The Past Alive, A Passover Message
The Past Alive, A Passover Message

Passover is in two weeks, two weeks from tonight. Even if your Seder is abbreviated – even
if all you do is read one or two symbolic passages from the Haggadah – stop
at this verse, this year: וּבְכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, חַיָּב
אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
“In every generation, every Jew should feel as if they were personally redeemed from Egypt.” That verse is in every Haggadah. I don’t care if you are using the Maxwell
House Haggadah or Uncle Max’s house Haggadah – because the rabbis tell us that of all
the passages, this is the central one. If you do not feel personally redeemed, you
missed the central point. If you do not eat the bread of affliction
– literally, physically – you have not fulfilled the commandment. Feel the lash. Exalt in liberation. Dance on the shores of the sea. The Seder is a reenactment of those times. Passover is the most personal of festivals. Its main message: You were there. Feel that. You were there. Passover is the proclamation that I was not
passed over. I am part of Jewish history. There were Jews before me. There will be Jews after me. I am the link in this magical, mystical, mysterious
movement. I am part of the continuum of Jewish life. The Haftarah reading for the second day of
Passover is from the 23rd chapter of the second book of Kings. It includes a description of the Passover
celebrations in the 18th year of King Josiah’s reign – around the year 622 BCE. Verse 11 of the 23rd chapter states: “And
King Josiah took away the horses that the kings of Judah had previously given to the
sun at the entrance to the House of the Lord – and Josiah burned the chariots of the
sun with fire by the chamber of his officer, Nathan-Melech.” Considered among the greatest and most consequential
of the Israelite kings, Josiah – Yoshiyahu –purged the Jerusalem Temple of the idolatrous
practices of his predecessors. There must have been some kind of ancient
foreign ritual of dedicating horses and chariots to the sun – and the Israelites had become
so corrupted by the time of King Josiah that the priests themselves performed this idol
worship at the very entrance to the Temple – the very House of God. According to this verse, Josiah took away
these horses and burned the chariots. And this took place by the chamber of one
Natan-Melech – an officer of the king. Hardly anyone has given any thought ever to Natan-Melech. He is mentioned only once in the Bible – in
this verse. And he is mentioned in passing. The point of the verse is not to tell us about
Natan-Melech. It is to locate where King Josiah burned the
idolatrous chariots. It was by the chamber of his servant, Natan-Melech. Natan-Melech must have been such a prominent
public official that everyone knew where he lived. To say “by the chamber of Natan-Melech”
would have been enough for the ancient reader or listener to know precisely the location
in Jerusalem. It would be like saying today, “I’ll meet
you by the mayor’s house” – or by the Empire State Building. Two-thousand six-hundred and forty-one years
later – this very week – that man, Natan-Melech, has vaulted back from near obscurity and thrust
into the very heartbeat of Jewish history. Natan-Melech has come alive – back from
the long dead. The man mentioned only once – in connection
with ancient Passover rituals, and only in passing – has returned just in time for
Passover. Israeli archeologists announced this week
that they discovered an ancient seal impression with his name. The size of a fingernail or two, the tiny
clay tablet – used in antiquity to seal documents – was imprinted with ancient Hebrew
letters spelling: “l’Natan-Melech Eved haMelech” – “Belonging to Natan-Melech,
Servant of the King.” That was him. It had to be him. It must have been him, the same Natan-Melech,
the king’s servant, mentioned only once, in passing, in the Book of Kings, chapter
23, verse 11. I stared and stared this week at the pictures
of the ancient seal. Natan-Melech might have personally held this
seal in the palm of his hand. And if not him, a member of his staff – some
ancient Jew – made it. Millennia ago, one of our Jewish ancestors
imprinted the letters and baked the clay in a kiln. And someone – Natan-Melech or his staff
– sealed a document with it. One of our ancestors walking the ancient streets
of Jerusalem – the very streets that we have walked upon with hundreds of Stephen
Wise congregants… Someone carried a document in his hands with
that seal of Natan-Melech, presented to the world this week. It was found inside the ruins of a massive
building where a very wealthy Jerusalemite must have lived. Charred remains of wooden beams were discovered
inside the house. Israeli archaeologists tell us that these
are the remains of the fires set by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE that destroyed the First
