Jews around the world are preparing for the annual Seder celebrating the Holiday of Divine Protection (aka Passover – see my previous blog or the full length From Protection to Passover). As we witness a miraculous coming together of the forces of protest amongst the young folks in the United States, we would do well to contemplate the element of protest that is part and parcel of our Pesah observance.
As Western philosophy pointed out (with no small Judaic input) man is either an ends or a means. The moment one man regards his fellow – any fellow – as a means, we have the roots of slavery, we stand at the head of a slippery slope. The point of the Exodus from Egypt was not merely to get free from our own slavery in order to enslave others (a characteristically Greek way of seeing things). It was rather to become free from this discourse, this system, this possibility of one man enslaving – using –another.
American Jews today stand at this crossroads today in an unmistakable manner. But the Seder has been teaching us for millennia that we always stand at this crossroads, every year at springtime as the earth (Northern Hemisphere) renews itself. The time that is dominant in the Seder is present time, with due mention of past and future. When we recite “Ha lahma ania” – this is the bread of poverty and affliction – we mean “this” Matsah on our table now. The homily suggests that “ania” means not only poverty but also “answering” – using language to make meaning. In our context we could say it is the bread of PROTEST – because the first answer to poverty or enslavement is protest. Using our speech we give affliction its proper name: man as a means, man using man. Fake news is as old as speech itself. The only antidote is in true speech, calling poverty or oppression or racism or greedy capitalism or a murderous gun lobby by its true name.
Jews have always faced affliction and oppression. When they found release from oppression they stood at the Pesah crossroads: either protest the system of oppression or become an oppressor of others. This challenge faces Jews in the United States and even more so the Jews in the State of Israel today. This is a terrible choice that cannot be averted. And perhaps this is why the Presence of the Lord in each home, protecting us (the original meaning of Pesah) is so necessary. We need a Higher protection in order to make the right choice. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, we can be either slaves or Pharaoh. “It is sad to be a slave; it is horrible to be a Pharaoh.”
Or, with God’s protection, we can be the protestors, working to make men fellows, neither Pharaohs nor slaves.
For that, we need to get the hell out of Egypt.