The Passover Story Makes Us Uncomfortable and That’s Good

My ancestors came out of slavery 5,000 years ago. So what does that have to do with me, so long and far away? Much closer is 9/11. Each morning that September, for weeks, I compulsively read the list of the dead and read articles about those who died and I wept and thought I would never recover.

But I have. Feelings have been repressed, the events of that day only occasionally recalled and often when a photo unexpectedly intrudes. The reality is that I have lived my life much as I did before 9/11, forgetting and needing to forget. I couldn’t live my life—loving and being loved, working and laughing, being a friend—with the same rawness, anger and depression that ruled me then. To survive, I needed to let go; to be alive I need to not remember tragedy too much. To embrace life, I needed to return to what I was before.
And that’s the problem. Letting go and forgetting is too easy. As Theodor Adorno said, after the Holocaust, ‘the highest form of immorality is to be comfortable in one’s own home.’
We all seek comfort; only the pathological seek thorns in their flesh. Yet to forget is to make us complicit in the horrors that surround us, by blinding us to the uglier side of life.
Here is the importance of the Passover story: it is a tale told each year about slavery, about exile. It is a reminder that no matter what our lives are like today, before freedom came slavery.
The Passover service isn’t simply a ritual retelling of history but an occasion for reflection and a call to free everyone from the chains of oppression. It is the opportunity and challenge to think about freedom and slavery and social justice and the world in which we live and the many ways in which people are still enchained. At its best, when the Passover dinner centers around discussion and thought and argument and is full of passion to understand, it make us uncomfortable in our own homes. When this happens, the story that is told is a moral tale, for our own time and for all time.
Passover is at once a celebration and a lament that calls for rededication to the cause of freedom. It is a Jewish story that calls for the identification with all humankind.
In his blog, Alan Gotthelf concludes his reflections on Passover by writing, “leaving almost everything behind forced us to start anew, and that cleaning out our house and our pantries today is our tribute to our ancestors and expresses our obligation to regard ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt. We also accept this new start in memory of those who, at many times and places, had no choice in having to deal with radical disruptions in their lives. And that’s a good thing and not just a Jewish thing.”

2 thoughts on “The Passover Story Makes Us Uncomfortable and That’s Good

  1. Nice piece! With regard to the dynamics of slavery and freedom, the Passover narrative engages the subtly of sustaining freedom and the perverse impulse to flee from it. On several occasions, when confronting death by Pharaoh’s army, and in the midst of despair in the wilderness that ends a reversion into idolatry, the children of Israel seek to return to slavery in Egypt and its security. Likewise, after the Exodus only two who left Egypt enter the Promised Land, signifying that all who were socialized by slavery are not disposed to a life of freedom and self-governance. That generation must die out so a new one born in freedom can flourish.

    Hence, freedom is not an endpoint. Nor is it s a gift. It is forever a task.


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