The Present of History

(In April 2015 I was asked to write a Dvar Torah (essentially a sermon) for a friend’s Pesach seder. She was hosting a large group of young leadership fellows in Washington D.C. and gave me no other instruction beyond that. I took it as an opportunity to throw a non-cynical, esoteric wrench into their Capitol Hill grind. To my surprise, they supposedly enjoyed it very much so I felt like sharing it with you all, one year later. Minor edits have been made.)

Jewish custom, both religiously and traditionally, is incredibly focused on the events of the past. The way food is prepared, the holidays that have survived the test of time, even the way we assign Hebrew names, all serve as tribute to those who have come before us. In fact you could say that Yehudim are inherently history geeks, or at least deep seated nostalgics.

Pesach (Passover) is possibly the best example of this and the seder embodies that near obsessive compulsive habit of dealing with the past. On Pesach, we eat matzah, unleavened bread that pays tribute to the food the Israelite slaves left Egypt with upon liberation by Moses. We eat bitter herbs and parsley dipped in salt water to reflect on the bitterness and tears of our bondage in ancient Egypt and we eat Charoset — an apple and nut paste — to symbolize the mortar they used to build their overlord’s great structures. If you can’t tell, Jewish people are also very into food.

The order in which we eat these symbolic items is lain out in the haggadah, the traditional book used at our seders, that contains an abridged version of the Book of Exodus alongside the order and instructions for the night’s proceedings, each step emulating some element of the story of Moses’s liberation of our people, my ancestors, from the harsh slavery of the stonehearted Pharaoh of Egypt. History overflows from haggadot, through their pages from blessings to food to sensations.

We study and eat and drink at the same time. Like college in a nutshell (and for those of you who know about the Four Questions, there’s even a quiz!). Jewish mothers throughout time have been pleased to see their kids eating and studying at the same time! Jokes aside, the prevalence of history and learning in the Pesach seder speaks to the Jewish value of reflection and to a much more significant issue in all of our lives, whether Jewish or not: What role does the past play in our present?

Through time we are often told, or at least hopeful, that history never repeats — that time is a linear concept, like a flowing river constantly rushing forward, progressing even if at a snail’s pace. Yet like the surface of a river, the reality of the situation is that time is also reflective and history, is integral to the same flow of time. I’m sure that to you, reader, this is not a novel concept, but it is integral to the celebration that brings us all together on Pesach.

Throughout the world we can experience what I call historical déjà vu. The intimidation tactics of Putin’s Russia. Wars in Africa and the Middle East. The brutality of American police forces towards African Americans. The return of anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence in Europe.

Breaking news feels familiar. New people of interest don’t seem so fresh-faced.

And yet it seems, as we strive for a way forward in life pursuing happiness, we temporally categorize as a coping mechanism against big impediments. We like to believe that the heroes and villains of the past stay there, like historical one hit wonders, so as not to distract us from our individual goals. We shrug off the distant pains of others as someone else’s business because inhumanity is backward and “there are designated people to take care of those things now.” We’re stuck in the linear way of handling time, a bit scared to break free for fear of losing a sense of comfort and security.

This is why I love Pesach, not just for the tradition (or food, which I truly, truly do), but because it is an occasion that forces us to insert history into our lives presently and see how fluid it is. I celebrate the liberation of my ancestors, but Pesach teaches us to put it in the context of other personal liberties. I give thanks for the freedom from other struggles I have not been affected by specifically, but entirely as a human being. Historically watershed moments such as Emancipation (and later Civil Rights) in America or the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa are just two examples. Then there is also intimate liberation from personal trauma and inter-relational struggle. Furthermore, we can also look at how the work there is still not finished.

Pesach is a sacred time that teaches us to look around at the world and discover parallels. While there is always much accomplishment and joy to celebrate, unfortunately this reflection exposes the simple fact that the invasions, wars, and neglect and inhibitions of civil liberties in today’s world are also resurgences in human greed, malice, and destruction. In some ways Pesach points out that maybe humans haven’t progressed as much as we think we have.

Breaking news feels familiar. New people of interest don’t seem so fresh-faced.

However, just as it might show the recurring potential of cruelty from one to another, by looking at history, by celebrating one freedom and the heroes who wrestled it from the clutches of Pharaoh, we can realize the potential in ourselves to overcome adversity today. Look around you and look at yourself. You can willfully repeat history like the Egyptians of Exodus or emulate the heroism, intellect, and pursuit of righteousness like the heroes of the Passover story. Will you be a new Moses, Aaron or Miriam? We are traditionally taught that prophets are reserved for the Bible, but reading the haggadah on Pesach teaches us to free ourselves from small-minded compartmentalization. A prophet is not dependent on the grandness of their deeds, but the altruistic intention behind them.

In the haggadah we learn that Moses, taken in by the Egyptian court and raised as a prince, cast away his life of luxury when he saw the suffering of his fellow man — not because he too was an Israelite, but simply because he saw injustice that he felt compelled, whether you want to believe religiously or not, to amend. Now if I replace the name Moses with Siddhartha Gautama, the story could easily check out in Buddhist literature as well. The story of a prince who abandoned luxury and security to strive for the betterment of others. If I insert a different name again, like Mahatma Gandhi or Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela or countless others from throughout history, we can see the trend of people relinquishing complacency, leaving the material in order to shatter a hurtful status quo and stand for tzedek, justice - a timeless goal worth far more than any possession or selfish comfort.

The Pesach seder is a wonderful indulgence in reflection and by the time the meal is over, we all come out of it a little bit fuller. Fuller in stomach, of course, but more importantly fuller of inspiration and consciousness. As the Jewish sages of the past once said, “The end result of wisdom is… good deeds.” Such truth firmly belongs in today just as it did in yesteryear.

חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