Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Seder, President Obama, and true Redemption on Pesach

For years now, the Seder has been part of the Obama tradition, as the President (he began the minhag even before he became President). The White House published the attached video, in which the President explains to thousands of young Israelis why he brought the Seder into his household. He said,
After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud that I've now brought this tradition into the White House. I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.
It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become. But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering, but also all of its salvation.
For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home. 
Taking President Obama at his word, he himself found the Seder personally moving. The Seder speaks to him, and he identified with the notion of overcoming slavery, seeking freedom and salvation, and rising to the greatest heights achievable. He wanted his daughters to share in the story because he correctly realizes that they cannot relate to it. They grew up in relative wealth in Chicago, and even worse, in the House of Pharaoh, in the lap of luxury that is the White House, where someone is always waiting to cater to your every need. How do you teach your children to appreciate what you have when they don't know what suffering is? How can you celebrate freedom if you've never tasted the bitterness of slavery?

It is this exact question that I feel vexes the Jewish people today. For centuries, we had no trouble appreciating the bitter pill of exile and degradation. That was the stuff of a daily Jewish existence, where antisemitism, bigotry and hatred formed the basis of a Jew's core identity. Yet, today we (thank God!) live in relative Utopias where Jews worship freely in the United States, and easily reach the highest levels of society, be they in the media, the financial and business world, and the government. While life is no picnic in Israel with enemies at every border, in another sense life is wonderful. We have a powerful army that protects us, great friends who care for us deeply, and a wonderful standard of living. Things are, in a very real sense, amazingly good. So we have no trouble with the elements of monarchy that we commemorate at the Seder. In fact, while the symbols that we invoke (leaning? What king leans to the left?) seem arcane, we fail to notice that the homes we consider normal or even small would have seemed huge, even obscene to most people just a few hundred years ago.
We already live like kings, with every luxury and whim at our fingertips. Food fills our fridges and any possible form of entertainment from across the globe lies no farther than the press of a button. How then can we possibly understand and appreciate what it means to be a slave?
And if we can't understand slavery, what is the meaning of redemption? After all, the Sages in the Gemara insisted that מתחילין בגנות ומסיימין בשבח - we must begin with the negative, and only then can we conclude with praise of God. Without the negative; without the suffering, there can be no praise.
For this reason I wonder whether Barack Obama might truly be able to appreciate the Seder experience more than most Orthodox Jews. How many of us grew up in parts unknown, yearning for a better life? How many of us have had to overcome true adversity, and know the sting of racism, prejudice and hatred?

Yet, there's another aspect of the Seder that President Obama cannot appreciate - no matter how hard he tries. While freedom from bondage and overcoming difficulty are critical elements of the Seder, they serve as means to an end. God did not free us to act as we choose. אין חרות אלא תורה - "There is no freedom other than [adherence to] the Torah. God freed us to become a Holy Nation with a unique, singular mission in the world. President Obama said,
And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland. That’s why I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea -- the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own. 

While he's right, he's also wrong. Israel is not rooted in the idea that "people deserve to be free in an land of their own." Israel is rooted in the idea that the Jewish people belong in and to the Land of Israel. It's not only a universal story. It's a particular story. It's our story, and it's our Land. On his Atlantic Magazine Blog, Israel Go-To Guy Jewish Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote,
No holiday embodies the essential tension at the heart of Jewishness like Passover does. The story of Passover is the story of a particular people moving from a specific land of slavery to a particular land of freedom (President Obama, on his trip last week to Israel, seemed to understand very well the -- you should pardon the expression -- Zionism at the heart of the Exodus story).  Passover is also the most universal of Jewish holidays. It provided the world with what long ago became its most important, and metaphor-ready, story of human liberation. It also inculcated in Jews a restless and eternal urge to upset the status quo. The tug between the universal and the particular plays out in Jewish life in all sorts of ways, most notably on the Middle Eastern stage.
It's a prescient comment. That is, this struggle takes place almost on a daily basis here. Is Israel a universal idea - a nation of freedom and democracy first and foremost - or a particular one - a Jewish State? From my point of view, while democracy and freedom are clearly critical values, we are and must always be a Jewish State, and when the two values clash, then the compromises must come from the former, and not the latter. Interestingly, the last elections here (and arguably the ones before that as well) have articulated precisely this viewpoint among the majority of Israelis. We don't just want to be a free country. We want to be a free Jewish country - and not just because we happen to have a majority of Jews. President Obama concluded his speech by saying, 
And as the President of a country that you can count on as your greatest friend -- I am confident that you can help us find the promise in the days that lie ahead. And as a man who’s been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience -- tikkun olam -) -- I am hopeful that we can draw upon what’s best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come; to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war; and to do the work of repairing this world. 
Here he made a mistake (at least his speechwriters did), expecting the Israeli crowd to readily identify with the "universal" notion of Tikkun Olam, not realizing that he was simply parroting a trope that's been popularized by American non-religious Judaism: that our core national mission is "Tikkun Olam" - repairing the world. It's not, and to suggest so to a crowd of even secular Israelis will strike them as foreign, which explains why Obama's line got such a muted response (when he would have gotten a standing ovation for such a line in front of a UJA Federation crowd). Israelis think that Tikkun Olam is nice, but that's not why we're here. We're here to rebuild the Jewish Nation. Our soldiers stand watch not to "repair the world," but to protect and defend the Jewish nation. And, to repeat an oft-quoted Orthodox trope that's worth repeating, we do believe in Tikkun Olam: לתקן עולם במכלות שדי - "to repair the world in the Kingdom of God."
That's what we're building. That's the Redemption we pray for at the Seder. We want not just universal freedom and the right to live in peace and tranquility on our Land. Rather, we are building towards the day when the Jewish Nation succeeds in bringing about the spiritual transformation that will warrant the return of God to our Midst.
That can and will only be achieved by this Nation, on this Land.