Demographic Timebomb

No, I’m not worried about Jews becoming a minority when we include the Moslem population in Judah and Samaria.  But you have to admit it’s a clever title and grabbed your attention!

I’m worried about the Seder Plate becoming over-crowded and, as a result, unrecognizable and ineffective.  It’s become fashionable in a number of circles to address various political/social concerns by connecting them to Pesach.  Since Pesach is, perhaps, the primal Jewish holiday, celebrating our liberation from slavery and our transformation into a nation, it resonates deeply.  While, on a superficial level at least, our journey of liberation serves as a model for later liberations (read this article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo to understand one vital uniqueness to our story), and since it’s currently a very popular strategy to frame so many political causes in terms of victimhood, the temptation to piggy-back these causes onto Pesach can be very strong.  Furthermore, many important issues do reflect “authentic Jewish values”, so it can seem to be a natural step.

Without evaluating the merits of these often quite worthy struggles and issues, the Passover story is sui generis, one-of-a-kind.  While there is an historical component which does have much in common with other national identity struggles, and telling of that historical episode comprises much of the content Seder night, that’s really the lesser part of the celebration and observance.  Our tradition emphasizes that we don’t celebrate Pesach because of the historical exodus from Egypt, but rather, that the Exodus occurred because it was Pesach, because the configuration of spiritual forces, recurring on that day (in the Jewish calendar) every year, contains the potential for our breaking our shackles, for our birth as a complete nation and a restoration of our firsthand, intimate relationship with The Almighty.  (Our sages, over the generations, repeat the lesson that while our bodies were in servitude, much more serious and painful, our mental faculties, דעת, Da’at, were in exile–we were alienated from our own ability to understand reality).

Therefore, not only does Pesach commemorate our freedom from the Egyptian Exile, it promises the eventual (may it come soon, in our days, במהרה בימינו) redemption from our current state of imperfection, both as individuals, as a people and as citizens of the world-at-large (always working outward, starting from the center).  It’s a festival of enormous spiritual movement, most of which we can’t even perceive.

I understand why many of today’s Jews have lost respect for our holy sages and tzaddikim.  Disillusioned by many “holier-than-thou” contemporary “rabbinic authorities”, it’s an easy mistake to say, “These (less than inspiring, often coercive and unpleasant) are rabbis and those are rabbis.  So, just as today’s (usually) ultra-orthodox rabbis are irrelevant to my life, so must be those rabbis of the past”.  Nothing could be further from reality, however.  Unfortunately, it often takes many years of study to begin to understand and appreciate the depth and perception and subtlety and humanity of our great rabbis.  (Perhaps it’s a bit like listening to an “oldies” radio station–we only hear the best of the best of the best–no one remembers flops like “Yummy yummy yummy (I have love in my tummy)”–yes this eminently forgettable ditty really was a popular song in 1968!.  But only the best of that era’s songs survive today, just as only the best of our sages have lasted through the millennia of our tradition).  It was said of the Tannaim, the sages of the Mishnaic period, that even the least of them had the power to resurrect the dead–take that literally or metaphorically as you like.

The structure of the Haggadah, based on the deliberate composition of the Seder Plate, goes much deeper than the surface tale.  By reciting these words, gazing at the Seder Plate, we also activate universes of subtle energy, quite real in the spiritual realms but imperceivable to the physical senses.  The anonymous sage or sages who developed the formulas we will speak on that night possessed an understanding of those realms than no one today, no matter the blackness of his hat, the length of his beard, or even the depths of his compassion and love or the extent of her knowledge can even approach (yes, this is a matter of faith, but it’s based on years of amazement and wonder at the lessons and wisdom that ground our holy traditions).  When they designed the Seder plate, they worked simultaneously in many different levels–the narrative, the emotionally evocative, the mnemonic and also the spiritual, energetic and, ultimately, unknowable mysteries of Creation.  While we can create a totally different Seder service and experience, based on all sorts of admirable contemporary images and symbols, complete with a newly designed plate filled with objects to express our current concerns, we simply cannot reproduce the technology to engage these subtle energies and forces.

Fight the injustices you see.  Support the people and causes you find important.  Help those who appear to you to be downtrodden.  Those are all worthwhile, important and sometimes critical actions for us to take.

But remember the lessons of our tradition.  Start from the center and then work outward. Experience the Seder as we’ve inherited it.  Engage with the forces, seen and unseen, felt and imperceptible.  Do your part at the Seder and enjoy the benefits both to yourself and beyond.  But please leave the apples and oranges and lemons and fish and empty cups off your Seder plate, at least for this year.  Give this ancient technology a chance.  Give yourself the night off from being the all-wise and all-knowing and try our timeless wisdom.  You just might find that the next day, when you re-engage with all your causes, you’ll have greater strength, greater insight, greater compassion and greater effectiveness.

May we all enjoy a sweet, deep, connected and connecting Pesach.

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