18 April 2011

Antidote for the Leavened Self

The notion of remaining awake all night long until the recitation of the morning prayers, studying the text of the Haggadah and contemplating the deepest possible meanings of the Exodus from Egypt, as exemplified by the Haggadah's description of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, has always struck me as the most challenging and aspirational aspect of the Passover Seder experience.

So far removed from what most Jews experience of the Exodus--the food, the wine and the family stories with the usual challenges of corralling the masses back to the table after the meal to finish some aspect of the Telling--the idea of these Sages staying up all night long to explore the depths of an historic liberation, already 1300 years removed from their day, ought to give us reason to truly wonder what we might stumble upon were we to stay up all night asking questions.

What kind of agenda of the American Jewish community might come into focus if over the course of an entire evening the true meaning of our Exodus would be debated?

Would we really care about quinoa or the countless recipes that are reviewed in every Jewish publication imaginable, including the venerated New York Times?  Would any of the clever videos or songs of the New Jewish Media really impact our ability to understand essential elements of the human struggle for freedom and dignity?  An artful review of Passover ritual items at the Met sounds good but damn if its not depressing to see Passover in a museum when we're supposed to be leaving "Egypt" tonight!  Would the innumerable meditations about Passover's personal message, its individuated spiritual truths, ultimately matter when poverty rates continue to soar, when school budgets are slashed, when food stamp programs are eviscerated?

I mean, really.  What's going on here?

To what degree has Passover become merely a celebration of ourselves and not the true re-commitment to the core values of what it means to examine our own historical enslavement?

Each year at this time I spend several hours paging through the many Haggadahs in my collection, thinking about the degree to which the Passover Seder has become, for lack of a better term, increasingly bland as an official expression of who we really are because, let's face it, we got it good.   No longer a document of National Liberation, given that we are possibly the wealthiest and most fortunate Diaspora Community in Jewish history, what is the Haggadah really supposed to *do* to us?  And so some time in the mid-1960s, things shift inward; and with the exception of Arthur Waskow's "Freedom Seder" (an admirable but basically flawed identification of Judaism with the anti-Vietnam War Struggle and Black Civil Rights--meaning, someone else's narrative, not ours) our Haggadahs have become manuals for teaching assimilated American Jewish communities about Judaism itself.  Who has time for Radical Documents of Liberation?  That kind of stuff can get you sent to the principals office.

Don't get me wrong.  I think supporting protests against the Vietnam War was a good idea.  Had I been old enough, I would have marched with Dr. King.  It's just that each of those now venerated pillars of one generation's definition of Jewishness don't get to the core of what this is all about.

For the Sages sitting up all night in Bnei Brak, talking Haggadah until Sunrise, they were arguing internal Jewish priorities.  I'd like to think they were modeling for us a way of looking at which philanthropists in the community support which projects; which Federation systems across the land support which projects; examining teachers salaries and their effectiveness in conveying a meaningful Judaism to another generation; demanding, like taxes, gifts to the poor and adult learning so that Judaism does not remain for so many a Pediatric Religious Civilization; parsing negotiations with the ruling authorities; and holding one another and each and every Jewish institution--including the Jewish Commonwealth--to the highest moral and ethical standards of Judaism's spiritual and historical reality.

That would be something to stay up all night for, yes?

The Vilna Gaon has a very powerful teaching about this.  He argues that man's propensity at self-aggrandizement is like leaven, the agent that makes dough rise.  The more one contemplates the Self, the more he is given to Sin.  Studying Torah, on the other hand, neutralizes this inclination.  He points to God's warning in the Talmud:  "I have created the created the urge to do Evil and I have created Torah as its antidote."

We come to the Seder table as individual seekers--such is the presumption of Jewish life today.  But the longer we stay, God willing, the more we come to learn that we are part of a greater whole, part of a greater destiny, part of a greater narrative promising Redemption from the Almighty Self, liberated with the knowledge of the pain of others, linking arms in unity, and moving forward to Freedom.

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