Temple. And there, inside that home, this tiny seal
was discovered by the charred wood. The parchment – the document that was under
the seal, of course – did not survive the fire. But the seal did – because it was made of
hardened clay. Oh, what I would give to read the document
attached to that seal. Natan-Melech spoke in the name of the king
of Israel – Yoshiyahu – one of the pivotal leaders in all of Jewish history. Historians tell us that Judaism might not
have even survived were it not for Josiah, who, they speculate, found or wrote some version
of what is now known as the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books of Moses. We were well on the way to oblivion like all
the other nations of antiquity that were conquered by Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece
and Rome – the super-powers of the ancient world. Josiah rebelled. Josiah fought back. Josiah restored the Temple. Josiah either discovered or wrote Deuteronomy. Without Josiah would we even be here? And Natan-Melech was one of his officers who
helped the king save Judaism in its infancy. And therefore, even though Natan-Melech was
mentioned only once, in passing, he was a critical figure because he was a high-ranking
official of the indispensable king. And this week, his seal lay in the hands of
21st century explorers of buried Jewish treasures who are slowly but surely discovering the
ancient secrets of our people and uncovering the ancient mysteries of Jerusalem. And in the process they are validating the
Bible, the fountainhead of Jewish life. It is simply overwhelming. This tiny object, buried in the earth for
over 2500 years and waiting to be discovered one day – this small seal of an almost-forgotten
Jerusalem official – links two extraordinarily monumental moments in Jewish life: First, King Josiah, the indispensable leader
whose reign impacted on Judaism to this day. And second – the destruction of the First
Temple by the Babylonians less than 25 years after Josiah was killed in war. It was one of the most dramatic events in
all of Jewish history. We still mourn the loss of the First Temple
to this day. Now if this does not move you – your heart
is made of sterner stuff than mine. וּבְכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר In every generation, every Jew should see
himself as if he was personally there. I see it all. I see it in my head. My mind’s eye creates a vividness that astonishes
me. I recreate it all in my imagination. Josiah, Natan-Melech, the idolatrous priests,
Jerusalem – they are all alive in me. You might have read about this discovery in
The New York Times. Did you see that? But you see why you still need rabbis and
Jewish teachers – even in the age of Wikipedia – where all of human knowledge is available at the click of a mouse? You would have missed almost everything I
spoke about. The Times article was primarily about how
Israeli archaeologists are digging up artifacts of ancient Jewish history in land that Palestinians
claim as part of their future state. Okay. Fine. I suppose this is a legitimate angle. Although, I did find it ironic that many of
those very Palestinians who object to Israelis digging up our people’s treasures from thousands
of years ago deny that our people were even there in the first place. It’s all made up, they say: a Zionist plot
concocted and imposed by European colonialists who have no connection to the Land of Israel. Yasser Arafat calmly told Bill Clinton at
Camp David that there was never was a Jewish kingdom. It was all fabricated. But while modern politics is relevant and,
of course, the paper of record is entitled to relate to all kinds of different angles
of a story, and they’re journalists they know what they’re doing, I’m not, you at least should also listen to rabbis – and learn from Jewish teachers. Don’t miss the essence. Natan-Melech lived. Natan-Melech lives now. All you have to do is imagine him in your
head. His seal is living in the palm of archeologists’ hands. I saw his seal. I imagine how he looked, how he spoke, what
he said. And by imagining him, I can imagine myself. I can imagine my destiny: why I was put
on this earth in the first place. Because Jerusalem is slowly revealing its
buried secrets, it is easier for you to bridge the millennia – and trace your very essence
to the source: the wellsprings of Jewish life. We would not be here if they were not there. Without them there would be no Jews today. We are part of an everlasting covenant. There was Jewish life before us. There will be Jewish life after us. The past shapes us. We are who we are because they were who they
were. We are not alone. We are in the bloodstream of Jewish existence. Today, we are the beating heart of Judaism. My Passover message to you is: take care of
your Jewish heart. Practice heart-healthy Jewish living. Exercise your Jewish heart. Feel the spirit – as if you were there all
those years ago.

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