If you’re a Jew, commanded every year to recount your people’s flight out of slavery, what do you say?
The story, published in various forms as The Passover Haggadah, is a good one. It lays out the formation of a particular nation, the Jewish people, at the same time as it expresses a universal longing for freedom. But, as good as the Passover story is, it’s an old story that gets stale. Tell this story every year for all the decades of your life, tell the same story that your ancestors told for thousands of years, and you might want to spice it up a little to make it fresh. No wonder many subvert its message to current concerns.
There have been communist Haggadot (the plural form of haggadah), civil rights Haggadot, social justice Haggadot, feminist Haggadot, secular Haggadot, and vegetarian Haggadot. There’s Haggadah that celebrates the formation and expansion of Israel and another one that opposes Israel’s control of the West Bank. You can bend the story any way you want to make it say whatever you want it.
Pouring the Passover story into a trendy mold is not the only way to breathe life into a dead text. The other way to bring it back to life is to re-create the emotional experience of the Hebrew slaves in their liberation from bondage.
This is the strategy employed by the director of Saving Private Ryan when he depicted the landing on Omaha Beach in such a realistic fashion. He wanted the viewer to feel like he was there shitting his pants in the process. You can do the same when you invite your guests to your Seder and make them feel like a Hebrew slave.
Perhaps that’s what some Seder hosts are trying to do when they hold their guests hostage as they preach politics through the medium of an agenda-driven Haggadah. If you’re a guest having to endure an interminable wait for your dinner as you listen to propaganda, you may think you know what it’s like to be a Hebrew slave held in captivity by the Egyptians.
So, take that feeling you have as you suffer the protracted lashings of someone else’s political opinion and imagine what it would be like if it lasted three hundred years. Now add trauma, for the Hebrew slaves had plenty of trauma.
Wouldn’t your guests be surprised if, when they went to wash up, they turned the faucet and blood came out. A good plumber could easily arrange it for you. Next, cover the dining room table with frogs, infect your guests’ hair with lice and fill the room with flies. Let a pestilence loose and, when they leave, pelt your guests with hail the size of golf balls. Before they get home, send someone to their house to kill their dogs and cats. The next morning, arrange for the sun to not come up and, the next night, visit them in their rooms and kill every eldest sibling. You would never have to host a Seder again and yours will be the one they never forget.
The Hebrew slave’s experience of the Exodus was one of shear horror. They’re far from Pharaoh’s court. They wouldn’t have known that Moses was calling the shots. These plagues did not just affect the Egyptians. The whole country was going to hell. If these plagues happened around them, they happened to them. It was 9/11 times ten.
If these things happened to your country and someone arranged a way out of that blighted land, you would go. You wouldn’t wait for your bread to rise, you’d be on the plane and out. Religion wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Slavery wouldn’t have anything to do with it. You’d simply be terrorized and running for your life.
You have to remember that the Hebrew slaves didn’t know how the story was going to end. They couldn’t foresee their survival, the scene on Sinai, the building of the temple, the creation and re-creation, several times over, of a Jewish state, much less you, their ancestor, kvetching about how the wine is so sweet, it’s bad. They were in the middle of their own experience. As we all are, come to think of it; if we think of it.
You don’t need trauma created for you when you go to a Seder. You have your own. You’re one step away from chaos and total dissolution of the world as you know it. We’ve had our own ten plagues in our time. 9/11, a school shooting, a bus bombing, a flood, a tsunami, a war, a financial depression, more shootings and bombings, gas attacks, an abomination elected President. Then you have your own personal plagues: a close call, a suicide, frightful violence, hitting bottom, death, sickness, hopelessness, powerlessness, dread, and madness; the times when you find yourself at the edge of the abyss, peering over the ledge, and beginning to slip. When you’ve experienced any of this, and we all have, you come away touched by it. You’re never the same again. You might have PTSD. I’m certain the Hebrew Slaves had PTSD and no number of miraculous events in the desert could change that.
In fact, miraculous events deepen the horror, they don’t relieve it. When you escape a close call where many others die, you don’t feel good about it; you feel responsible.
When you attend Seder, you might dip a finger in red wine and mark your plate as each of the plagues are recited. Those ten tidy spots of red are supposed to symbolize the suffering of the Egyptians. It might be better if your hands were covered with blood. Your freedom, liberation, redemption, and even your life, comes at the cost of others’.
You’re the result of an intense competition between hundreds of sperm seeking to impregnate an egg. Your siblings died. You feed yourself off the flesh of others. Even if you’re a vegan, plants give their lives for you. You insensibly step on ants, slaughter microbes with every breath, and commit genocide on bacteria just to combat an infection. But, it’s not just lower beings you butcher. People have died in your place. Soldiers have fought for your safety. Miners have poisoned themselves so you could turn on the lights. Planes fall from the sky, miss you, and hit someone else. Cars crash a minute after you pass an intersection. Dozens perished to show physicians how to cure diseases that they cure for you. To exist means to survive in place of others. You have survivor’s guilt the moment you’re born.
Despair, horror, and guilt was the Hebrew slave experience as they left Egypt. They were very, very lucky; but they didn’t fully feel it. They were stunned and didn’t even know what to feel. It was only through the retelling that they made any sense out of it. By telling the story they became a light to the nations.
Despair, horror, and guilt, followed by a feast, may seem like a funny way to celebrate a holiday; but it’s a religious way of celebrating. Religion is supposed to help you look unflinchingly at the deepest, most inscrutable truths of existence, not gloss them over with pious pablum, or trivialize them with political debates. One of the first laws given to the Jewish people was to tell the Passover story every year. This is the same thing we therapists say to people who’ve experienced trauma. Tell your story.
Here is a question to discuss over Passover dinner. What was your moment of deepest despair and your greatest horror? How were you passed over? That is your Passover story.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Every night, and every day, we live in the middle of a horror movie, but on this night we know it.