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Seders For Hard Times

Seders For Hard Times

Associate Editor

At the first seders of this second Depression I’m looking for a seat next to Bobby McGee. We’re celebrating holy freedom but for too many, on a temporal level, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Too many of us have taken a hit. Freedom this week means opening doors when no one is knocking, looking into the night, seeing Elijah in the shadows, waiting for the wandering angel of the down-and-out, watching his cup for ripples of a sip.

We’re living through a crash in which we were the most slow-witted of the Four Sons — the Simple Child, or the Child Who Didn’t Know How To Ask. Who of us even knew to ask, about toxic assets, or derivatives, or an
economy that became less about creation of goods and more about the creation of schemes? On Wall Street, during the running of the bulls, Joseph’s fat cows turned lean, and then into a Golden Calf that no one saw coming.

Maybe trustees of some Jewish organizations would rather not hear about the time Elijah accosted one Jewish leader after the seder, saying, “You collected all the money as charity but you distributed it according to your own will. … The cries [of the needy] reached Heaven and came before God Almighty.”

Perhaps there’s some communal sin tucked in to all the excess, the $600 etrogs, and $100,000 simchas, the millions of charity dollars that paid the fees of billionaire investment bankers. Too many of us were left feeling that we couldn’t “compete” in that religious community, and all for the sake of holiness giving way to loneliness.

As Leonard Cohen says, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”

But there’s no loneliness on seder nights. The city is filled with free seders, free food banks, invitations and open doors. This is Elijah’s night, bringing holiday meals to families on relief; teaching the Baal Shem Tov that the simple devotions of working people can produce a spiritual effect more profound than the complex meditations of kabbalists.

These are the seder nights in which the tales of affliction won’t only be told in the Haggadah but in the kitchen, in late afternoon, while preparing the seder plate, chopping the charoset:

A teacher at a Y in a wealthy Jewish neighborhood stops me in a drug store, saying her Y is cutting everyone’s salary 20 percent. A principal stops me at a wedding, saying more people in her school are asking for scholarships than ever before and we have to do something but she doesn’t know quite what.

Let’s listen to the cries, late at night, after the seder, telling stories while doing the dishes; let’s do the dishes together, we haven’t seen so much of each other lately.

Who knows one?

Some might link Passover to the “Four Freedoms” of Norman Rockwell and Franklin Roosevelt: freedoms of speech and worship, freedoms from hunger and fear. Freedom of worship? Worshipping the Golden Calf meant death. Freedom of speech? The earth swallowed Korach for his nonviolent revolt against Moses. Freedom from want? The Israelites cried for water, wanted to return to Egyptian “fleshpots.” Freedom from fear? Imagine the fear when hearing the thundering hooves and Egyptian chariots closing in before the sea split; the fear of the weak and elderly, mid-desert, when Amalek attacked from the rear; the fear of the Israelite scouts who felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison to the Canaanite “giants.” God engineered our slavery jailbreak not for us to be free in the American sense but in the Jewish sense, to be soulful, free to be close to God and each other.

In the Age of Excess, as some are calling the era slipping away, we had so much excess that it became passé, in too many Jewish circles, to simply observe Passover. We had the “luxury,” we thought, even the necessity, to find meaning for Passover in the story of others, to equate our Passover with Tibet or Darfur, even with the Palestinians, according to some, as if shooting Passover full of political steroids would keep the holiday from slipping into what some would call an anachronism or keep some guests from being bored.

This year, the broken-hearted and the fearful won’t be bored in their private Egypt. At this seder we’re celebrating that God heard our cries and didn’t forget us. He’ll hear our cries again.

The cries must be tempered with joy in the ultimate redemption, as the bitter herbs are sweetened with charoset. Yitzhak Buxbaum, in his collection, “The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov,” tells of the time the Baal Shem told some students who had the blues: “Depression blocks the Divine Light and keeps a person from approaching God. … Sadness is actually a sign of atheism. … If a Jew has forgotten to be happy, it’s a sign that he’s forgotten God.” Then the Baal Shem put down his pipe, closed his eyes and began a soft, joyful niggun of a melody, his disciples joining in, raising their voices.

And as our seders draw to a close, let’s sing the happy songs together, slapping the table like “windshield wipers slappin’ time,” singing all the songs we ever knew: “Who knows one? I know One. One is our God in the heaven and the earth.”

Who can be depressed, singing old seder songs at 2 a.m.?

The seders are coming, as sure as next week. Listen to Sholom Aleichem: “Here and there on the hill beyond the synagogue there sprouts the first grass of spring, tender, quivering, green. … From the town strange sounds arise — a roaring, a boiling, a seething. It is the day before Passover, a rare and wonderful day. In one instant the world is transformed. Our yard is a king’s court. Our house is a palace. I am a prince and Buzie is a princess. The logs of wood piled about our door are the cedars and cypresses of the Song of Songs. The cat that lies near the door, warming herself in the sun, is the young hart in the Song of Songs. The women and the girls who are working outdoors, washing and cleaning and getting ready for the Passover, are the daughters of Jerusalem. Everything, everything is from the Song of Songs.”

Who know one? We are one, no one’s alone and never more shall be so.

Please visit Jonathan Mark’s Route 17 blog


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