Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bemidbar: Passover 5768

"Into the desert" is the first phrase of the Book of Numbers, that dull census. It fits, however, our storytelling as we met for last night's seder. We hosted two families who, while they had only met each other at our own gatherings in passing over the past fifteen years, together my wife and I have known a long time. Longer, for her, as one of the women was her high school best friend. Seeing the six children, theirs and ours, at one Passover table, and the six of us at the other (although Layne cooked and cleaned so much as is her balabusta style that she rarely sat down with us, pillow and reclining if the ancients were to be strictly and luxuriously followed in their admonition to sit back and relax this night, for once), I thought about how Jews always-- and more recently non-Jews too-- have gathered for such yeastless feasts for three millennia. We had a question-and-answer, seminar sort of open-ended discussion as we navigated the venerable shoals and eddies of the "order" of Pesach.

I tried, given my own pedantry and the fact we had a professor up for tenure among us as well as a nine-year-old girl and a lot of restless teens and people with varying levels of commitment or patience for midrash jot-and-tittle minutiae, to keep it brisk. With kids younger, I've done it in under half-an-hour; this took an hour, but I hope we all learned rather than languished. Happening but yearly, the details do need repeating, and memories often lag meanwhile. The switch from a pedagogical to androgical set-up does help with older youth. Freire might applaud. We could ask them to help tell the story-- as Jews are commanded to do each Pesach-- and to explain why we do each part of the seder. In my teaching mode, I nonetheless avoid rote recitation. I used old photocopies of a family-friendly Haggadah I'd cut-and-pasted a decade ago, and we riffed off of these as older and younger moods fit.

Olivia knew lots about the rabbinic stories behind the text. She filled in helpful conjectures that have accumulated, given the centuries involved between us and the Exodus. Little Lucy perked up with the plagues and helped act out them in our traditional family charades. As Sarah pointed out, it does get easier to guess when you have only ten to start from. Layne commented that next year, she would not put the shankbone on the plate to commemorate animal sacrifice; the roasted beet could suffice as a friendlier substitute.

The last straw's that broke the oppressor's back's also a burden. Layne winced at the text's culmination in the sacrifice of the Egyptians' firstborn as a necessary goad to get the Hebrews out of that "narrow place," the land known in Hebrew as Mitzrayim. (Robin and I wondered why it's a plural noun ending). Yet, she also agreed that if there was some retribution involved in some Iraqi-vs.-American (or Israeli) atrocity today, we'd likely be unable to turn a cheek for another pacifist, unilaterally Kumbayah, cheek. Another reminder of how the two testaments differ, and of the lack of pacifists on the bristling frontiers around Eretz Israel for the past six watchful decades. Nobody celebrates with any more cinematic or bestselling "Exodus" concoction those who burrow there. About ten percent of those for whom the Law of Return attracted their parents from exile now live abroad. Many of these "olim" seem the main cause of traffic on my city's Westside! The others, as Manchán Magan has eloquently described in his two accounts of India and South America, appear to follow their ancestors, trekking across far terrain after their army service drives them away from the intifada to recover shalom. Those remaining "up there," the ones who've made "aliyah" and arose to the once-vibrant postwar challenge, face becoming a minority in their homeland. Debate between Zion as a land for "next year in Jerusalem" promise and Palestine as no land of "Israel Lobby" premise continues to roil even within our haggadah.

It lists the custom of putting fingers in our wine to take out a drop for each plague, as a reminder of diminishing the joy at the destruction of our enemies. Robin and I wondered if this was "liberal guilt." I'm not sure if this gentle gesture would find its imitation on much of the West Bank today or among those who managed, as I read the other day, to smuggle under their clogs three turnip peelings to use as "matzoh" in the clandestine seders held in the barracks at the concentration camps. As must have been all too easy in 1943 Dachau, Jews can summon up imperious injunctions from the Creator to never forget Amalek. You can't let your guard down. The enemies do wipe you out, down to the stragglers in the long line who lack the strength to flee.

But, for how long must Jews urge "never again"? Until the fourth generation? How long past 1948 is this? I can hear this as a kumbayah echo. What do schoolchildren in Hebron and among Hamas both memorize at their own dinner tables? What songs do they hum before another skirmish over this tiny rift between Africa & Asia?

My recent readings of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have refreshed in my scriptural mind such Levitical citations understood and perpetuated in their xenophobic paranoia. Dawkins cites George Tamarin's study that took Joshua's blitz of Jericho and tested the responses of Israeli children as to its morality. Tamarin found that even the secular students largely approved: 66% total, 8% partial, while 26% with total disapproval. Maimonides defended this too: "It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them." When Tamarin replaced the biblical names with "General Lin" and "a Chinese kingdom," for a different group, only 7% approved and 75% disapproved. (255-57: "The God Delusion") But, if the Israelis lacked their Defense Force, would they have survived a month past independence sixty years ago?

