Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach 2016

One of the mysteries of life I have yet to unravel is how I can read the same passage over and over and over, year after year, and still see things that I’ve never noticed before or thought carefully about. I had just such an experience the other day as I was preparing myself to lead the seder meals at our home on Friday and Saturday nights and thought I would share it with you, and what I now understand the passage in question to be saying, as my pre-Pesach message for this year.
If there’s one piece of our Jewish liturgical heritage I know well, it’s the Haggadah. I’m not sure I could write it all out from memory, but I surely could manage big chunks of it more or less correctly…and with good reason: I’ve been leading seders at our home for thirty-five years and listening to my father lead the seder in my parents’ home for more than a quarter century before that. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t paying that much attention when I was three. But by the time I was seven or eight, I was totally captivated. Admittedly, I was an unusual child in that regard. (I heard that! But I was a normal child in other ways, or normalish.) But it somehow spoke to me, the Haggadah and the seder and the whole Jewish thing as the eight-year-old me perceived it. And although I surely didn’t set out to memorize it, I did internalize it…to the point at which its cadences and vocabulary have not only become part of how I speak but also of how I see and understand the world.

The passage I want to write about today is probably one of the best known, one of the ones everybody sort of knows by heart: the opening paragraph of the part of the Magid section of the Haggadah that leads directly into the children’s famous four questions. Ha laḥma anya di akhalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim, we begin, lifting the plate of matzah aloft for all to say: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.” And then we go on to sing out the twin declarations that lend Pesach its air of generosity and relational inclusivity. The first one, the easy one, translates simply as “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” That seems straightforward enough, but the second one is another story entirely. In the Haggadah we use, the red-and-yellow ones that linger on from my childhood (and which seem somehow to multiply in our Pesach cupboard from year to year), the second declaration is translated “All who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover with us.” But that’s not at all accurate, it suddenly strikes me. In fact, it’s not even close. And thereby hangs an interesting tale.

The second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, harks back to ancient times and was an invitation to any who had somehow not made their own plans to join some other family in their home and to share in that family’s paschal sacrifice. In ancient times, the hallmark of Passover observance was the korban pesach, the pascal lamb which was the sole sacrifice in ancient times eaten entirely by its sponsors. Nor was that a mere perk of the festival: one of the very first commandments of the Torah is precisely that every Israelite must eat the meat of the paschal lamb (or, at least theoretically, the paschal kid) on the first night of Pesach. And the lead-up is part of the mitzvah as well: the twelfth chapter of Exodus (which readers who were in synagogue a week ago for Shabbat Hachodesh heard read aloud as the maftir reading) offers a sense of the whole procedure: once the new moon of Nisan is sighted, the Israelites must make sure they are ready to select an unblemished yearling lamb on the tenth of the month, forming groups large enough to guarantee the feasibility of consuming the entire animal on the evening of Passover. The lamb or kid must then be kept safe until the fourteenth day of the Nisan, Erev Pesach, at which time it is to be slaughtered. It must then be flame-roasted. Care must be taken to make sure none of the animal’s bones is broken in the slaughtering or cooking process. And its flesh must then be eaten as soon as night falls and the festival formally commences.

Some of the instructions given the ancients on the eve of their liberation from bondage in Egypt did not become rituals of subsequent Jewish life, but others did: in our day, we may not come to our seder tables with sandals on our feet and walking sticks in our hands, but the ancients did indeed eat their roast paschal lamb with matzah and maror, just as the Torah commands, and just as do we too…by making our Hillel sandwiches of matzah and horse radish and eating it just before the seder meal is served, the precise point in the evening when the korban pesach would have been served and eaten in Temple times.

But the whole scriptural insistence that people organize in advance into groups, called ḥavurot, was also part of the ritual in ancient times. More to the point, the law that the korban pesach may only be slaughtered specifically for those who have signed on as members of the ḥavurah sponsoring the sacrifice. And although a korban pesach that is sponsored by a sole individual (presumably one with a very robust appetite, a point Maimonides makes specifically in his code) is theoretically kosher, it is not the desired practice.

When seen in this light, the second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, is an example of Jewish people deviating from the strict interpretation of the law to do the right thing by the lonely shlimazel who somehow didn’t sign on to any ḥavurah, who didn’t have a family to have Pesach with (why else would such a person have been wandering around in the street waiting to hear the declaration sung out from within someone else’s home?), who somehow failed utterly to prepare for one of the most important festival meals, perhaps even the most important, and who therefore is reduced to hoping against hope that someone will offer a last-minute invitation to join in their korban. It’s not allowed, obviously. The law on that point is entirely clear, and it’s more or less the simple meaning of Scripture anyway: to participate, you had to be part of the specific ḥavurah on whose behalf the lamb was slaughtered. The Torah returns to this idea several times, in fact, thereby promoting it as a key concept. And yet the liturgist chooses simply to ignore that part of things and instead to imagine a Jewish family seated around their table and, blithely ignoring the letter of the law, simply inviting anyone who has no other place to go to participate in their seder, to ingest the requisite olive’s bulk of meat from their own korban, to be part of their family group.

