Passover Thoughts

seder table

Last night my wife and I celebrated Seder with cousins as we have in the past. I find this occasion a relatively rare opportunity for reflection on my Judaism. What I mean here is that, although age does bring more reflection, my thoughts only rarely rest on my religious upbringing and practices. This Holiday celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery under Egyptian rulers and their long journey to find a place to settle that followed. As so often, I am triggered by what David Brooks has written in the NYTimes. His column today focuses on Passover, and, more specifically on what he called “rebinding,” the passage from a set of enslaving laws to the very different set written in the Torah.

He argues that the escape from Egypt was very disorderly because Moses, the leader of the Jews was not a very orderly, organized person. It took God’s intervention in bringing ten plagues down to facilitate the hasty escape. His point seems that, once out of bondage, the laws of the Torah brought order to the lives of the Jews.

…Exodus is a reminder that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people. Even Jews have different takes on how exactly one must observe the 613 commandments, but the general vision is that the laws serve many practical and spiritual purposes. For example, they provide a comforting structure for daily life. If you are nervous about the transitions in your life, the moments when you go through a door post, literally or metaphorically, the laws will give you something to do in those moments and ease you on your way.

The first sentence above is much in the air today where our politics in the US is riven by a strong difference about the consequence of laws that restricts one’s actions. After a period of passing laws that provide a “comforting structure’ for many—gays, blacks, poor, sick—who must wander through the desert in their absence, we appear to be backing away from what the Jews learned back in biblical times. Comfort does not mean luxurious ease, but a context free of worry and suffering. Another word to use here is freedom, as in the two negative items in Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: want and fear.

The rituals of the Seder are found in the Haggadah, which retells the story of the Exodus. It contains a number of passages with the general line of God telling “you” to do something. Most of the time, this is taken in the singular referring to commands to each separate individual. But it can also be taken in the plural as directed to the community as a whole. I find the latter to be the more compelling and central to my vision of flourishing. The self that finds solace and comfort in the world is not some mystical ego or homunculus residing in the body, but a self created by reflections of the assessments of the communities in which one exists and acts.

The laws that protect one’s property, tangible and intangible, that seem to have become predominant today, are very different from the fundamentally moral laws of the Bible. There are, for sure, prohibitions agains the misappropriation of one’s property, but the more dominant theme is about behaving as a community. If there is a single lesson for us today from the Passover story, it is this. We exist by virtue of being a community with a set of moral laws that guide our communal life.

One further thought from the column. Brooks ended it with this paragraph.

The 20th-century philosopher Eliyahu Dessler wrote, “the ultimate aim of all our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion.” Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.

I completely disagree with Dessler’s quote about moving from freedom to compulsion. Compulsion is the antithesis of freedom and of the authenticity of being. The whole idea of order in society is to allow individuals to find their authentic selves. The metaphor simply doesn’t work even with the attempt to “sweeten” it. One must love simply out of care for the world of human life and nature. It is only a short distance from compulsion to love to compulsion to obey. I am a bit shocked by Dessler and Brooks’s language. Of course, this passage is taken out of its context and I may be misinterpreting Dressler’s use of the word. In any case it seems inappropriate during Passover. The passage from freedom to compulsion is the exact opposite of the Passover story.