Furthermore, for no Jewish argument's easy, the Chosen also have been long chided by their jealous God not to forget their own bullseyes. Almost like baboons: they cannot blend into the camouflauge. For, always each Hebrew's back(side) seems forever branded by that same Deity who placed them in this great continental divide so temptingly placed between Pharoah and potentate, three continents crossing, incense once and spices then and oil now all sought by a greedy world. Always in target range of their circling, and always multiplying, billions (it seems) of foes.

This harsh vibe after the hang loose-let live Santa Cruz spliff or Berkeley raga does remind us that when you're commanded to tell the impressionable children this perilous story of escape endlessly, that with it comes the reminder that you're a member of another tribe. Thus lots of killing of first and other-borns, on both sides of the Semitic divide, recorded in scripture, on videotapes, with stones. The leftists constantly urge us to respect The Other, and the sin of Orientalism looms large on curricula and in diversity programs. Yet, I did notice, from my own stints in conventional academia, how rarely today's few million Jews gain nuanced understanding.

Instead, it's always MOT stereotypes. A council of bearded elders plots trilateral world domination. IDF bulldozer crushes willowy peace activist. The tubby macher on the Malibu beach with the Botoxed shiksa trophy wife. Hollywood producer, twice intermarried, trots out another Broadway romp aimed at the upscale urbane (if shrinking demographic) able to chuckle at a deft sprinkling of verbal schmaltz. The latest Judd Apatow sex comedy with our nebbischy mensch pining after a perky natural (?) Nordic blonde. (Like the one he married in real life who gets to star in his movies despite a marked lack of talent.) It's ads in the "Forward" to rally with boycotts, against jihads, and amidst rumors of endless persecution. My sons with their monikers fending off snide remarks while their friends with the "right" surnames can blend in without any Jewish matrilineal connection, which I alone seem to find ironic. My wife shrugs at such tired images. It's a people always assimilating, yet never quite able to "pass" into.

So, being far from the Promised Land but with no Moshiach in sight, we at our seder returned to the edgy customs evolved of those who never quite fit in no matter where they dwell. Moses bred into Hebrews the need to cover one's rear guard. Where'd Jewish comedy be without such a nervous glance, a defensive disarming tic?

We opened the door to see if Elijah awaited. I heard this custom also arose out of the diasporic need to assure passers-by that no grounds for blood libel lurked within. A few minutes later, the Mexican neighbor's boy came to the gate to ask for Niall to come out and play. Our other neighbor, who was from Ukraine, had her partner's parents visiting. I wondered if she went to any seders after her own 1970s-era departure from the USSR, in what at the time was billed as the great rescue of Soviet Jews into freedom. As Layne and she have joked about, the expensive liberation brought about by a combination of Kissinger-type diplomacy, Israeli duplicity, and American publicity did not exactly fill the pews of our local synagogues with millions of grateful Semitic semi-Slavs. I also imagined (despite the windows being closed on her side) that our emancipated neighbor heard us all when our dozen voices sang the Four Questions demanding why we keep doing this archaic routine, Mah Nishtanyah, in Hebrew.

Leo piped up, for once, with an answer to why the Egyptians did not immediately let the Hebrews go. We recalled the chilling verse that "God had hardened Pharoah's heart," and I lamented a capricious God who changed the rules halfway through the game of life. He did it with Job, Moses, Judas, and Pharoah. I suppose that Lot finagled too when he bargained YHWH down at Sodom, however, and Moses certainly lied enough in his pimping Sarah off on various priapic potentates, one Pharoah included, as his "sister" to save his own sagging tuchas on his own desert expeditions. By the last "arranged marriage," she would have been withered considerably even by inflated biblical chronology, about ninety-odd. Did she laugh then as she had when the angel told her husband that despite being withered and unable to enjoy pleasure, she'd bear Isaac? And look how Abraham treated his own first-born, Isaac. Incomprehensible, but duly recorded and memorized, orders for slaughter of the innocent, to a dutiful founder of the Hebrews from an earlier disembodied voice above another barren mountain across that same desert's expanse.

Rosie answered why Moses had to flee into the desert. Olivia and Sarah told us why Moses stuttered-- the burning coal picked and sucked by him as a baby over the toppling heap of gold. Ben knew why he returned. No child knew the name of Moses' wife. I noted how compared to the likes of Esther or Rebecca that Zipporah (or even Tzippi if you're a sabra) failed to catch fire for the many mamaloshen of millions of mothers. We went on to the fabled events, and paused to note the late Charlton Heston's role in imprinting them on our imaginations. We oldsters all fondly mentioned the Easter apparition we loved, when both "The Ten Commandments" and "The Wizard of Oz" came on t.v., once each spring. Scott suggested that seismic shifts might have given rise to the parting of the Red Sea story; I compared the long race memory of what now archeologists confirm what must have been the post-glacial flooding around 8000 BCE that created the Black Sea.

