Middle Israel: How to read the Passover Haggada

Reading the Haggada along the ages Jews were conditioned to believe that history is a play where God is the director and they are extras at best, spectators at worst.

April 4, 2015 00:49
Passover seder

Passover seder. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Having just confessed that he had once killed a man with his bare hands, the Russian president in the TV series House of Cards asks his American peer: “Do you think you’re capable?” As this political drama’s dynamics go, the American president actually did kill someone with his bare hands, though unlike the Russian president, whose victim was an Afghan rebel whom he stabbed with a bayonet, the American’s was a journalist whom he threw under an approaching train’s wheels.

This can of course happen in a theater of the absurd where the world’s two most powerful men emerge in a Jordan Valley bunker where they dialogue from within military fatigues that complete this tele-drama’s Purim-spiel realism.

Most real-life leaders, even the vicious, send others to kill rather than kill by themselves, least of all with their bare hands.

Most, that is, except Moses.

Moses did kill with his bare hands, having “turned this way and that,” and seen “no one about,” and then “struck down” his victim and buried him in the sand.

Yet unlike the dramatized Viktor Petrov, who killed to survive, and unlike Frank Underwood, who killed for gain, Moses killed for justice.

Now how many leaders do we know who would kill personally, with their bare hands, and not for themselves or anyone else, but for justice, and at the risk of being executed? Moses’s story reads like fiction already at this early stage, the first recorded incident of his adulthood, but not as science fiction.

That arrives soon afterward, when he sees a fire that does not die, hears a speech delivered without tongue or lips, and flees a snake that seconds earlier was the rod in his hand.

Initially this departure from nature is witnessed by no one besides Moses and the desert, but in due course it gives way to disruptions of ecology, geology, biology, meteorology and astrophysics.

Blood floods rivers, hail descends from the heavens, plague targets firstborns, the sea parts, and pillars of fire and cloud march ahead of a multitude that soon hears God from a smoking mountain wrapped in thunder, fog and flame.

So dizzying is this setting that some secularists dismiss the Exodus story lock, stock and barrel as biographical legend, science fiction and political fantasy. They are wrong.

The first secular voice to salute Moses was Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, who saw in him a model dissenter. The historical Moses, he explained in his classical essay “Moses,” troubles researchers, but we Jews have our own Moses, “whose shape is fixed in our nation’s heart... from antiquity to this day.”

This popular Moses’s existence does not depend on scholarship’s findings. And that Moses, the literary, was governed by a quest for truth and justice so uncompromising that he had to be barred from entering Canaan, where the voyage he led had to give way to routine, and routine means compromise, a disposition for which he was not built.

Scholars were inspired by this intellectual pragmatism.

Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky hailed Moses as a political leader who shaped a system that balanced government and freedom, and Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer saw the Exodus as revolution’s paradigm. Moses, he noted, is depicted as a mortal of flesh, blood and impulse, and his revolution unfolds within history, demanding a 40-year trek because its original participants’ slave mentality could not be otherwise shed.

All this is very nice, but there is one problem with these rational narratives, a problem that is intertwined with the miraculous narrative: they leave the people passive.

READING THE HAGGADA along the ages Jews were conditioned to believe that history is a play where God is the director and they are extras at best, spectators at worst.

Unlike his modern sculptors, our forebears couldn’t see in Moses a real-life legislator, statesman or revolutionary.

To them, he led not because of his convictions, but because of God’s command.

To them, Moses captured his initially skeptical audience not with charisma but by producing a snake from a stick, a la Harry Potter.

Yes, Moses was a born rebel, but his plan was not to rebel but to escape, to the desert where God recruited him, and which he initially refused to leave. Even Moses, in short, read to our forebears not as a shaper of history, but as God’s pawn.

History had to seem divinely engineered, for people who took literally God’s vow to Moses that he will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart.

What in our modern eyes towers as courage, vision, revolution and statesmanship, to our forebears was but a tale of obedience and piety, an efficient messenger’s transmission of God’s message to a wicked king.

The results of this reading were catastrophic.

Our ancestors were conditioned to believe that God micromanages history. A Jew was to sit back while manna falls from the heavens, the sea is parted by the waving of a cane, and enemies are crushed when Moses raises his hand.

This reading of history as a continuum of miracles and punishments, rather than a sum of human actions and inactions, left generations of Jews politically passive in the face of their discrimination, libeling and murder.

That is why when Theodor Herzl prodded the Jews to seize their fate, most rabbis derided him, ordering their flocks to stay put in Europe.

God, they preached, would redeem the Jews, not man.

THERE WERE TWO SAGES who, though each other’s inversion, craved Sinai, the mental no-man’s-land that sprawled between our forebears’ sovereignty and bondage.

One, ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, said that “the Torah was given to Israel in the desert, in a place of desolation,” which to him meant, even after the Holocaust, that sovereignty was expendable.

“We did not have the Land of Israel then,” he said of the Exodus, “yet we were an eternal nation.”

His inversion, the ultra-Zionist Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, craved Sinai for a different reason. “Sinai,” he wrote, “is part of the Land of Israel, and it is strictly and severely forbidden by the Torah to abandon any portion of it to gentile sovereignty.”

It was an absurd ruling, as the Jews never inhabited or claimed Sinai, the Promised Land’s antithesis, the predator that swallowed almost all the Exodus’s original participants, a wasteland that had to vanish from Israel’s path before it could enter its land.

Both these crooked visions, one of Sinai as our land’s extension and the other as its alternative, are where assumptions about God’s management of history ultimately lead.

Middle Israelis are not atheists and they don’t think God is indifferent to history. Yet they believe he is there not as history’s manager but as its actors’ potential inspiration, as he was for Moses when he brawled for justice regardless of gain and risk.

We don’t purport to know how God works. Perhaps it was he who salvaged some Jews when the rest were massacred, but that cannot be assumed, least of all in advance, and it certainly gives no license to be passive in history’ face, as ultra-Orthodoxy is, nor to be adventurist, as ultra-Zionism is.

THERE WAS A HOUSE opposite ours in Katamon, where Levi Eshkol lived when he became prime minister.

One Seder night, as my father read the Haggada’s “pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you,” his voice cracked as he burst in tears, rose from his chair, opened the door behind him, stood for several minutes in the balcony and then returned to us, closing the door between him and the house of Eshkol, the affable Yiddish joker who never killed anyone, least of all with his bare hands, but still defeated three armies in six days.

“Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you,” we now picked up from where our father had left off, “for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.”

Years after my father passed away it dawned on me that what came to his mind was his own father, who was also Jacob, and of whom we don’t even have a photo. He, his wife, and most of their siblings and in-laws were devoured, and their homes were desolated, in spring ’44, the spring that began with what would be their last Seder, when they said “every generation and generation they rise up on us to annihilate us,” before asserting: “And God saves us from their hands.”


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