Passover approaches. I lift my eyes to the top shelf of my bookcase, where lie many haggadot, some of them very familiar to me, others with spines unbroken. Each haggadah is a shard of refracted light, a piece of the spectrum of the Passover story that has journeyed through generations of editors, writers and artists, each of whom sought to invest this timeless tale with new meanings, fresh insights.
The latest addition to my collection is [The] New American Haggadah (Little Brown, 2012), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with a new translation by Nathan Englander and commentary by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Lemony Snicket (Yes, that Lemony Snicket–a.k.a. Daniel Handler, the clever author of children’s books.)
I don’t know yet if this new haggadah will find a place at my seder table but I do know that I am finding in it much that intrigues me. Let me give you a taste.
At that moment in the telling when we are reminded that God heard the voices of our ancestors crying out in need, we find the following commentary: “ [Franz] Kafka once wrote in his journal, ‘You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.’”
I find that a powerful and thought-provoking passage. How easy it is to disengage from the world and its problems, to insulate ourselves from the painful realities that clamor constantly for our attention and response. We claim, and often exercise, the freedom to turn away from suffering, to think first and foremost of ourselves and our needs. This may, indeed, “accord with our nature” in a Darwinian kind of way.
However, as Kafka’s comments suggest, when we hold ourselves back from involvement in addressing all that engenders suffering in our world, we risk the greatest kind of suffering…the awareness that we are failing, fundamentally, to be the kind of people that Judaism calls upon us to be….“God-intoxicated” people who are inspired and compelled to engage in the healing of our world.
Whether you employ an old wine-stained Maxwell House version or the New American Haggadah, I defy you to pay attention to its words and not come away committed to viewing the world with “Pesach eyes”, ready to engage yourself in struggles against the pharaohs of every stripe and description who bedevil our world.
And if you are at a loss as to where to begin, let me point you to the website of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism the social justice heart of the Reform Movement. (Click here to link to the RAC: www.rac.org). Or visit www.change.org to add your name to any number of petitions to effect meaningful reforms.
May your Passover be liberating; may you rise from your seder table inspired, committed, ready!