A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, March 31, 2008

Passover I - Presenting the Past

Passover begins on Saturday evening, April 19th. I will be writing about it frequently between now and then. This post is just to point to an overarching issue with Passover.

More than most holy days, Passover cuts right to the core of the dilemma facing the modern Jew: I want to be Jewish, but how do I make any meaning out of the Jewish past? Can I really get myself worked up about a period of slavery and liberation that happened - if it happened - three thousand years ago?

We are caught between an urgent need to experience the transcendent (ok, let's just say it: God) in our lives and a sense that we must enrobe ourselves with the trappings, habits and customs of our tradition.

We often feel that we have to make a painful choice between the past and present. We try to find meaning in the present by seeking connection with the eternal in an immediate, unmediated way. We wanna feeeeel it. This usually leads us away from Judaism because, well, God usually hangs out outside the synagogue, at least where most of us come from. Meditation, yoga, seeking peak experiences in the natural world....each of these is powerful because it is satisfies our desire to move beyond the painful plainness or painfulness of our daily lives. Anyway, we can do this, OR....

We feel like we can try to be Jewishy, repeating incantations in Hebrew, putting on prayer shawls, mumbling about a merciful God, reading bizarre stories about an angry God, and generally try on the ill-fitting suit that is Jewish tradition in order to satisfy our need for warmth. Maybe this feels nice, and we alleviate our guilt that we are lousy and irresponsible Jews if we don't do this - but let's be honest: it's a drag.

David Hartman, an American-born Israeli, modern-Orthodox thinker, writes about this modern predicament in his book A Living Covenant. He says that both of these impulses are Jewish impulses: the desire for an immediate connection with God and the reality that we can establish this connection through our tradition. Exploring the verse from Exodus 15:2, "This is my God and I will adore Adonai; the God of my father and I will exalt God" (from the Song of the Sea, the big number the Israelites sing as they cross the Red Sea) he writes,

Traditional Judaism has always contained a vital dialectic between “This is my God and I will adore Adonai” and “The God of my father, and I will exalt God.” (Exodus 15:2). Loyalty to the God about whom our fathers [and mothers] told us does not exclude the discovery of new insights and experiences that lead one to say, “This is my God.” The past does not exhaust all that is possible within one’s...relationship with God.

In other words, we don't have to choose - we find what we're looking for in the present through the past. That sounds like a Spinal Tap lyric.

But one thing is for sure - if you read the Haggadah on Passover and you come away with: 'Wow, cool story. Sucks to be the Egyptians; pass the matzah,' you haven't found the present in the past. It takes effort, creativity, it requires asking questions of people who know more than you, it means finding good stuff to read, inventing imaginative approaches to the stories and rituals.

With the desire and the effort will come the understanding that we do not choose between transcendence in the present and an understanding of the past - these are inextricably bound. And if you read carefully - if you come prepared - you will find your own story inscribed in the pages of the Haggadah.


  1. The four questions are only partly introspection for us to find, in our different internal natures, the clues to our past and present. The seder is also a small community event where we discover the different people within our midst and in the mists of time. Way cool stuff and powerful to boot. Good food, good talk, great story, wonderful camaraderie, lean to the left, rah, rah rah.

  2. I agree. I hope you have a beautiful seder and Pesach.