Monday, April 18, 2011

This is the Bread of Shame

It strikes me as emblematic of a waning propensity towards introspection and self-examination in our generation that the Passover seder can be celebrated with such blasé contentment by diaspora Jewry. Blithely are so many comfortable Jews able to glide over the words of our daily prayers, asking God to "assemble us from the four corners of the earth", and the Hagaddah's many appeals for redemption and return to the land of our forefathers fare no better. How can it be that only a generation or two after the Holocaust, Jews have forgotten the bitterness of exile, and relish their self-inflicted imprisonment?

This was never supposed to be. The sting of physical and spiritual exile were supposed to hurt us so badly, that we would do all within our power, and perhaps more, to return to the condition of old, where we sat at our Father's table. We should feel shame, pain, disharmony, angst, in our dispersion. In fact, Rabbi Kook sees this as the reason the Hagaddah starts out with the הא לחמא עניא. The seder is supposed to be a time of glory, pride and happiness. However, during the exile, we read in our seder of customs gone by, and splendor lost. How can a Jew rejoice when he reads of the קרבן פסח, the offerings of Passover, the Temple service, Divine immanence and national exaltation, and yet knows the depths of despair and lowly shame his nation wallows in during the present exile?

For this reason, says Rabbi Kook, the Hagaddah starts with the bread of affliction, literal and metaphoric. Know, says the Hagaddah, that when the Jews suffered in the sweltering heat of oppression and slavery, when their bread was depressed and their hope fleeting, even from that point, God saved them. The הא לחמא עניא is an empathetic passage reminding us in the exile that God once saved us, and he will again. When we say, כל דכפין ייתי וייכול, "all who are hungry, come and eat!", we serve God out of the depths of despair. The responding parallel phrase, כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח, "all who are in need, come and share in the passover offering," is the reward that awaits those who valiantly celebrate in the ignominy of exile; they will merit to take part in the paschal offering in Jerusalem. In this way, the Hagaddah attempts to break the depression and sadness of the dispersed Jews, even if only for one night.

In our present day, it would seem that the opposite lesson is needed. Find shame in the exile, find debasement in your lives as a nation dispersed by God's fury! Come to the point where you need הא לחמא עניא to lift your spirits! A renewed awakening to the ignominy of exile is what is needed now. We stand free of 2000 year old shackles, and God invites us home. Will we take the first step?

May the story of our first deliverance spur us to take the steps to the final salvation, and that of the entire world.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Not In Heaven

In Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits' extremely interesting work on the essence of Halacha, I found an important paragraph (Not In Heaven, 140) on the relationship between the modern State of Israel and its religious population:

This twofold alienation, from life and from halacha's concern with it, can be best illustrated by the one-sided educational ideal of the yeshivot in Israel. In general, they frown on secular studies. But a state needs an army, an economic system, health and welfare services, scientific research, technology, etc. The question, therefore, is: Does the Torah desire a Jewish people living in its own land or not? If the answer is affirmative, then the Torah must also desire soldiers, physicians, scientists, architects, engineers, policemen, social workers, etc. To say that these professionals should all come from the secular segment of the population would be a confession that the Torah cannot cope with life. On the other hand, to divide the people into a religious elite, exclusively dedicated to Torah study, and a professional majority, rather ignorant of Torah, incarcerates students of the Torah in another form of a Diaspora Museum, that of the present-day yeshivot.
I would highly recommend the whole book, and particularly the paragraph that comes before the above quote. (Read it to see why I am being so vague.)