Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Out of Egypt

Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is one of the few still widely observed. The traditional Seder brings families together to partake in foreign and seemingly pointless rituals for an evening. The guide for the Seder is an equally puzzling Haggadah that seems to just lump confusion on top of ambiguity. As one would expect, all the meaning, beauty and purpose become obscured by vain theatrics and spacious room for people to purport their own specious ideas about the meaning of the Holiday.

Pesach is a time when we abandon many of the comforts of our normal lives to relive the slavery in and exodus from Egypt. The Seder is designed to communicate this story to our children, so they know how we became the Nation of Israel. The Haggadah liturgy repeatedly informs us of the personal gratitude we should feel for all the miracles that G-d performed for our ancestors. However, be it alienation or apathy, this clarion call falls flat in this generation.

It's hard not to feel completely alienated from a history more than three thousand years ago. How do we connect to these people that we've never heard of or met, in a land most of us have never even visited? It would be a mistake to think the gap could be bridged by watching Charleton Heston play Moses in the Ten Commandments.

But an even bigger mistake would be to deny the validity of the question. Why should we be thankful for something we never even personally experienced? I heard an inspired answer from my friend Reuven Billowitz that I want to share.

It's a well known fact of modern biology that over the course of 7 years' time, your body will regenerate every single cell that composes it. That means that if you look at a picture of yourself from 7 years ago you are essentially staring at a completely different person. Of course, this fact is preposterous and completely neglects the human experience. Steering clear of discussions of consciousness and the self: suppose you broke your foot in ninth grade (as I did) and are looking back on the experience as a college graduate. If you saw a picture of yourself with a cast, it would never cross your mind that you are not that very same person who broke his foot all those years ago doing the grape vine in gym class. We can apply this same understanding to the Haggadah.

As the Israelites left Egypt and approached the Red Sea, it parted and the people were ushered through a veritable birth canal. They emerged into the Wilderness as the House of Israel. What took place was the birth of a Nation. Israel is analogous to a person. Just as an organism is far greater than the sum of its individual cells, a nation is much more than the collective constituents that compose it. Just as you are that same person who broke his foot all those years ago, so too the Jews today are the same nation that was taken out of Egypt.

It doesn't matter the affiliation: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Messianic, Orthodox, or atheist. Any Jew living today is part of this manifestation. What this should mean to each Jew, I really can't say. But there is undeniable power in a unique people that have survived thousands of years both in their homeland and spread across the world. And if there is power there, why not draw strength from it?

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