Niall explained the symbolic charoset to commemorate the Pyramids built by the slaves (who would not have been the Hebrews, contrary to popular belief!); Sarah noted that this mortar detail actually came from the Babylonian "captivity" of the post-First Temple Hebrews exiled to Persia, long after the supposed events in Egypt. She told us how she'd studied the Joseph story in detail, and how scholars today believe that the Exodus account was "backdated" and invented to latch on to the Joseph tales. I also wondered if this could then be used to justify the Promised Land being given to the Jews, after they'd been somehow lured outside of its borders, and to defend their conquest of Canaan as being deeded them by the land-grant Lord in Manifest Destiny fashion.

Robin and Sarah also reminded us that Moses never entered the Promised Land do to his sin, not only of striking the rock twice for water (a pretty minor misdemeanor if you ask me) but for killing the evil taskmaster. Rosie pointed out that Moses only found out he was a Hebrew when his brother Aaron visited him at the Pharoah's court. I also remembered that Aaron made the golden calf, and when I suggested it must have been about six inches high due to the lack of gold that the fleeing Hebrews would have carried with them, Julia provided a rejoinder: "You don't know Jewish women."

Layne summed it all up, after an hour of such conversation, before the meal. I had mentioned to her yesterday I'd been wanting to ask folks this at our Seder, as we were all (except Lucy) grown-up enough. If as scholars now tell us, that the Exodus never really happened, why do we act as if it did? Ben observed that the Sinai was not so large as to get lost in it forty years, while Rosie noted that the disbelieving older generation longing for their shankbones had to die off first before the land of milk and honey could be entered-- according to God's relentless bookkeeping; Olivia and I agreed that the Egyptians would have noted the Hebrew episode if it had mattered in their chronicles or they'd have been too dismissive to record what would have been a minor tribe-- no 600,000 men-- passing through up and down past Gaza as they had before and since as of little importance: no plagues, no fire, no troops drowned.

The adult table spent most of their night discussing our own aging and the deaths of our parents. We all had undergone the passing away of loved ones the past year. Layne returned to the metaphorical etymology that I mentioned above, "of passing out of the narrow places." This appears to have taken on new currency in secular times, among Santa Cruz-Berkeley in spirit, NPR-demographic in substance Jews like those at our seder, as far as I can tell. These myths and those midrashim entice me, Olivia, Robin and Sarah. Nevertheless, for the less owlish at our tables, I suspected more compelling reasons to go through the ritual could be found in its symbolic enaction.

We have to overcome our limitations. In a self-actualizing manner, Jews and anybody else coming to care about this considerably hectic (if you do it right!) holiday-- note the black adoption of a "freedom seder"-- have learned to recognize that meaning lies beyond the trappings of eggs and spring fever. We dip greens and do spring cleaning and munch matzah (which may be the "bread of affliction" but less so if baked with chocolate another 18 minutes or so!). Not out of the fear that if we fail, that we'll be stricken with leprosy or that the seismic shifts may consume us as they did those cavorting around the metallic idol.

For me, I only eat matzoh at Passover: it reminds me of self-control, of the need for instilled discipline. I lack any Yiddishkeit, which for most of those last night at our home may compel them to keep up the injunction to tell this story "as if it happened to us" for so long. Any recollections of the aroma of brisket or the tang of maror for my first- and second-born will come only from this latest installment in the gnarled family tree that connects three of them back to the tribes who claimed--even if long after the fact, as inspired fiction-- they once fled across the wilderness into freedom. For us all, Passover's a reminder of how lost we are when we flee the fleshpots of Egypt alone to roam within our own bewildered souls, without comforting manna or a guiding pillar of fire.

May you live to be 120: so a woman at the Mitzvah Store blessed my firstborn a decade and more ago, across the street from my father-in-law, who died before he reached that symbolic age when Moses was buried, and, confounding fundamentalists if not rabbis, managed to write about it in the last of his Five Books. So the stories twist over the centuries into human contradictions, squaring the eternal circle clumsily. We need the company of others stubborn enough to call themselves or ally themselves with Jews: this lesson remains the conclusion of our seder. We continue on this long journey into the mortal desert that-- for we six at the grown-ups table last night different from all other nights-- will end our days at most not at six score but at best in forty years.

Image: J.M.W. Turner, 1800, Tate Gallery: "The Fifth Plague of Egypt" {Dever: cattle disease. At least I stopped eating brisket this seder, although you should taste my wife's...!}

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mitzrayim is dual: Upper and Lower Egypt.