Thursday, April 5, 2012

Remembering - Pesach 2012

Can it really be that Pesach is so soon upon us? Part of me is always caught unawares as this holiday more than any other feels as though it sneaks up on us—and, yes, there may be a bit of denial in there, which is not only the river in this particular tale we are about to tell—but perhaps this year part of the reason I’m feeling that way especially profoundly is because the winter never really came, thus making it that much more disorienting for spring suddenly to have arrived and, with it, Pesach, called in our tradition chag ha-aviv, the springtime holiday. But another part has to do with the nature of Pesach itself, for in its own way, Pesach is the quintessential festival of unexpected things.

We naturally tend to focus on the end of the story, but the truth is that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for many centuries. In Parashat Bo, for example, the Torah gives the specific number of 430 as the sum total of the years that Israel was in Egypt. We rarely think of the story in terms of those long, unaccounted-for centuries, but there’s something there well worth contemplating. To say the same thing in other words, the Israelites we always focus on are the ones whom God led forth with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” But those were the lucky ones, the liberated ones who escaped, the ones with whom the Haggadah wants us to self-identify…but 430 is a very long prelude to the story and that part of the tale is obviously about the Israelites who did not leave Egypt, who never met Moses, who groaned under the exhausting burden of their labors, but whom no one brought forth anywhere other than to another week of slaves’ work. The story we tell at the seder is about the lucky ones. But there were a lot of unlucky ones too, people whose stories are just a bit too blithely passed over.

In response to that thought, I suggest that we take a moment to consider that number, 430. To set that figure in its modern context, 430 years ago was 1582. Does that feel like a long time ago? It should! The Gregorian calendar has just been invented. (1582 was the one solar year in recorded history that had way fewer than 365 days in it. In most of Europe, by virtue of a papal bull imposing a new calendar on the West, Thursday, October 4, was followed directly by Friday, October 15. So if someone ever asks you what happened, say, on October 13, 1582, the correct answer is absolutely nothing!) The new calendar wasn’t the only news that year, however. The eighteen-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, that year as well. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest Christian mystics (whose autobiography I recommend to you enthusiastically as an exquisite example of spiritual introspection well worth anyone’s time to peruse), died that year.

But can any of us name any of our direct ancestors who were alive in 1582? I am more or less certain that not one of us can! And I also cannot. We all must have had ancestors alive then, the men and women who produced offspring whose further reproductive efforts eventually led to all of us being born to our parents, their direct descendants. Yet they are lost to us, those men and women, and in that mysterious way that the past simply slips away even despite our best efforts to hold on tight. Most of us could only guess vaguely where those ancestors—the great-great-grandparents, say, of our grandparents’ great-grandparents—would have lived. (I’ve observed many times from the bimah that only the smallest number of us can name all eight of his or her eight great-grandparents, let alone name all sixteen great-great-grandparents. (Your great-great-grandparents are only your grandparents’ grandparents! But who can even say their names, let alone speak about their lives? Will the grandchildren of our grandchildren say the same of us? Don’t even go there—some questions are best left unanswered!) So now consider how things must have been in Egypt as generation followed generation without leaving a trace behind of any sort other than the building projects on which they worked. But even that work went unacknowledged and unmemorialized, somewhat in the same way that the great skyscrapers of New York nowhere record the names of the people who actually built them.

My point is that 430 years is a long time. And, on top of that, the Israelites living in Egypt lived there without any of the things we ourselves have come to rely upon as memory aids in terms of keeping our family legacies intact. They had no photographs, obviously, no home movies. We know nothing of their lives in Egypt, in fact, not even their names. The beginning of their story, we know a little. The first decades must have gone well. Indeed, Joseph was forty-four years of age when the famine that brought his people to Egypt finally ended. Yet when he died sixty-six years later at age 110, they were still there, apparently having forgotten entirely about going home when the famine ended that had brought them there in the first place. And then there eventually came to power a Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph,” and that must have been some time after that, long enough later for the memory of a personality like Joseph to have faded from the national recollective consciousness sufficiently for the new king to know nothing of his legacy or of the offer of friendship that his predecessor had made to Joseph’s father and family. So even the figure of 430 years, which references the years of Israelite slavery in Egypt, does not reveal the full story because there must have been almost a century that preceded that during which the Israelites were in Egypt as welcomed guests and not as slaves. So let’s say, roughly, that this is actually a story covering five hundred years of which the Torah tells the story of the final one only.

Things must have been going on just as always when, out of the blue, things changed. Scripture says that God took note of the Israelites’ suffering, that God “heard” their groaning and moaning. But would that specific generation of slaves necessarily have suffered more than the previous ones? And even if it were so that the misery inflicted upon the Israelites was that much worse in Moses’s generation than in earlier times, would it have seemed that way to the Israelite slaves themselves in Moses’s day? I don’t see why it would have. Indeed, how could they have known how much worse or better they had it than their ancestors from a century or so earlier? My guess is that they would have had no way at all to know that and that redemption must have seemed to them, other than perhaps in retrospect, unearned and inexplicable, an example of divine beneficence not only unanticipated but unanticipatable.

After the fact, most historical events develop a feel of unavoidability to them. But that is truly only how things seem in retrospect and to the Israelite slaves in Egypt, the notion that freedom was nigh, that the hour of their long-awaited redemption was upon them…it must have seemed like the most unimaginable of miracles. Later on, the stories they recorded spoke of the various signs and wonders that God brought against the Egyptians as acts of judgment. But surely the redemption itself, after so many generations of nameless, faceless Israelites lived and died as slaves, was the greatest miracle, the greatest example of God’s presence in history.
That’s how we tell the story. But it behooves us also to pause and remember all those who never made it out, who lived and died in captivity, whose hopes for freedom never came to fruition. It is, after all, on their backs that the story unfolds, on the backs of the uncountable millions who lived and died so that those who had the good fortune to live at precisely the right moment to experience redemption might go free.

As we approach Pesach, I invite you to consider the endless generations of Jews who didn’t make it out alive, who lived and died without breathing free, without experiencing even a day’s respite from their misery. It is on their back that the story unfolds! And so, when the Haggadah invites us to consider ourselves as though we were slaves in Egypt—and the temptation is mighty to consider ourselves as the slaves for whom the sea parted, for whom the manna fell, for whom the presence of God became manifest atop Sinai—I propose we pause also to think of ourselves as the people in the back story, the ones who lived and died so that the other people, the heroes of the Haggadah, could experience the signs and wonders that led to their freedom.

It is in the nature of backstories not to be so interesting. That’s why we call them backstories, because they serve to highlight not themselves but precisely the people in the foreground. But they are there, and their ghosts are hiding between the pages of the Haggadah just as surely as are those of their more illustrious descendants, the generation that fled slavery and became a free people. They are all our ancestors…and this Pesach I think it would behoove us all to spend at least a moment recalling their unhappy fate. The Haggadah, it is true, calls upon us to think of ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. My suggestion is simply that we also think of those who didn’t leave, who couldn’t leave, who simply entered and left the stage of history so that their descendants could become our ancestors, the ancestors of a free people traveling the path from history to destiny, from Kadesh to Nirtzah, from redemption-past to redemption-future.

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