Subscribe to our Newsletter

click to dowload our latest edition



Night of paradox and personal conviction

Avatar photo



Life is supposed to make sense.

And for me, it generally does. Even the impossible question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is often abstract and impersonal. My lack of understanding doesn’t often hit me in the gut. I’m comfortable with the limits of my comprehension.

And then, my father died. Suddenly. On my mother’s birthday. It was Wednesday afternoon in early January 2019, just hours before my wife was scheduled to board a direct flight from our home town of Johannesburg to New York City for her brother’s wedding. I was going to watch the kids in Johannesburg. The flight was at 21:40. My wife was packed, and I was working on an essay. At 15:13, I saw a WhatsApp message on my family group.



“Dad isn’t responsive!!!!!!!!

“We’re calling Hatzalah.”

Nine endless minutes later,

“Nothing they can do.

“Baruch dayan haemet

“Get over here now!”

We soon found out that he had died peacefully in his sleep from a massive heart attack.

There was no time even to feel. Logistics took over. The flight to New York was leaving in six hours. We quickly bought a ticket. Three hours later, we were heading to the airport. My sister-in-law and her parents graciously took in the kids for the week.

I was going to a funeral. My wife was headed to a sibling’s wedding. On the very same flight! She was flying with her gowns; I was flying with clothes that would soon be ripped and then worn for the week of mourning.

It was surreal. I kept pinching myself to remind myself that it was real. My young father had gone without warning, and my dear brother-in-law was getting married. All at once. The 16-hour flight is always long, but this time it was endless.

On that flight, I let go of logic. Logic was of no help.

We landed on Thursday morning, and soon went to the funeral. Three days later, my wife put on her gown and joined her siblings, parents, grandparents, and hundreds of others at a beautiful wedding, just five minute’s walk from where my mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, and I were sitting shiva.

Just minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the groom stopped by. I walked outside as, according to Jewish law, a bride or groom may not enter a home of mourning on their wedding day. He was dressed so handsomely. I was in ripped, scruffy clothing. We hugged. We cried. I blessed him with everything good in this world. He shared words of comfort. And then I went back to join the ring of mourners and he went to put a ring on his bride’s finger.

Talk about mixed emotions!

I share this personal anecdote because I believe that Pesach 2024 will be a somewhat similar experience for all of us. We’ll be forced to confront very opposite emotions. Freedom and slavery – may the hostages come home! Gratitude and apprehension. Pride in our identity, and slight nervousness about the virulent antisemitism running rampant in the hearts of humans who we believed had a conscience.

In fact, however, it’s not just this year’s Pesach that confronts us with the paradox of opposing emotions. Rather, this paradox is built into the very fabric of the Pesach seder each year.

Salt water – to commemorate the tears; wine – to celebrate freedom; bitter herbs – it was so hard in Egypt; recline while you eat – because you’re now free; matzah – food of slavery; and matzah – food of freedom. “This year, we’re slaves. Next year, we’ll be free!”

Then, of course, we have the four sons. The one who is over-excited to know every detail. The passive-aggressive dude with 14 earrings in each earlobe. The simple fellow who wants to be involved but is holding the book upside down and can’t even remember that there are four questions, let alone what they are. Finally, the fellow who doesn’t know what hit him and has the gobsmacked face of Columbus arriving in the New World who doesn’t have a clue where he is, who he’s looking at, and what language is being spoken by the natives.

And yet, they’re all at the seder. They all belong. Because the night of the seder is the night of paradox. We do unusual things just to arouse the curiosity of the kids. We sing songs about goats “Chad gadya… beh!” And dip our bitter herbs in some concoction that’s supposed to resemble cement.

And, let’s not forget how complicated the seder evening will inevitably be.

Your off-tune uncle will grate your ears all the same. He’ll insist on reading every word in Hebrew and English out loud, and on sharing with you all the long paragraphs of commentaries from the haggadah he bought last week. “You need to hear this magnificent 40-minute thought I heard from Rabbi Cohen on YouTube. He’s amazing! You just need to subscribe to his channel and listen to his four-hour podcasts at least twice a week!”

Your cousin will ask, once again, five minutes into the seder, “How long until we finish? I want my phone! Do we have to do this? This is so irrelevant! I need to check my Instagram to see what my favourite celeb is eating for dinner! Priorities, man!”

Once again, those relatives with young kids will disappear for three quarters of the seder because, “We were putting the kids to sleep, of course. And it’s all about the kids.”

Gran will wax nostalgic about the good old days when seders were so special, when 75 family members would all come together in perfect harmony around this huge mahogany table, and everyone behaved so nicely. It was all perfect. These days, all the relatives are faribeled with one another, of course.

Once again, your auntie – and many others – will have way too much wine to drink, and by the time it comes time for the kneidlach, she’ll be laughing at everything and everyone at top volume.

And the kvetching about living in South Africa will be the same. And the cost of Pesach food! There will be so much knowledge and prophecies to share! “I’m telling you, South Africa has three years left! Mark my words!” Spare me.

In this maelstrom of chaos, oxymorons, and conflicting emotions, we’ll remember once again that the heart is big enough for lots of emotions. We can cry and dance; mourn and celebrate; miss the past and embrace the present; cringe at our mother-in-law’s comment; and still love her. Okay, maybe that’s too much to ask – how about tolerate her. We can be proud of who we are, and pray hard for better times.

We can remember that life isn’t perfect, but we never give up hope for “Next year in Jerusalem!”

  • Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the rabbi at Linksfield Shul.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *