By Rabbi Nisan Andrews
(AJNews) – During my sojourn in London, England, I remember a congregant who had just returned from a visit to the city of York. After shacharit, he shared some pictures from his trip, including a photo of Clifford’s Tower. At the time, I thought it was just another ancient edifice of the sort that abounds in Great Britain. That was until I noticed a strange look on the faces of some of the morning attendees.
It seems that this tourist was just as ignorant as I regarding a gruesome event that occurred at this location close to a thousand years ago; Clifford’s tower is the site of England’s worst massacre of Jews.
The Shabbat that precedes Pesach this year is the anniversary of the death of approximately 150 slain by a mob besieging the original watchtower. Due to earlier looting of Jewish homes, the city’s Jews sought protection from the local lord, and leave was granted for them to take refuge inside the castle, the site of the current Clifford’s Tower. The throngs of ruffians besieged the tower, whose numbers were later bolstered by royal troops who joined the fray.
On Friday, 16 March 1190, the eve of Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Pesach, the Jews recognized that they could not hold out against their assailants. Some chose suicide rather than waiting to be killed or forcibly baptised. Others accepted offers of free passage if they surrendered, only to be murdered as they left the tower. Those that remained alive in the building attempted to burn their last possessions, only for the fire to spread and consume the structure’s wooden support beams.
After the captives in the tower were dealt with, the rioters destroyed the documents of debts to the Jews, which had been placed for safekeeping at the cathedral of York, York Minster. Perhaps absolving themselves of these debts was a reason for the riot. It was always easier to do away with the people they owed money to than confront the debt itself.
There is a thematic parallel in the week’s Torah portion in both fire and personal obligation. We are instructed that “the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning; it shall not be put out.” The Talmud tells us that, in truth, fire descended from heaven and burned miraculously, making wood unnecessary. However, G-d commanded us to supply wood for the altar and not rely on miraculous, spontaneous combustion.
Again, the theme here is that for our offerings to be effective, they must reflect a more profound reality; we must bear the onus of accountability. This truth is represented by our personal responsibility to provide our own fuel for our sacrifices and not offload that burden on others.
This message is even starker from the Temple in Jerusalem. There, the altar had an exact location, as the Rambam (Maimonides, 1138-1204) writes: “…the place where David and Solomon built the altar…is the very place where Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac upon it; which is where Noah built [an altar] when he came out from the Ark, where Cain and Abel brought their offerings, where Adam, the first man, brought an offering when he was created – and it is from [the earth of] this place that he was created. Thus, the Sages have said: Man was formed from the place that would one day atone [for his sins]” (Mishneh Torah, Beit Habechira 2:2).
In other words, individuals must take responsibility for their errors. If one has debts, one must repay them. Since the individual and atonement come from the same place and origin, atonement is within us. Only when we accept personal accountability can penance be achieved.
Passover, as a holiday, echoes these themes. Pesach is full of obligations; four cups of wine, maror (bitter herbs), matzah, and, significantly, the eradication of chametz. Likewise, there is an element of fire, as how else do we eradicate chametz?
The message of the festival is clear; the season’s theme is that of our duty to family, society, community, and, most importantly, G-d. A responsibility that cannot be passed to anyone other than ourselves.
Rabbi Nisan Andrews is the spiritual leader at House of Jacob Mikveh Israel, Calgary’s Orthodox Jewish congregation.
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