How can I never have seen that? And yet I never have, never even noticed that there was an issue. Now, of course, I can’t turn away, can’t not see it staring up at me and challenging me with its slightly disorienting message that generosity, hospitality, kindness, and compassion must always be allowed to divert our attention from legal details that risk leading us in the precise opposite direction. Nor should this sound like permission to demonstrate allegiance to the covenant by ignoring its terms: embedded in kol di-tz’rikh is the liturgist’s unspoken supposition that, because God is the moral ground of the world, the proper observance of God’s law may by definition never lead us to behave cruelly or uncharitably to the needy or to feeling justified, let alone virtuous, in excluding those in our midst who have no place to go unless we find a place for them at our table. So, by turning away from a detail, we may well end up embracing the deeper, more profound principle of which the rule in question was intended all along to function as a mere elaboration, thus somehow enabling us to reach for a more profound understanding of what, at the end of the day, it actually means to live lives bound in covenant with God. Clearly, this is a principle easily abused. But that only makes it even more incumbent upon us to focus all religious observance through the triple prism of morality, generosity of spirit, and kindness.

This concept rests behind many issues facing our world as we prepare for Pesach this year, but one comes the most readily to mind. There are a million reasons to close our doors to refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. We don’t know who these people are, not really. There appears to be no ironclad way to vet them either, not one that we can be absolutely certain will weed out potential terrorists, radicals, or jihadists. These people have no experience as citizens of a democracy such as our own and may not naturally subscribe to the principles that undergird our republic. For all these reasons, it makes sense a hundred times over just to shut the gate and tell them to go home. Or anywhere they wish…as long as it’s not here. Nor is it at all fair or reasonable that we take more immigrants than the wealthy Gulf states like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or huge Islamic nations like Indonesia or Malaysia.

But I find myself unsure of myself.  Kol di-tz’rikh reminds me that I only exist at all because my grandparents and great-grandparents left Poland and came here decades before Polish Jewry was annihilated. In their day, there was no quota system. Instead, would-be immigrants simply set sail for Ellis Island, where they were cleared for entry once it was determined that they were in good (or good enough) health. And it reminds me, not of the mere 908 people on the St. Louis in 1939—or not just of them, but even more so of the countless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who could have been saved if the nations that were prepared to go to war with Germany had been concomitantly ready to open their gates to those whom the Germans were attempting to exterminate. That goes for our nation, of course. But it applies to Canada as well, home of the famous “none is too many” policy regarding Jewish refugees. And it surely applies to the U.K, which nation, even when the dimensions of the disaster befalling the Jews of Europe were patently obvious to all, still kept the gates to British Palestine shut tight. I understand that we can’t go back to just letting in anyone who shows up and doesn’t seem too sick. But surely there must be some way to welcome people fleeing for their lives to these shores, to make them feel welcome, to teach them what it means to be an American, to embrace them as potential friends. These people are predisposed to be hostile to Israel, our most reliable ally in their own region of the world, because that venom has been pumped into them by their leaders for decades. But even that does not have to be the last word on the topic—if we, and I mean by “we” our American Jewish community—reach out warmly and genuinely, then we can save these people’s lives and make them into worthy citizens of our great land…and help them understand that the right of Israel to exist is no different than the right of any state to thrive in its own place and to provide the kind of safe haven for its own people that they themselves are seeking in the lands of their would-be dispersion. Nor is this a matter solely of political theory: five hundred would-be asylum-seekers drowned in the sea the other day on their way to anywhere at all that would take them in. A few months ago, eight hundred would-be refugees drowned off the coast of Libya. To nod to the tragedy and the look away because the deaths of terrified children at sea is technically not our problem to solve requires too radical a re-definition of the words “our problem” for me to countenance this close to hearing myself piously intone the kol di-tz’rikh on Friday and Saturday evenings.

There are other issues too to consider in this regard. I’ll write about them in future letters, both on the macro level and on the micro, communal level. But the bottom line is that devotion to the law becomes more fetishistic than productive when the details are allowed to trump the principles that undergird them and give them their stature as sacred law in the first place. At the end of the day, the kol di-tz’rikh isn’t there to prompt us to obsess about kitniyot, but to allow the story of our ancestors’ flight to freedom inspire us truly to be raḥmanim b’nei raḥmanim, individuals whose worldview is fully suffused with compassion and generosity, and whose Pesach observance celebrates freedom…not just from slavery, but also from harshness, cruelty, and apathy.

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