Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Split Screen Celebration — Passover Lessons for a Difficult Day

Today was supposed to be a day of celebration. Israel’s political isolation, or some dimension of it, was broken, with the inauguration of the American embassy in Jerusalem. The celebration was not complete and could not be complete, because several hundred kilometers away dozens of Palestinians lost their lives in an attempt to break into Israel. The situation was captured in the visual of a split screen. Major TV networks covered Israel using a split screen, half devoted to the Gaza crisis, half devoted to the Jerusalem celebration.

Grappling with a “split-screen” reality is challenging. Most people can handle one or the other. To celebrate, one must cast out of one’s mind the violence, as well as suffering, that is taking place nearby. The Gaza violence was staged to compete with the Jerusalem celebration and thereby capture global attention. To make room for it in our minds, and hearts, would then be a case of giving the enemy an undeserved victory. So runs the common sentiment.

The reality we live in is, however, a “split-screen” reality. There is no getting away from one side or the other and we must, therefore, find ways of containing both conflicting realities. Here is a thought I have pondered today. I offer it in the hope it is meaningful to some readers (for those it doesn’t speak to – hold your fire, and move on to another op-ed).

The Passover Lesson — My handiwork is drowning

In Jewish tradition we give gratitude through liturgy and the most representative thanksgiving prayer is the Hallel, a series of psalms (113-118) recited as expressions of praise and gratitude on festivals and special occasions of gratitude. Sometimes gratitude is not and cannot be full. Something impinges on our joy, making it less than perfect. A “split screen” moment makes us aware of another reality, and that fuller vision makes it impossible to give unbridled praise. Praise is accordingly diminished. The liturgical expression of such diminished gratitude is called a “half Hallel”, and constitutes of reading the same set of Psalms, but omitting the opening parts of two of the Psalms, thereby rendering the celebration imperfect.

The moment in time that exemplifies this sense of diminished gratitude is the seventh day of Passover. Unlike the first day of Passover, when we recite the Hallel in full, on the seventh day (and consequently on all days following the first) we only recite the half Hallel.

The reasoning that is offered relies on a talmudic tradition (Megila 10b) wherein God forbade the angels to sing songs of praise while Israel was crossing the red sea and the Egyptians were drowning. In this passage, God turns to the angels and says to them: My handiwork are drowning in the sea, and you are praising me with song? The reasoning then goes: if the angels cannot sing a song in praise of God on this occasion, nor can we sing a full song. Even though we were delivered and even though we see reality through our human perspective, still something in our joy is diminished, knowing that on high there is also sorrow as God’s handiwork were drowning in the sea.

Many people will be familiar with the related ritual on the Seder night, when we pour a little wine out of our cups, as we read the list of the ten plagues. This is interpreted along similar lines. The joy of our liberation is diminished with the thought of the suffering, even the suffering of our enemies.

These two Passover traditions, parts of Jewish law and custom, provide a model for what a mooted celebration is. It is a celebration that cannot come to full expression and that is hampered by awareness of the suffering of the other. Full as our joy might have been, it is mooted by the fact that there are enemies, and even more surprisingly, that they are suffering. If they are suffering, our joy is diminished.

Adopting the Divine Perspective

I believe the key notion informing this tradition is compassion. The ground of compassion is God Himself. When his creatures suffer, God has compassion – he suffers with them. His joy is diminished. God’s compassion and care go beyond his people Israel, even while he is in the midst of delivering Israel from their enemies in what is the ultimate battle for their survival.

The liturgical tradition urges us to integrate God’s compassionate perspective, even as we fight for our very survival.

Compassion is the ability to keep our hearts open to the reality that the other is suffering.

Compassion is the ability to care about the fact that lives are lost, unnecessarily.

Compassion is the ability to see the human pain, as God sees it, and to care deeply for suffering on all sides.

Compassion does not cancel out the sense of justice or the need for battle anymore than it did at the Red Sea. God’s compassion for the Egyptians did not lead to an act of last-minute rescue. Still, even if there was no alternative but to drown them, it is an act that was carried out on-high with sorrow.

Compassion requires cultivation. Small liturgical gestures are one way of cultivating it, but a lot more is required. It must be sought after, taught, considered, prayed-for. This is all the more the case when we are caught in a never-ending battle that leads to the inevitable hardening of heart, to placing the suffering of the other behind a wall, a fence or a mental barrier we construct.

Imagining Today from God’s Perspective

As we rejoice with Jerusalem on its feast day and in recent diplomatic developments that affirm our deep relationship to it, let us stretch our imagination, and hearts, to consider what might be the divine perspective of a day like today. How does God live the “split-screen” reality of today’s events?

I imagine God does not have a split screen. He is able to integrate both realities and make room for both. I also imagine he would like us to do the same. It seems to me the power of compassion has the ability to hold both sides of the split screen together. God has compassion for his children who have returned home and for his city that in important ways was desolate for centuries. He also has compassion for the needless deaths, for the misguided leadership, for the bad interpretation of religion, for the blindness, narrowness and boundaries that keep the minds of Gazans even more enclosed and limited than do any external fences and boundaries. I imagine he also has compassion for us, not only in our suffering, but in any narrowness and limitation that we cultivate, that are contrary to the fullness of his compassion, including shutting our minds away from the suffering of others, of our enemies. It seems to me, if I continue with this engagement with religious imagination, that only compassion can tie it all together, lifting us all – all sides of a conflict, all peoples, all of humanity, all of God’s handiwork – into God’s sight and will.

Why should we engage in such an exercise of religious imagination? Because we too are suffering, because our joy is marred, because we too live in fear, brought about by the continuous struggle.

A compassionate look actually gives us the force to deal with reality in its fullness and complexity. It leads us to a truer view of reality, of our limitations, of the suffering inherent in our being creatures, along with others. It also opens our hearts to the other, and to God’s guidance of how to negotiate the seemingly impossible situation we are in. Even if we do not change our actions, living with compassion will color our action and speech in a different way. Others will hear the difference. This itself could lead to change.

As long as our lives are a “split screen” of celebration and suffering – and that may always be the case – we may have no choice but to follow the lessons of Passover, the divine example of compassion. Perhaps this will allow new possibilities to come into our horizon, possibilities that God alone can generate.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.