By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
Passover is beginning, and it will be a quiet holiday this year. A seder meal is usually a real production, like Thanksgiving (or Easter, for that matter). But this year, my family and I will tone things down. We will probably not cook as much as usual. We may or may not have a guest or two via the internet. I am not good at the internet.
I am still looking forward to it, though. It’s a good holiday, with many ways to celebrate; fun food, antique customs. But more importantly, it’s also a complicated holiday, with plenty to think about.
It commemorates the leavetaking of the Jewish people from Egypt. We had come into Egypt as free people and we had achieved great prosperity there; but then the government changed, and we fell into slavery. It finally took a series of miracles to rescue us, and that rescue through the grace of God is the holiday’s basic theme.
We can’t know what this event really looked like. Some believe that there was indeed some sort of physical escape from Egpyt, accomplished against the odds by some unknown combination of Hebrew tribes. Some believe the flip side of this coin: that in all probability, given the military realities of the time, Egypt withdrew from some small piece of Canaanite land, leaving it under the rule of that same Hebrew population. No matter what happened, though, the Jews of ancient Israel cherished this story. Both the northern and the southern kingdoms had their own versions of it. Though they disagreed on the details, they agreed on its canonic qualities.
One should note, by the way, that these ancient Israelites were a tribal society. The land featured a mosaic of those tribes, and David and Solomon were master politicians, playing them off against each other. In failing to do so, their heirs came to ruin. Yet I cannot even remember to what tribe Moses belonged– Moses, upon whom God relied to deliver his people from slavery. The story of the Exodus had nothing to do with tribes. It took all Israel for its subject.
The story of Passover makes for another stunning derogation from the basic principles of ancient religion, too. The cults of the ancient world were heavy on priesthoods and heavy on ritual. They were largely concerned with the cycles of life, both in nature and in man. They cared about crops. They cared about rain. They cared about birth and death. They sought to keep those wheels turning.
The Exodus is about what happened when those wheels ground to a halt. The Exodus tells us what happened with those daily cycles became corrupt. The Exodus explains the need to shake things up: the need to intervene and make things qualitatively different from how they had been before. The Jews of Egypt had fallen into slavery. They had forgotten their own divine inheritance. Their ways had become ossified, empty, and most brutally, devoid of hope. They had needed a prophet to show them a new way: they had needed divine intervention.
Ancient Judaism existed in a state of constant tension between the ways of the priests and the ways of the prophets. The priests existed to keep the machinery in motion. They oversaw the business of sacrifice; they ruled over the Temple, its bureaucracy and its politics. There were times when the priests failed, though– when their practices became corrupt and they were no longer capable of leading the people in healthy ways. Then prophets would come and stir things up.
Moses was simply the greatest of these prophets. But those who followed him were just as vital and filled with ardor. Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Malachi: men liked these raged against the unfairness and ugliness of their times, urging their fellow citizens to rise up against their leaders and remember the holy word of God: to love the stranger, to heal the sick, to feed the poor, to honor their own souls.
It is always personally astonishing to me when my religion’s words are read with the pursed and disapproving lips of some sanctimonious rube (of any faith, including my own), or with the cynical shrug of some city sophisticate, or with the calculated indifference of the academic snob. The prophets are my heroes. They took hold of the wagons, when the axels broke. They pointed to the east, when the compasses went spinning.
Passover, anyway, in the year of Covid-19: the lesson is this. When the wheels of society break down, do not just accept it. Remember how they are supposed to work, and make them work that way again.
Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon.
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