Thursday, April 23, 2009

CyberTorah: Remembering Who We are

My Rabbi, David Booth, sent us this wonderful weekly column:

I was struck during Pesach by how much we talk about our stories and our experience. We as a Jewish people experienced oppression and poverty and we rejoice in having found freedom. So we tell of the plagues and we sing dayenu and remind ourselves of our stories.

The Hagaddah loves our stories of oppression and redemption. We go right from the four questions, when we expect to hear of the Exodus from Egypt, and start hearing about Lavan’s oppression of Jacob. Louis Ginzberg argued that this odd passage is really code and that the Rabbis are telling of their own experience under Roman persecution.

Later in the Seder the door is opened and in traditional Hagaddot we ask God to “pour out Your wrath.” This passage, written immediately following the Crusades, puts yet another moment of Jewish darkness into the narrative of the Hagaddah. As an aside, every year I invite one guest to tell us how to treat this somewhat disturbing passage. So some years we have read it as is with explanation about context. Other years we have omitted it and focused only on hope. And in still other years we have read other texts, including the medieval revision titled “Pour out Your love.”

In all these places, we tell our own stories of darkness embedded in the hopeful quality of the Seder. Just as God once brought us through the darkness of midnight to the dawn of redemption, so also in each of our stories of darkness there is the possibility of light. And for this we pray.

Yet the Seder, for all its hopefulness, is inwardly focused. Only on the margins do we recall the stories of others, or see ways in which the narrative expands. Many of us have the custom of removing a drop of wine for each plague to recall the suffering of the Egyptians. Many of us recall hunger and poverty more generally when reading of the bread of affliction. But overall, the Hagaddah focuses us on the particular rather than the universal.

There is a strength to this inward focus. The Seder focuses on Israel to remind me that Israel ought to hold a special place in my heart. Suffering and darkness are found elsewhere, but I take as my special responsibility the challenges facing Israel. That inward focus also reminds me that my own problems and challenges matter and that the light of a new dawn waits for me too. Trivial as my issues may feel at particular moments, they matter and are part of this narrative.

Yet the Seder, by telling these stories, by reminding us that there is a new dawn yet to come, invites us to see anew the sufferings and difficulties of others. It is from the particular that we learn the universal. We tell our own story of oppression and loss of freedom and that inspires in us a concern for those oppressed or suffering from poverty around the world. We have the courage to tell even of our own anger and so remember how oppression and destruction can lead to anger and away from peace. And the dawn promised by the Seder provides a new light that gives us the strength to see the sufferings of others and to strive to help.

I intend to use the occasion of this Passover now past to bring the other narratives that hover in the margins of the Hagaddah more front and center in my own life. I want to do more especially at this time of economic hardship to feed those still eating of the bread of poverty. I want to do more to bring an end to oppression, terror, and violence throughout the world. And I want to look at my own closed off places, the places where I bring darkness into the lives of others, and find a new light of renewal for me that engenders greater compassion in me.

Shabbat Shalom & Happy Hametz

Rabbi David Booth

1 comment:

  1. Dear rabbi Booth,

    Your words touched me deeply. You have a wonderful way of finding new meaning in a text that is at least 1000 years old, and has been read by millions, literally a thousand times.

    Our influence in this world is limited. We can't amend the whole world at once, yet we are obligated to do something. "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it" (Avot, 2, 21). I think that a good guideline is this: Put most of the effort where you have the most influence, in a place closer to you. Now here is the tough part: What can we do about Darfur? Virtually nothing. But we know of some oppression and hunger and poverty going on, very close to where our heart is, where we have families and loved ones. Even for those who disagree completely, that it is our responsibility to end the terrible conflict between Israel and the Palestinians - I think that we have an obligation to listen and learn something new.
    When I told a good friend of mine about the event in Beth Am tomorrow, where Dr. Abuelaish will be speaking, his response was: "I have all the empathy for the terrible suffering of this man. My heart goes to him. But I wont come to hear him because I don't think that he is really a peace activist."

    We are very used to accusing the Palestinians, that they are "no partners", and that there is no parallel to “Peace Now”, on their side.
    So to me, my friend's response is no less than an evidence, that we have exactly the same problem! When there is finally even one person, who is so wonderfully optimistic and positive about the situation, that before, and even after 3 of his daughters were killed by an Israeli tank shell (by accident!) - he is still traveling the world to preach for a peaceful solution - we wont even go to listen to him! Nobody asked us to agree. But we just shut our ears.

    This is so unfortunate, that it makes me desperate. I almost completely lost any hope for a change in this miserable region. Even if you or others think that this is not our fault, but the other side's fault, then you basically agree that there's nothing we can do. This is despairing and depressing.
    This is one reason that I decided to stop my political activity for the moment.
    I would still go tomorrow if could, but I have to fly to Israel on the same day. I feel that personally I can't do anything actively, for a number of reasons. But I would go to listen because listening is totally passive, and this way I am not hurting anybody, myself included.

    With this pessimistic note, I wish you Shabat Shalom...