A Pesah Message for My Students
This week’s Torah portion reports instructions given by God to Moses concerning Aaron and his priestly descendants. The rest of us, as it were, are invited to eavesdrop.
The Torah commentary that you are reading now is likewise directed at a specific (but far larger) audience: students. I write these words for those of you who are students about to join your families or friends at a Passover seder—and for students uninterested in doing so; for soon-to-be-students who are perhaps waiting this week for the admissions envelope that will announce the next chapter in your journey; for former students who are still getting used to the lack of homework and perhaps suffering from the lack of a job; and for any other teens or twenty-somethings who are still looking for a place to plant their feet in the world—and for the people who will intimately share that place with you. Welcome. Everyone else is invited to eavesdrop.
I begin with a claim about Passover that you won’t find printed in any Haggadah that I know: the seder, like the Torah—like Judaism as a whole—is about the choice each of us makes between a life that is ultimately serious and a life that is not.
This claim sounds stark, I realize. You may find it objectionable for that reason—and far too simple. Before you hit the delete key, however, please hear me out for just a moment. I would not be true to the Haggadah or to Jewish tradition if I resorted to a patently false dichotomy that divides the world into only two sorts of people (or, as the Haggadah seems to do at first read, into only four sorts of children); nor would I be true to life. It does not take many years in the world, if your eyes are open, to know that life is complicated and choices difficult. Seriousness of purpose, therefore, takes a variety of forms and encompasses a great variety of experience. There are many ways to make the choice for the serious life. One path does not suit all.
Nor does the serious life exclude much that we prize in daily existence. There is ample room in it for friends, laughter, learning, and fun. It certainly does not exclude—and indeed requires—love.
No, the matter is not simple. I know that. But I’ve also been through enough good and bad to know (as certainly as I know anything), and so to testify here—humbly but with passion—that life is serious, and each of us has the choice to make it so for ourselves and those around us. Every day we have the chance to use time well (however much or little time we have) or to waste it. Every week we can either help to move the world a step closer toward redemption, or agree to leave things as they are and drift. The fact of this choice is “awesome,” in the old sense of that word. It can be frightening. The Torah aims from start to finish to set before us the choice and to help us make it wisely. So does the holiday we Jews are about to celebrate.
“Come on,” skeptical readers may reply. “Aren’t you making just a bit too much out of a family meal that is built around matzah, chicken soup, and gefilte fish?” You may want to remind me, as further points against my claim that the seder is about the choice for or against the serious life, that the evening begins with a young child reciting the Ma Nishtanah (usually without understanding what the words mean); continues with ritualized storytelling, lots of laughter, and a stuff-yourself feast; and later features kids running around the house searching for the afikomen. It ends with a round of Had Gadya that, if done to full effect, may have fully grown adults making noises—at breakneck speed and at the top of their lungs—that sound like dogs, cats, oxen, sheep, water, fire, sticks, and the Angel of Death.
“Aha!” I reply. “Just so.” The apparently innocuous conclusion to the seder, which comes so late in the evening that the little kids are asleep and the teens (and some adults) have long since left the table, this same Had Gadya bears one of the most profound and troubling messages of any Jewish text or ritual I know, artfully disguised in childish rhyme and singsong rhythm, and presented at a moment when we are sated with food and fellowship. Think about it. What does the song teach? The stick beats the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat, etc. The world consists of this creature or object doing violence to that one ad infinitum. Cause and effect are unstoppable. The redemption we work for and await cannot arrive, therefore, the song and the seder do not conclude, until the cycle stops. When does this happen? When God defeats the Angel of Death.
No more serious warning to any person seeking meaning in life can be issued than that one. No greater challenge can be posed to the worth or purpose of a serious life. For if there is no hope to change the world as it is and always has been until human beings with God’s help overcome the cycle of destruction and death, why not just seize the moment for pleasure? The “wicked child” is right in that case. “Had he been there [at the Red Sea], he would not have been redeemed,” because there never has been and never will be redemption. If this were so, Passover would just be a nice ritual, with a nice message. It’s good for the family to be together. But is its ultimate claim upon us credible? Is a serious life really available to us?
