I woke up one Shabbat morning, got dressed, had breakfast with the Paula and the kids, and we all walked to shul together on a bright sunny spring morning. When I got here, a few others were there as we began the Shabbat morning service. I got up to the pulpit, someone lead the Shacharit service, and people were sitting, following along, singing, participating, as we usually do. And this is what happens in synagogues all over the world. And this feels normal. I often forget that this has not always been “normal”. This is not how Judaism or the basic of life felt for our ancestors.
I also almost completely forget that two thousand years ago, if I had been born as a Cohen, I would have got out of bed, dressed in my priestly garb, walked to the Beit Mikdash on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and been working with animals, blood, fat and fire all day. People would have come to the Beit Mikdash to bring offerings of various kinds. And that was “normal” back then. Sometimes I forget that this is how everything used to be. Life is so engrossing that it is easy to think about life being any other way that it is right now.
I also forget that I am free. Or at least, I have a lot of freedoms. More often than not, I take the quality of my life for granted. I forget that my life would seem like a dream or paradise in the eyes of someone whose “normal” is a life of slavery and know of no way to change their situation, or does not even know that their situation can change.
So what wakes us up from this forgetfulness?
Reading Parshat Tzav wakes me from my amnesia, that deep forgetting that makes it possible for me entertain the delusion that what is normal today has always been normal. Oh yeah, this is what life used to be like. It is sometimes easy to forget that Judaism is not static.
Rather, Judaism is the evolving way that Jews have negotiated the demands of Covenant and the larger world, and what that looks like has been different in every generation and in every place the Jews have found themselves.
And in a previous version of Judaism, we were slaves who were in a covenant made between God and Abraham. It is easy to forget that just twenty-five hundred years ago, every one of us would have been under the complete control of Pharaoh. That would have been our “normal”. We have a collective amnesia that we slip in and out of; we get caught up in the Now, and continually forget our history, and the demands that our history places upon us. What can keep us from slipping back into our fog-like state?
We have something!
Our Master Story, the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
And there are dozens of mentions of this throughout the siddur and in our weekly Torah readings, but the Master Story moment par excellence is the Seder, and its essential guide, the Haggadah.
We have many different Haggadot in our home collection, but the Haggadah we primarily use is called “A Different Night” by Noam Zion and David Dishon, but I always like to hear about new ones. Before Pesach in 2014, a congregant emailed me about the “New American Haggadah,” translated by the secular (but formerly traditional living) Jewish author Nathan Englander, and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. At the end of each section of the Haggadah, there is a double-page spread with four mini-essays, each focusing on a different lens to examine the Haggadah: one is called Library, offering a literary approach, another is called Playground, which offers a more playful, free-form interpretation, the third is called Nation, which connects the themes and ideas in the Haggadah to contemporary American life, and the fourth, called House of Study looks at the Haggadah through the lens of more Jewish sources.
I ordered the Haggadah, and, being a fan of translation and typography, was instantly drawn into this New American Haggadah, both linguistically and visually. I was reading through the Maggid section of the Haggadah, and came across the following passage from the House of Study essay:
“The most theologically shocking moment in Exodus is not when God appears in the burning bush, or splits the Sea of Reeds, or even when he gives the Ten Commandments at Sinai. It is when God remembers his covenant with Israel. How can a God who was so close at hand in Genesis that he spoke directly to Abraham, overheard Sarah laughing, and wrestled with Jacob “face to face”, be so far away when their descendants are enslaved in Egypt? The “peshat” or plain sense, of Exodus suggests an answer that is both simple and horrifying: God, who spent the better part of Genesis cultivating the people of Israel, has, by only the second chapter of Exodus, forgotten that they are his nation, and, therefore his responsibility. Here, stripped bare, lies the theological root of one of the deepest fears in the collective Jewish psyche, the fear of forgetting and being forgotten. And yet, according to the Haggadah, there is a remedy for God’s amnesia: Israel’s voice, our voice. Just as, later in Exodus, Moses commands Israel to “remember this day on which you went you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage, for with a strong hand God removed you from here,” so, too, if we want a relationship with God, we must remind him, with wails if necessary, to remember his covenant with us. But what would those wails look like today? And how would we know if God heard them?”
What made the Exodus almost fail to happen was God’s shocking and inexplicable amnesia, which as the essay mentioned, is a horrifying notion that still persists today.
The prompt that managed to provoke God to take us out of Egypt occur was Israel’s voice – our voice. Had we not cried out from our oppression, it would not have been enough. There would have been no Exodus. We would have suffered in silence, and that would have been the end of the story.
And our voices are still the remedy for our national amnesia. I do not know about God’s amnesia, but if God has forgotten, how much more so do we have to do all the remembering.
When we tell the story at our Seder tables this coming Passover, we are waking ourselves up from our collective forgetting. But waking up to what?
One might say that if life is good, we remind ourselves that life has not always been this good, and we express thanks.
And one might also say that if life is bad, we remind ourselves that life can get better, much better, and we express hope.
But that does not do anything other than give us either a warm fuzzy feeling or a glimmer of hope. It is never that simple.
When we raise our voices to tell our story this Passover, we remember our story and connect that story with our lives, the lives of our friends and family, and with the lives of every human being on the planet. Rabban Gamliel said in Mishnah Pesachim, the first written version of the Haggadah, that:
“Every human is obligated to see themselves as if he or she him- or herself went our from Egypt.”
And this imperative is the cover art for this new Haggadah! This is not just the Jewish story. This is the human story of overcoming oppression and living in freedom and dignity.
To what do we wake up?
We should wake up to the Big Questions that our story confronts us with:
- Are we free?
- When have we not been free?
- When have we become free?
- What are we thankful for?
- For whom are we responsible?
- And, what do we do now?
This coming Passover, please do not just have a nice meal with family and friends.
Please do not race through the Haggadah as if it were a script. Take some time to look for your haggadah, and plan how you are going to use the material in there to help everyone at the table wake up to their lives as they are and see them as they truly are. Use it for the parts of the Seder that create the structure and the stage for the story to take shape.
And now I will share with you the secret to having a great Seder: Serve a lot of carpas. And I do not mean parsley and saltwater. That is an important part of our symbolic food vocabulary for the Seder, but then dip bananas in chocolate, strawberries in brown sugar, roasted beets, and other veggies. Serve roasted potatoes and dip them in ketchup. Serve platters of crudités with different dipping sauces. With a large carpas under their belt, people might be open for some discussion, perhaps more than usual.
When it comes times for Maggid, feel free to put the Haggadah aside, and tell the story, tell your story, talk about whom else in our world is enslaved and oppressed, and talk about what you can do about it.
When you tell that story this weekend, with your partners, children, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, and strangers, you are raising up your voices as the people who knew that suffering, lived through it (again and again), and will not stand to see it happening to others.
Will God hear our voices this time and bring about another Exodus?
But that is what we are here for.
I know that this will be a frustrating, uncomfortable feeling and of terrible responsibility.
Welcome to the new normal.