Monday, August 8th | 11 Av 5782

April 7, 2017 6:13 am

Pesach: Just Do It

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Passover seder plate. Photo: wiki commons.

“Just do it” is, of course, the Nike’s slogan, but I think we Jews should adopt it. Let me explain.

Why is Pesach, or Passover, so popular among so many Jews who have little interest in religious life throughout the year? It is, after all, a festival that requires extensive preparation including cleaning one’s house of all leavened products, and serious expenditures to stock up on a range of kosher le’Pessah foodstuffs (most of which are quite unnecessary if one were following the letter of Jewish law, rather than keeping up with the religious Joneses).

For the more financially comfortable Orthodox, Pesach is occasion for an expensive pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to other luxurious destinations. That certainly takes care of much of the pre-Passover grind, but at the expense of intimacy, autonomy and spiritual authenticity.

Meanwhile, communal seders perfectly illustrate the lack of interest in the core Passover rituals which require discussion and debate of historical, spiritual and political issues. As exotic as the Seder night might sound, most people dash through the text or give up reading the Haggadah and cannot wait for the food. In many families, coming together is often an obstacle course of tensions and personal animosities, with younger generations disconnected from religious baggage and the personal histories of their older relatives. These are some of the complaints posed by those who do participate.

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Sadly, most Jews are not even at the table.

“Just do it” can mean one should just forget one’s inhibitions, excuses or apathy and get involved. Go to the gym, rather than just thinking about how beneficial it might be. Push oneself to work harder at keeping fit and healthy, even if it is often painful. Our modern-day slavery, our twenty-first century Egypt, is pleasure, self-indulgence, material comfort and fighting to preserve our own at the expense of other. The all-for-me-and-to hell-with-the-rest mentality.

There is another aspect to “Just doing it” — passing it on. Letting others know what matters to you. The seder includes a range of items and rituals designed specifically to encourage children to ask why. Questions require answers, knowledge, study, to pass it on to the next generation. The serve to educate, to stimulate. As another line goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

The Seder is designed to encourage discussion and debate, not simply to repeat clichés year in year out. Even those rabbis 2,000 years ago who knew it all, differed on matters of law and politics, stayed up all night debating and exchanging ideas. If we don’t invite alternative views, there can be no genuine discussion. The Haggadah describes having different sons, different opinions, different generations. It is predicated on asking questions. As the Talmud says, if one asks why, if one challenges the established mindset, one has fulfilled one’s obligation and does not need to recite the traditional “Four Questions.” They are there only in case no one asks anything at all.

One has to say, “I was there,” to try to understand what slavery, persecution is like. It is better to skip the whole narrative and have one good existential debate.

The popular ideology of political correctness is self-defeating as it focuses a person on oneself, on his or her received attitudes with little concern for objectivity. It is secular dogma every bit as dangerous as religious dogma. The result is that very few people nowadays actually talk to people with different ideas or values or log on to opposing sites. Trump is right: one-sided, false news, biased reporting is the new norm. Not that his tweets are objective, either.

Thinking of others is difficult, often disruptive and painful. Once we are warm and safe, we no longer think of the poor, the hungry, the slaves, the refugees. I can’t think of another religious ritual that says: “Reduce your pleasure because your enemies suffered; drink less wine because your freedom came at a cost.” Humans drowned in the sea. They are still drowning. Never forget that. Never forget what slavery does to a person, how it dehumanizes. Never forget that so many others still are enslaved one way or another. You cannot fully rejoice in your good fortune unless you realize that others are without it.

“Just do it” can also mean that it is the act of doing that gets one further involved and ultimately enables one to enjoy and benefit from immersion in what one does. It is immersion that is required to feel at home in any strange or different culture. The less one does, the more one feels alienated and strange. Actions lead to actions. Thoughts and intentions are too often dissipated and lead nowhere.

Why do so many Jews still keep Pesach’s seder ritual? Precisely because it demands so much. It is because Pesach has so many things to do, because it is not easy. But the more one does, the easier it becomes. The more you have to pass on. The more you enjoy it. The more there is something worth preserving.

Being Jewish in any meaningful way requires action every day, not just special days. We might scorn petty ritual, an over-dependence on doing things by rote. But the alternative is abstract theology, accepting slogans and vague intentions instead of doing things. Judaism is a way of living, as opposed to a religion. It is a call to action, spiritual fitness.

Do you sometimes wonder if it is really all worth it? Why bother? Who cares? The answer lies in the doing. On Pesach, we are commanded to “just do it.” That is the secret of Jewish survival. We and our children need to learn and remember that lesson.

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