Every year at Passover, there is one passage that I always gaze after wistfully as it flashes by in the rush of the Seder:
A tale is told of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiba, and Rabbi Tarfon, who once reclined together at Bene Berak telling about the departure from Egypt all night, until their disciples came to them and said, “Masters, the time has come to read the morning shema.”
And one edition of the Haggadah[i] states in a footnote: “The liberation from Egypt may have been intended as a cryptic reference to the liberation from Rome, the political issue at the time of Rabbi Akiba. It was Rabbi Akiba who took part in the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 131.”
Thus, if this conjecture is accurate, the participants at that long-ago Seder in Bene Berak felt that the commandment to feel as if we had gone out of Egypt includes considering what liberation would mean in one’s own time. Moreover, at least one of the participants felt the need not only to discuss this subject but also to do something about it, even if the action he chose to take proved unsuccessful.
I’ve long wished that the Passover seder could indeed include a prolonged and in-depth discussion of what is oppressing us today and how we might get out of it.
Doubtless this isn’t practical on the Seder night itself, with everything else that is going on. But the calendar also includes a “second Pesach,” instituted to give those who had been ritually impure at Passover a chance to bring the Passover offering (Bemidbar 9:6-7). A feast of second chances.
In my mind’s eye I see groups of friends gathered over four cups of wine, matzah, and some simple foods to keep the energy up, maybe coffee too, for those whom wine makes sleepy, expanding on that passage we went through too fast on Seder night — talking about what factors is oppressing us in the world and brainstorming about how to counter them.
I’m an incorrigible ’60’s survivor, and must confess that this fantasy has its origin in long nocturnal conversations that took place in Berkeley in the ’60’s.
For the most part the substance used was not wine, but I believe now that the chemical properties of the said substance were less significant than the sort of permission it gave us to think “out of the box,” in the current phrase, and to do so together. It felt as if we were reaching for thoughts that would change the world, strategizing on how to go about it.
Of course “like” Rabbi Akiva (lehavdil alfei havdalot!) we were unsuccessful. Such attempts as we made to act on our fantasies of changing the world came to nothing at best, and at the end of the ’60’s we (my generation) were left, on the whole, burnt out and less free than before. Moreover, the “liberation” rhetoric of that time seems to have been hijacked by a political “correctness” that is the opposite of freedom!
Still there was something there on which I am unwilling to give up.
Since the early 1970’s I’ve been trying to say: Let’s take that from the top. Without the illegal substances, without the confusion between freedom and permissiveness, without the readiness to buy into the rhetoric of simplistic ideologies. In the imagined presence of Rabbi Akiva, who after his 24,000 students died in the plague was willing to start over with just five.
For discussion-starters at our Pesach Sheni seder, I’d suggest two pieces that made the rounds just before this last Pesach. One is Phyllis Chesler’s essay, “We Find Ourselves in a New Kind of Egypt – How Do We Leave It?,” which appeared on Israel National News and can still be found on Dr. Chesler’s website, here. The subject is global anti-Semitism.
Second, I recommend a spoken word video by Moshe Friedman – “Confessions of a Passover Traitor” – which appeared on aish.com and can still be found on YouTube, here. The subject of this piece is enslavement through commercial culture, with its scientific methods of mind-manipulation. If we believe that we ourselves are free of these influences (we’d better check to make sure), still our lives are bound up with others, and with a society, who aren’t.
So I want to hope that on this or some future Pesach Sheni, circles of friends will gather to discuss the liberation from Egypt in contemporary terms. I can’t resist plugging in here a poem I wrote in 1975 in the hope of such gatherings. It was already posted on Sasson a year or so ago, but here it is, one more time.
We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life —
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world’s fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.
And maybe Sasson readers could also review my Sasson piece, “Please Think of This on Seder Night.”
An illuminating Pesach Sheni to all!
[i] The Passover Haggadah, with English Translation, introduction and commentary, based on the commentaries of E.D. Goldschmidt, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Revised edition,, New York: Schocken, 1969, .14/