4.25.2008

Prerequisites for redemption and culturally-defined props during Pesach

I was somewhat frustrated that, for the first time this year, I didn't have time to prepare Torah for the seder.1 This was my third year (in a row) leading the seder, and I like to find at least two interesting and new (to me, at least) things to share over the course of the seder. I love leading the seder, and one of the things that I love about it is that it forces me to find interesting things to say in advance. I was also much more nervous this year (and therefore worse at it), probably because it was my first time leader seder for non-family. The only thing that I thought I did pretty well was having things run smoothly time-wise, at a fast enough clip to be done by 1:10 am (started at 9:15 pm), but with enough time to talk about and ask questions on interesting things. Real kudos, though, of course go to the cooks!

During the second seder, which was a communal one that I attended with my sister, aunt, and 40 strangers, I actually had time to talk and think and discuss, mostly because whenever the leader was saying anything, I looked through my haggadah. (I had brought my own, to supplement their Maxwell House ones, and to keep from getting bored, which happens to me at long, drawn-out, communal affairs.)

I had two interesting, new-to-me, thoughts. I think that the second is more interesting, but I'll start with the first.

* * * * *

Someone at the seder asked an excellent question on this part of the haggadah text:

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יי אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע יי אֶת קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ.

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יי אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיְהִי בַיָמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַים, וַיֵאָנְחוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבוֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ, וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה.

וַיִּשְׁמַע יי אֶת קֹלֵנוּ - כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם, וַיִּזְכּוֹר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת אַבְרָהָם, אֶת יִצְחָק ואֶת יַעֲקֹב.

"And we cried out to the L-rd, the G-d of our fathers, and the L-rd heard our voice and saw our suffering, our labor, and our oppression."

"And we cried out to the L-rd, the G-d of our fathers," as it is said: "During that long period, the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned because of the servitude, and they cried out. And their cry for help from their servitude rose up to G-d."

"And the L-rd heard our voice" as it said: "And G-d heard their groaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

The question was, "Why did we need to cry out for God to hear our suffering and remember the covenant? Would God forget a covenant? If we had not cried out, would we still be slaves in Egypt? Did he not see our suffering, our labor, and our oppression until we called out?"

I find that question to be interesting. There are really two questions:
  1. Does God not see everyone's suffering, even the suffering of those who suffer in silence? This is a question on the verse:
    "And we cried out to the L-rd...and the L-rd...saw our suffering, our labor, and our oppression."
  2. And secondly, would God have forgotten his sacred promise to Abraham, et. al., (e.g., this), if they had not cried out in anguish? This is a question on the midrashic interpretation of the verse:
    "'And the L-rd heard our voice' as it said: 'And G-d heard their groaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.'"

I have no proof, but I have to believe that the answer to the first question is "yes." God clearly does not always rescue us from our bondage, but the thought of God not even seeing--not even noticing--when his creations suffer is untenable in my personal theology. So the basic question of why it says that "God saw our suffering" only after that reports that "we cried out" is a very good one. I don't really have an answer.

In terms of the second question, I think I have something slightly better to offer. This question arises whenever we read that God "remembered" (זכר or פקד). I'm sure that there are many classic rabbinic answers, but I don't remember them. In any case, various people at the second seder offered answers, none of which satisfied me. The only one that satisfied me was my own, which is this:

God does not forget covenants. God does not ignore suffering. But even God cannot save people who don't want to be saved. You need to want redemption in order to merit redemption. I like this idea, because it fits into the later narrative in Exodus, etc., when the Israelites really aren't so sure that they wanted redemption at all. Perhaps, they muse, they would be better off in Egypt. This text, this verse and the midrash on it, repudiates that revisionist view of things. No, when they were actually enslaved in Egypt, they really did want out. The proof is in these verses. They wanted it mightily, with all of the little power they possessed. The only power they had was the power to cry out to God, so that's what they did. And that's what saved them.

(Or, perhaps, this verse cited in the haggadah is, itself, Deuteronomic revisionism, and they actually did want to remain enslaved in Egypt, but, nationally, that's a version of the story that we can't stomach, so for bikkurim purposes, that was revised to this version--we really, really wanted out.)

And what of the covenant? What role did that play? I'm not sure. I think that the covenant was always there, but for it to be activated, they had to want to activate it. They had to want the covenant to be upheld. Sometimes, people promise us things, but for us to get them to "pay up" seems like more trouble than it is worth. God had to know that for the Israelites, the covenant was not more trouble than it was worth. It had to be at least worthwhile enough for them to cry out for it, and for God. And it was. So God upheld it.

That concludes my attempts to answer this conundrum.

Another question/observation: I just now noticed that the first verse says that what God heard was our crying out specifically to him ("וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יי אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע יי אֶת קֹלֵנוּ"). This is why he saved us. However, in the later midrashic explication, it says that what reminded God of the covenant specifically was not our crying out specifically to him, but our general groaning and moaning about how much life sucked, being enslaved to the Egyptians as we were ( "וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת "נַאֲקָתָם, וַיִּזְכּוֹר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ). I don't know what to make of this distinction, if anything.

