Saturday, April 4, 2015

We were slaves, now we're free, or at least reasonable

     The second night of Passover is a bit more informal than the first in our family—the Seder not quite as long, not quite as thorough.  Jews don't always hold two Seders a year, but we do, for obscure religious reasons too uninteresting to be worth explaining. The second night is still pretty much a reply of the first. We gather around the Seder table to eat and drink—well, everyone else drinks, I take it sober, as is my fashion: in fact, Saturday will be my 20th Seder lubricated only on grape juice. 
     So stop whining about how long the meal is; it could be worse. Though to be honest, I think I have a better time now than I did back then. Four cups of wine were never enough.
    I wrote this piece just before my first on-the-wagon Seder, and I think it set the proper tone for the ones to come. If Jews ran TV commercials for the faith—and we should, everyone else does, maybe people wouldn't hate us so much—the one for Passover would mimic those "What's in your wallet?" TV commercials, except the punch line would be "What's enslaving YOU?" Because we all are enslaved by something, trying to strike our chains off, or keep them off. Anyway, here's hoping you have a happy holiday, free of whatever it is you need to free yourself from. 

     Much of religion is rote -- going through the obligatory motions, mumbling prayers you neither understand nor believe (oh no, I don't mean you -- you of course are the alpha and omega of sincerity, speaking from your heart with a perfect faith, pausing only to note the murmurs of approval from a grateful Lord God Almighty . . .)
     Where was I? Most religion is rote. Which is why I love Passover so much. Passover -- which begins tonight -- is no dry routine, no hazy abstract construct. The Exodus was real. We were really slaves in the land of Egypt,* and now we are free.
      Nor have the centuries dulled its timeless message -- look up from your muddy brick-making, cast off your chains, whatever they are, turn your face toward grace. Ask yourself: what in my life enslaves me? Who are my task masters? And where is the wrong that, as a free man, I can help correct?
     Seders adapt to the times, or should -- in the 1970s, we included the Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union. This year, there is a big effort to recognize the genocide in Darfur, because even though the victims aren't Jewish, they are victims, and as such warrant our prayers and our action. Because so few cared when it was us.
     I'll bring the Darfur material tonight -- there's a ton of it on-line if you are interested. Nobody will roll their eyes or tap their watches. I'm lucky, because at our Seder, people actually pause to ask questions, to discuss, and generally behave as if there were a purpose to the gathering beyond just dropping their snouts into the chow.
     If you are not so fortunate, then you must lead the way. Just this once, as an experiment, slow down. Listen to the Exodus, one of the most thrilling and beautiful tales ever written. The food won't go anywhere. Take time to remember how you -- yes, you Mr. Harvey Finkleman -- were once strangers in a strange land. . . .

    ——Originally published in the Sun-Times April 12, 2006

* Readers pointed out, after this ran, that there is no historical evidence whatsoever, outside of the Bible, that the Jews ever were enslaved in Egypt, never mind that they exited in such a dramatic fashion. Which is curious because the ancient Egyptians were crazy for record keeping. Maybe the evidence is slumbering among the wall rubbings tucked away in some back drawer at the Oriental Institute. But nobody has found it yet. 


  1. One of the most depressing things about the Obama presidency was how he, and many of his religious supporters (not just Jews), windsocked on the Darfur genocide. Darfur is the only genocide recognized as such (by the state department and Congress) while it was ongoing. Or as the Washington Post called it, Rwanda in slow-motion, as if the Lord was testing those who said Rwanda happened too fast to act. Senator Obama was once the Democrats' face on Darfur - he spoke at a big rally for intervention in 2005. Jan Schakowsky spoke at all sorts of local events. Then came President Obama's presidential race and everybody shut up. Samantha Power, a campaign advisor (and wife of Obama friend/advisorCass Sustein) - the self-proclaimed "genocide chick" for her famous book on interventionism ("A Problem from Hell"), went mute. Upon taking office, Obama appointed a friend as an envoy to Sudan who was seen by most Darfur observers as an appeaser, sacrificing Darfur for the sake of continued intelligence on Al Queda and for reaching a deal on South Sudan.

    The horrors didn't go away. Last year alone nearly half a million people were displaced in Darfur. Hopefully some people still are remembering them at this year's seders.

    1. hmm, a not a, you must be a republican

      And I don't believe the old Test. story that claims a supposedly just God goes and kills
      children of those who aren't Jews??? That's what the OT rabbis would want us to believe as if the others were inferior or okay to kill off, cause they didn't know the secret of marking their door.

    2. If A-n-A were a Republican, which I'm pretty sure he's made clear that he's not, he wouldn't be disappointed about aspects of Obama's presidency, he'd probably be furious and irrational about the very idea of it, as so many have shown themselves to be. His well-reasoned and informative comment above is practically the antithesis of what one has come to expect from some of the louder Republicans, IMHO.

    3. Belated thanks Jakash - not only am I not a Republican (I'm technically an independent but the closest I came to voting Republican was not voting in the Mosely-Braun/Fitzgerald senate race), I campaigned for Kerry and Obama (twice)! In 2008 John McCain backed off his interventionist position on Darfur (during one of the debates), so he probably wouldn't have fared much better.

      I'm like a Mickey Kaus-type Democrat except I'm not quite as against public worker unions as he is and definitely not as anti-private unions.

  2. What a lovely and symbolic table setting. Some of those cups and candle sticks look like beautiful antiques, perhaps handed down from one generation to another. Thanks for sharing , NS.

    Mrs. A

  3. Your continuing abstinence is admirable Neil. Not a rule I feel a need to abide by but would not find too hard to comply with were I enjoying that kind of company and sharing of an uplifting tradition, whether or not mythological. I would, however, seek out a more astringent lubricant than grape juice.

    It did bring to mind an alternate view of the subject expressed epigrammatically by an Oxford don in the 18th Century, who wrote:

    "If all be true that I do think
    There are five reasons we should drink.
    Good wine, a friend, or being dry.
    Or lest we should be by and by
    Or any other reason why."

    Tom Evans

  4. Where is the outcry about the Christians killed by Muslims in Kenya very recently? Or is it just Muslim whining we worry about?

    1. Do you really need someone to tell you that it's wrong? Are there many Americans who support it? Who want laws passed to facilitate murder of Christians in other countries? The stories on the front page of the New York Times today. Maybe because you're capable of the phrase "Muslim whining" we realize we need to tend to our own would-be mullahs at home, and not state the obvious about horrors abroad. Sad.

  5. Why don't you ask some? Or is that unimaginable? From the way you cast this question, it seems like an instance of blaming a group for what is common. Do they set girl babies out to die in the woods? No, that would be the Chinese. Do they selectively abort so much that the sexual ratio is 9 men for every 10 women? No, that would be the Indians. I was actually at the ordination of the first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, who went to my synagogue in Cleveland. Which made it kind of a shock when she retired, 30 years later.


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