The seder as memory, morals, and meaning maker

The Passover seder is a fabulous place to start the collective and individual healing process we all need so desperately.

Gwyneth Paltrow (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gwyneth Paltrow
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week’s Yediot Aharanot front page captured Israel society at its worst. One headline screamed about Tel Aviv youths repeatedly gang raping a 13-year-old, recruiting others to participate or watch. These monsters – and their parents – feeling victimized, blamed the victim, claiming she “consented.” Another headline told of dozens of young Israelis vandalizing a Peruvian archaeological site during an all-night “trance” party-turned-orgy. Blaming police for overreacting, these hedonists claimed they “only” used drugs and alcohol. Other headlines followed the latest sex and corruption scandals among Israel’s leaders, who, protesting their innocence of course, blamed their accusers for lying.
I know that Zionists preached that Jews will have rejoined history when we have Jewish criminals and Jewish policemen to arrest them, but this is ridiculous. So many modern Jews have so embraced modern mores that many of us have cut our traditional anchors, lost our moral moorings, set our souls adrift. Thomas Jefferson’s lovely, moderated, pursuit of happiness has become a desperate search for sensation, the pleasure principle uncorked. These disgusting crimes are extreme warning lights indicating the more popular pathology, illustrating the damage done when individuals fail to put brakes on their impulse to indulge and abdicate any responsibility for themselves or sensitivity to others. With Passover approaching, let’s use the holiday to liberate ourselves from modernity’s epidemic libertinism, growing fickleness, and occasional brutality.
It is puzzling. Throughout the West, including Israel, we have never been – overall – richer, safer, freer, more comfortable, more tolerant, more creative.
More people than ever before enjoy this Republic of Everything, with all its admirable goodies, both material and ethereal. Yet, we simultaneously are living in the Republic of Nothing, a nihilistic world of relativism, selfishness and indulgence, mass-producing anomie, misery and, all too frequently, violence.
THE POST-1960S collision between a newly liberated individualism and traditional community triggered this massive moral and social train wreck.
With everything disposable, including the most fundamental relationships, we all get moral vertigo and spiritual agita. With divorce getting recast by the celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow as “conscious uncoupling,” with so many others obsessed with unconscious coupling, perhaps traditional toolboxes can fix our society and ourselves.
The Passover seder is a fabulous place to start the collective and individual healing process we all need so desperately. This self-produced do-it-yourself pageant celebrates what are today countercultural values of family, history, community, morality, responsibility and tradition, the eternal and the “us” instead of the now and the “I.” It sets the stage for great debates: about individuals’ allegiance to themselves or their communities; about whether individuals or larger forces including but not limited to God shape history; about what grounds us and what motivates us; and about whether freedom entails escaping commitments or embracing them carefully, consciously, constructively.
Page after page of the Haggadah showcases values, challenges, moral lessons. The seder’s spectacle, the melodramatic rituals, the posturing, praying and singing, the bonds of friends and family around the table, along with the feelings so many of us invest in these few short hours, provide the ingredients for making these events meaningful and memorable.
Too often we overinvest in the props, making the medium the message. If the medium becomes too distracting, we miss the meaning. When we overlook the symbols’ deeper significance, instead worrying about what clothing to wear, what food to prepare, who sits where, or even just how intensely to kasher our dishware, we fail.
To succeed, while dipping vegetables in salt water, we should contemplate – and share – what “mitzrayim” – what Egyptian-like dire straits we have left, or wish to leave. Or, while singing “Dayenu,” we should count our blessings, then proclaim what mission we choose to embrace to give our lives meaning. In short, rather than burrowing into the seder’s rituals, we must burst out, using this choreographed experience to elevate our souls, enlighten ourselves and enrich our lives.
Seder memories are more powerful when they serve as value containers carrying profound, relevant ideas. Too many have sucked the essence out of the actions, rendering them empty gestures rather than steps toward soulfulness. Too many religious Jews are so obsessed with executing the rituals perfectly they become bound to the externals and blind to the internals; too many so-called secular Jews are so fearful of constraints, so allergic to tradition, they too often only see the form while overlooking the substance.
Brimming with symbolism, sensuality and substance, the seder is one of many powerful moments of Jewish imprinting, marking our souls with defining experiences and ideas. We should recognize such opportunities and exploit them. I know an undergraduate who distanced himself from his traditional upbringing, until, while staring at a breathtaking Chilean vista, he started singing “Essa Eini,” “I lift my eyes,” a traditional song seeking salvation. He realized that Judaism gave him the vocabulary in words, melodies and actions to express his deepest thoughts and be the meaning- seeking creature he wished to be.
More soberly, in 1993 when a mail bomb from the Unabomber maimed Professor David Gelertner, the dazed and bleeding Yale computer scientist sang the Palmach’s battle hymn in his head while dragging himself to the health clinic – an action which saved his life. “History isn’t just an intellectual pursuit. It can literally be a life-saving inspiration,” he later said.
The seder provides this kind of inspirational spiritual arsenal, producing actions, symbols and memories that can stretch ourselves and our souls. We can take advantage of it or not. If we do, we will make Passover a holy holiday of freedom. If not, we risk missing the moment, joining the march of the selfish, the soulless, the self-indulgent. Meanwhile others, more miseducated, in a world with no brakes and no standards, may end up doing far worse.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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