Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pesach: Ideas and Questions for the Seder

I wanted to share some ideas, discussion points and questions that people may find useful during Pesach. Each idea includes a short summary in the text.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg explains that "The key to Jewish exegesis is to assume that nothing is obvious...We train children at the Passover Seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty won with a good question…when we ask good questions, the Torah is given anew on Sinai at that very moment."

In this context, I hope everyone has a Chag Sameach full of much joy and many questions. An extended discussion on each topic can be found by clicking on the relevant links.

The 10 Plagues (Our Liberation, An-Other's Pain)

The Midrash explains that as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing praises to God. The Almighty's response – "the works of My hands are drowning, and you seek to sing praises!?" – suggests an aspect of universality (or that we don’t rejoice in our enemy's downfall) which is interesting to explore.

What makes it even more interesting is another similar but different Midrash which uses a similar phrase ("My children are in danger and you seek to sing praises!?") to describe the Israelites, rather than the Egyptians. It touches on the tension between God as universalist and God as particularist.

And it raises the question as to the balance be between our freedom and an-other's suffering

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog post on the topic is here.

Bechol Dor VaDor (Liberating Ourselves from Slavery)

The British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that in order for an individual to truly liberate him or herself from slavery, they must let go of hate (which explains why the Israelites ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold and silver – it was an act that would make it harder to hate the Egyptians).

Yet even though we are physically free, to what extent are we still emotionally traumatized (or enslaved) by the past? In what ways have we succeeded in ridding ourselves of hate and in what ways have we not?

Furthermore, might one Bechol Dor VaDor (seeing ourselves in every generation as leaving Egypt i.e. becoming liberated) be undermined by another Bechol Dor VaDor (remembering that in each generation our enemies rise up against us)?

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog post on the topic is here .

The Four Sons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Hagaddah speaks of four sons - wise, wicked, simple and one unable to ask. Over the generations, this theme was expanded - four different Jews, four generations, four characteristics present in each one of us. In this context, here is a reading based on different Zionist approaches to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

The Redemptionist child, who says that talk about ‘peace’ with the Arabs is dangerous utopianism; The Realist child who believes that peace with the Palestinians may be possible, but not in this generation; The Pragmatist child who argues that unless we achieve a two state solution soon, the window of opportunity for a secure Jewish and democratic state may close; and the Justice child who contends that the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is a tragic struggle of right against right and that Zionism loses its moral legitimacy when it denies national liberation to another people.

The only question remaining is which child is wise and which is simple (naïve)? And which is so blinded by their opinions that they are not even able to question them?

A blog post on the topic is here.

Dayenu (Maintaining Meaning in an Imperfect World)

If the ultimate aim of Shemot is leaving Egypt in order to receive the Torah and enter Israel, how can we genuinely say Dayenu, that 'it would have been enough for us' if only some of these steps would have happened?

While entering Israel may have been part of our people's meta-narrative, there is still importance in understanding and appreciating steps along the long walk to freedom. In fact, as Jonathan Sacks explains, failure to understand historical processes (as reflected in the French and Russian revolutions), or forcing perfection and redemption before its allotted time (what Amos Oz calls 'now-ism') can lead to disaster.

Dayenu thus challenges us to see value in interim steps even if we haven’t achieved full redemption.

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here.

Chofesh and Cherut (Freedom in a Jewish State)

In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz describes two accounts – one by his father and one by his aunt – of their childhoods in pre-war Europe.

"Then he [my father] told me in a whisper… what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground… "

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust"

These accounts touch on the differences between Herzl's Political Zionism and Ahad Haam's Cultural Zionism; between Isaiah Berlin's 'negative and 'positive liberty' (freedom from and freedom to), and between the ideas of Chofesh and Cherut.

A blog post on this topic, which also touches on African refugees, is here.

The Price of Liberation (Moshe and the Tragedy of Leadership)

Although Moshe does not appear in the Hagaddah, he plays a major role in the Jewish people's exodus from slavery. Yet despite showing great leadership and thirst for justice, Moshe is barred from entering the Land of Israel. In fact, it may be those very actions that are considered praiseworthy in one context that lead to his failure to enter the land in another.

One Midrash describes an argument between God and Moshe where the latter's killing of the Egyptian taskmaster counts against him in his request to live forever and enter the Promised Land.

Can any liberation moment succeed without bloodshed? And what sort of price might this take from its leaders?

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog on this idea, which also relates to the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, is here

Escape from Freedom

One small idea to end with… Although I haven’t read Eric Fromm's Escape to Freedom, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why freedom might be something people would prefer not to experience. In this context, I found this article in the New York Times "Born and raised in a North Korean gulag" fascinating.

The story touches on Shin, a North Korean who escaped from one of his country's concentration camps. 'Now in Seoul, [Shin] said he sometimes finds life "more burdensome than the hardest labor in the prison camp, where I only had to do what I was told"…Shin said he sometimes wished he could return to the time before he learned about the greater world, "without knowing that we were in a prison camp, without knowing that there was a place called South Korea."

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