Jewish World Review April 16, 2003 / 14 Nissan 5763

Paul Greenberg

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How to leave Egypt | One of the greatest teaching devices ever devised for young or old, but especially the young, has to be the Seder, the ceremonial meal that ushers in Passover tonight. Something like the Seder could have been invented only by generations of rabbi-teachers -- or by some singular genius like John Dewey, who understood learning by doing.

The Seder doesn't teach just by doing, but also by seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. And by talking, listening, seeing, commenting and a lot of singing. It teaches in every way -- in biblical Hebrew and today's vernacular, by prayer and story, through precept and practice, by closely reasoned argument and whimsical fancy, with the doors open and shut, and the participants sober or tipsy.

Long before psychologists invented the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test, the ancients understood that different people learn in different ways at different paces. So they designed the lessons of Passover to appeal to different types -- which the text calls the wise, the wicked, the simple and those too young to even ask the significance of the holiday.

Ah, yes, the text. The text for the Seder is called the Haggadah, or story. And like the best stories, it is more than a story. It really takes place in the present. It is an invitation to experience the exodus from slavery to freedom now.

Traditionally, the ceremony has to include only a few basic steps -- like eating the matzos (unleavened bread) and drinking the four cups of wine. But the Haggadah is not a closed book -- a final, authorized version. Any more than history is.

Over the past half-century, from boyhood to increasing age, I've recited prayers for the most unimaginable things:

  • One place on Earth where every Jewish refugee would be welcome. (The more credulous even prayed for the establishment of a Jewish state.)

  • Peace between Israel and Egypt, the land that is the symbol of slavery and oppression in the text.

  • Permission for the millions of Jews in the Soviet Union to leave; the really daring even asked for the end of that tyranny itself.

  • And even a prayer for the liberation of the black Jews of Ethiopia, a people separated so long from the rest of us that they didn't even have all the books of the Bible, but only the first five. But what they had, they remained faithful to. For thousands of years. As if they actually believed that someday all of them would be miraculously flown out of Addis Ababa within 48 hours. Which, of course, they were. On the wings of eagles, or rather of El Al.

Yes, outlandish hopes. Everybody knows miracles no longer happen.

But the Haggadah keeps adding new chapters. The text is infinitely varied and just as expandable. Like history itself.

The Haggadah doesn't end so much as say: To Be Continued. Each year's Seder ends with the concluding words: Next year in Jerusalem! As if each generation were part of some great procession with a purpose, still following a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.

Is it the past we enter through the Seder, or the future? Both, of course. An ever-present. That is what true ritual is: A re-creation happening for the first time. Each generation is to celebrate this watch-night as if it were the one leaving Egypt in haste.

In the words of the Negro spiritual, "Go down Moses, tell ol' Pharaoh, let my people go!" All slavery is alike. But there are different kinds of freedom. There is a freedom that comes after freedom, as the Children of Israel were to discover in the wilderness. No promised land awaited, only the hazards of the journey. Freedom is hazard. A secret: There is no promised land, only a choice between slavery and the wilderness.

Yes, there is a kind of brief, hollow freedom that is only the absence of slavery. Seemingly limitless but really transient, that kind of freedom will always prove a swindle. It is not liberty but licentiousness.

Call it cheap freedom. It does not cost much or last long. It is concerned only with self. It is different from the freedom that arrives as grace, and therefore entails gratitude, sacrifice, duty.

What gives freedom meaning? After many a Passover, one begins to suspect that it is the difference between the popular, only partial phrase that sticks in the memory: "Let my people go ...'' and the whole verse: Let my people go that they may serve Me.

Fail to complete the verse, and freedom loses its purpose, its bearings, its divine sanction. Fail to remember the whole verse, and, though we depart Egypt in haste tonight, we'll be back in the morning, slaves to something else.

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