I think it is, obviously; the seder wants not only to pose the question, but to answer it in a way that directs a life of hope in the service of redemption. Today, when Judaism is no longer taken for granted among Jews, and when observance of the seder itself can no longer be taken for granted, it is all the more imperative that the question be posed—honestly, directly, compassionately—and that it be answered in the same way.
And while the question is one that every person at some moment in life brings to the seder, it is likely to be particularly urgent if you are not yet sure of what your work will be or who your lifelong friends will be. You may not yet have committed yourself to one person above all others. You may not yet have met your children. You may not yet have decided, even temporarily, what you think about God—however you define God—or what to do with the spiritual experiences that have burst the bounds of what you’ve been taught to think is normal. You, just you, especially you, are the sort of person to whom the seder wants to reach out and say: “Life is serious, you know; your life matters to God and to the world. Please act to make it so.”
Life is serious, Passover insists, because there is suffering all around us, inside and out, and we can relieve it. We cannot put an end to death, but we can stave it off through care, compassion, and a more just distribution of the earth’s bounty. Even God, who according to the master story of Judaism, redeemed Israelite slaves from Egyptian oppression, even God for some reason could not stop those Israelites from complaining or fighting one another immediately thereafter and for many centuries to come. God also could not save the Israelites at the Red Sea without drowning Egyptians. Nor has God yet achieved anything like final redemption for the world. That cannot be the criterion for human endeavor. You and I can redeem days, families, societies, and lives. This is enough. We are needed for this work.
Life is serious, too, because at rare moments, generally unexpected, narrow places open up to reveal expanses and horizons so wide we cannot limn or describe them. We can only step into these spaces, cross waters to new possibilities, and live accordingly. Love is like that. So is art or scientific discovery. You might get a glimpse of God in those new places. The Holy One was there all the time, you might exclaim, and you had not known. You might be part of a community that creates a space large enough for people to grow in. You might have been held aloft by another person, kept from falling by a force you cannot name, or filled with a light so bright you could barely see. You may call it “coincidence.” Or you can well up in gratitude, search for words you cannot find, and seek through the things you do each day to “thank, praise, glorify, extol, adore” the Source of miracle. One way to do this is by opening yourself to others as God and the world will have suddenly opened up to you.
Life is serious, finally, because if it goes well for you or you are at peace with it, you can sit back in a big chair at the conclusion of a Passover seder with your family or friends around, your stomach full, your children or grandchildren asleep or at play, and the ritual over until next time, and know that life is good. The Angel of Death will not have been vanquished. Had Gadya will have to be sung again next time. But you can live with it. The world is far from perfect; you and I are far from perfect. But you and I can live with that too. Our days can be well spent.
A deep breath later, you can be ready once again for all the other good stuff of this world that accompanies the serious life: NCAA finals; flowers poking out of the lawn where snow lay a few weeks ago; jokes that family insiders laugh at uproariously but no one else gets at all; the imminent return of major league baseball; going to shul in the morning and complaining how long the services are; not going to shul and wondering why anyone would ever want to; enjoying the latest gadget that a few years ago would have seemed like science fiction; giving your kids the car keys and worrying until they return; not giving your mother the satisfaction of knowing you are worrying as she always did; and so on and so on until next Passover. The bad stuff notwithstanding, you can savor the moment at the end of seder when you can say, buoyed by your tradition and your community, that life is good.
“Next year in Jerusalem” to me means: may we all—students or not—make the promise of the time between this Passover and next count in the march toward redemption. May we redeem the promise of the time allotted us. May rituals like the seder, narratives like the Haggadah, friends and family like those gathered around the seder table—and God—help us keep faith with that promise.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.