Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Only Kid

At many Passover seders, the most oft-repeated line is: “When do we eat?”
There is even a movie called “When Do We Eat?” that features the fictional—and very dysfunctional—family of Ira and Peggy Stuckman. They gather to celebrate “the world’s fastest seder,” ending with a meal that is “kosher enough for Moses” (see We get the gag because we’ve all been there.

And yet, beneath the laughter there is a profound sadness. On a night defined by so many wonderful questions, this one is a travesty, even when uttered half (or more than half) jokingly. If our ancestors could wander for forty years in the desert before arriving at the Promised Land, we can surely make it a few hours before the brisket arrives. “When do we eat?” turns the extraordinary story of our people’s liberation into an obstacle standing in the way of a nosh. Pesach is all about telling that story. The meal is, essentially, incidental, just one more prop in the unparalleled pedagogical drama that is the seder.

Our sages taught: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we, too, went out from Egypt.” Pesach is not about remembering the distant past; it is about re-experiencing that past in the present time. It is not the story of our ancestors long ago; it is our story. Our challenge is to consider what enslaves us—anything and everything from money to technology to stale habits—and find ways to free ourselves from those burdens. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “a narrow place.” This spring festival of deliverance is the time of our own liberation, an opportunity to renew ourselves.

So this year, don’t ask, “When do we eat?” Savor the journey rather than kvetching your way to the destination. Raise other, better questions: “What can I do to change the world this year? What still enslaves me? How can I help hasten the redemption of others still in bondage?”

It’s not about the food. It’s about the freedom—and finding yourselves in the pages of the haggadah.

For more, see one of my favorite poems, by the early Israeli poet Natan Alterman, below.

The Kid of the Haggadah

There in the market place, bleating among the billy goats and nannies,
Wagging his thin little tail—as thin as my finger—
Stood the Kid—downcast, outcast, the leavings of a poor man’s house,
Put up for sale without a bell, without even a ribbon, for just a couple of cents.

Not a single soul in the market paid him any attention,
For no one knew—not even the goldsmith, the sheep-shearer—
That this lonesome little Kid would enter the Haggadah
And his tale of woe become a mighty song.

But Daddy’s face lit up,
He walked over to pat the Kid’s forehead—and bought him.
And so began one of those songs
That people will sing for all history.

The Kid licked Daddy’s hand,
Nuzzled him with his wet little nose;
And this, my brother, will make the first verse of the song:
An only Kid, an only Kid, my father bought for two zuzim.
It was a spring day, and the breezes danced;
Young girls winked and giggled, flashed their eyes;
While Daddy and the Kid walked into the Haggadah
To stand there together—small nose in large hand, large hand on small nose.

To find in the Haggadah—
So full already of miracles and marvels—
A peaceful place on the last page,
Where they can hug each other and cling to the edge of the story.

And this very haggadah whispers,
“Join us. . . you’re welcome here. . . you belong,
Among my pages full of smoke and blood,
Among the great and ancient tales I tell.”

So I know the sea was not split in vain,
Deserts not crossed in vain—
If at the end of the story stand Daddy and the Kid
Looking forward and knowing their turn will come.

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