanied by responsibility. It is no wonder that Passover remains more widely observed than the Jewish New Year, Chanukah or any other of our festivals. We believe that that connection with our past makes us who we are.
The Talmud tells a story of a man who was travelling to a town he had never visited before. Arriving at a major crossroads, he discovered that the wind had blown down the only signpost. With no-one to turn to, he sat down to bemoan his fate. But then, it occurred to him that he was actually familiar with one of the directions, for he knew where he was coming from. He excitedly jumped up and repositioned the signpost accordingly. Now, he could also see the correct direction to his destination. From here our Sages teach: you can only know where you are going to if you know where you are coming from.
Or as Winston Churchill put it, "The further back you can look, the further forward you are likely to see."