* * * * *

The second thing that I thought of during the second seder never got shared. Someone asked, "Given that this is our national moment, our reliving of the core story that defines our identity as a people, why is it modeled on a foreign culture's practice, the Greek symposium? Why all of the Greek words--afikoman, karpas, etc.?" (I don't think that karpas is Greek, but that's how the question was asked, so I faithfully reproduce it here.)

Again, answers were given ("The afikoman is not what we eat, but what we don't eat: 'אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן'), but none that satisfied me, because they were besides the point, which is that the whole seder is a pantomime of Greek noblemen and the habits of various non-Jewish royalty. I liked what I came up with, which is based on a slightly different text of the haggadah. In most Ashkenazi haggadot (as far as I am aware), there is a bit that reads:
בכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יי לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרַים. לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשָׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵנוּ.

In every generation a person is obligated
to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt."

The Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed not only our fathers from Egypt, but He redeemed also us with them, as it is said: "It was us that He brought out from there, so that He might bring us to give us the land that He swore to our fathers."

I love this passage. The only important word here, for my purposes, is the sixth word, "לִרְאוֹת", "to see." We are commanded to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt. However, one of the extra haggadot I was using (the highly-recommended-by-me HaLaila Hazeh) pointed out that Mizrachi/Sephardi Jews instead, read, "להרְאוֹת," or "to show." We are commanded to show ourselves as if we came out of Egypt. This fits in with many Sephardi customs that include more active role-playing of leaving Egypt. This includes reenacting the way the Israelites were whipped (but with onions instead of whips) and the way that the Israelites carried the matzah out on their backs, because there wasn't time for it to bake.

In any case, this play-acting, this assuming of roles other than our own, of participants in the Greek symposia and of Persians who call greens "karpas" instead of "yirukot," is perfectly in keeping with the integrity of the Passover story. Whether we are free men or not, whether we are slaves or kings, today, we are all kings and we are all newly-liberated Israelites. We can, and are commanded to, in each generation, pick up whatever will make us most kingly and most recently-freed. If that means leaning on the left side, so be it! If that means getting new clothing, go for it! If that means drinking grape juice instead of wine (I can't handle four cups of wine no way no how without feeling sick), go for it! The point is to tell the story using the appropriate props of our time, of our generation (דּוֹר).

At one time, the closest "props" were Greek and Persian words and cultural artifacts. The fact that we borrowed extensively from other cultures in creating the seder is not an "oops!" moment in Judaism, it was the only way--the optimal way--that a seder could have been created. The point was to reenact how we imagine they must have felt, but in our own cultural milieu. Now we have our own props and I think that's just fantastic.

* * * * *

When I was at the second seder, watching the young assistant rabbi (a year younger than I! how'd that happen?) leading the seder for 35 people, I had a thought that I haven't had in 24 years: "Maybe I want to be a rabbi when I grow up." The last time I had that thought, I was four years old and someone told me that women couldn't be rabbis. (I no longer recall who imparted this information, but I know that I was four when I learned it.) I don't know if it's actually true, or just a fleeting feeling. I just love the seder so much, love the idea of collectively reenacting our shared history, love the collaborative nature of the event, love the panoply of voices that burst forth, love the richness of the ritual that gets deeper and better year after year, and love the multiplicity of haggadot that we use.

As my maternal grandfather, z"l, realized that I was going to continue my Torah studies beyond the fifteen years of day school--as I went to the Drisha summer high school program and then on to yeshiva in Israel for the year--he took to calling me "Rabette" (his own ingenious solution to what to call a woman rabbi). It was a very sweet moniker for me. I thought about both him and my grandmother, z"l, a lot over Pesach. This was my family's first Pesach without my Grandma, and her absence was keenly felt. (Especially when we got to:
"I will pass through the land of Egypt," I and not an angel;

"And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt," I and not a seraph;

"And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt," I and not a messenger;

"I, the L-rd," it is I, and none other!

which my grandmother always read with extreme conviction.)

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1. All of my free pre-Pesach Torah time has been taken up by learning Mishnah Peah, though, for Isaac Meyers, z"l's, shloshim [30-day anniversary of his death]. (The shloshim was erev Pesach, but the siyum isn't until May 5, which is good, because it meant that I could run errands and cook on erev Pesach instead of plowing through 2.5 chapters of Peah.) Peah is mostly very interesting (although becoming a little bit less so as I finish off the sixth chapter of eight). I would like to blog about it, but who has the time? This is why I want to quit my job and go and learn--so I can learn and then actually have time to process that learning and to turn it into something consumable by others. Yummmm....consumable. That reminds me of bread. On the subway yesterday, I found myself looking too intently at the gentleman across the way who was eating a bagel.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had completely forgotten about him calling you "Rabette." Funny! -MLG

alg's mother said...

Your maternal grandfather was good at creating traditions. He would have Grandma Corky read that same passage in English and she read it exactly the same way year after year. This year, feeling her absence, I read the same passage in English and could almost hear her voice. Very powerful.