Saturday, March 30, 2013

Shabbat Pesach: So Close and Yet, So Far

Shabbat Pesach: So Close and Yet, So far
March 29, 2013~19 Nissan 5773
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

Arami oved avi. My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt and sojourned there. He became a great nation, mighty and many.  Arami oved avi. My father was a wandering Aramean.

Actually. Not true. My father was not a wandering Aramean. You see, at most, my father is a wandering hoosier. He grew up in Hammond, Indiana, then went to college in Bloomington, lived for a time in Tennessee, and then for a long time back to Indiana.  And, while you get the point, he didn’t wander either. He drove.

No, my father is not a wandering Aramean.

And I suspect that in this room tonight, I am not the only one whose father or mother was not a wandering Aramean. All the more so, our classic commentators wandered through centuries of scholarship looking for an answer of who was this wandering Aramean for surely it was not their own fathers either. Midrash suggests, and Rashi agrees, this Aramean was Laban - and he set out to harm Jacob. But Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi and 12th century French scholar, rejects that argument, positing that the Aramean was Abraham. Sforno, a 15th century Italian scholar, suggested that this Aramean was Jacob. Other commentators sought to understand this statement by looking at grammar, syntax, and vocalization so that some iterations of the text resembled entirely different format and meaning.

Our enigmatic Aramean was a riddle to them, and our various Haggadot
are riddled with different answers, explanations, and interpretations.

Nonetheless, though we debate who he might have been - Arami Oved Avi - my father was a wandering Aramean. We recite this memory found in Deuteronomy during our Passover Seders, the foundational story of the Jewish people.

And yet every year, at every seder, during the Maggid, the acting out of this foundational story - this acting out of memory feels somehow like an act of distancing and estrangement.

How could my father be a wandering Aramean if we can’t even agree upon who he may have been? Could it be that all of us today, the rabbis of the past, and every generation in between stand equally estranged and apart from the pasts we claim?  

During every seder - to the story of our people we are so close and yet, so far.

How could it be possible to feel near and far at the same time? What do we do when we feel estranged from a story? How do we find ourselves within it once more?

We know statistically that there is something compelling specifically about the passover seder, specifically about this meal, which sets a special plate at the table to illuminate the story of the Israelite enslavement and deliverance from Egypt.  There is something that compels so many Jews
to draw near to the Pesach table, unlike few other moments in the Jewish calendar.

And I don’t think this amazingly high statistic of Jews attending Seders is just about being with family.

Perhaps Jews still come to the seder table each year because we aren’t, on the whole, satisfied with the status quo of our lives. We are not particularly comfortable with the comfort we enjoy daily, but we don’t always know how nor want to face it every day.

But a dining room table is a place of safety around which so many other of our life memories have fed and nourished the collective memory of our individual families. And so we come to the seder table, not just for the food, family, or fun, but for an opportunity to agitate ourselves, to alienate ourselves, to cause discomfort for ourselves, even as we recline comfortably in our chairs.

Perhaps Jews come to the seder table for the opportunity to feel that tension between being so close to a story we know we’re supposed to know, but actually don’t -- and so far from a story that we can’t always see ourselves in anymore, but can’t give up trying either.

Rabbi and most famous theologian of our time, Dr. Eugene Borowitz, writes of this exact tension which he calls “creative alienation.”  “Today,” he posits, “[humanity] needs people who are creatively alienated. To be satisfied with our situation is either to have bad values or to understand grossly what [persons] can do…Creative alienation implies sufficient withdrawal from our society to judge it critically, but also the way and flexibility to keep finding and trying ways to correct it. I think,” Borowitz concludes, “Jewishness offers a unique means of gaining and maintaining such creative alienation...[for] without alienation, we accept the status quo.”

The Haggadah and the Seder brilliantly bring us together under seemingly
invulnerable terms for food, family and fun - and then forces us to face the vulnerable task of understanding, wondering, questioning, asking how we really fit into the story of the Exodus, whether we really share the memory of the Israelite people which we retell year after year.
We find ourselves simultaneously so far and so close.

But it is these moments of feeling alienated and feeling distant from the story that are crucial. For they draw us in more deeply to find points of connection and nearness.

Even should we come to a conclusion that “No, my father was not a wandering Aramean” - in the process of figuring out, we are a perpetual part of the Jewish project, part of the Jewish people. A people who negotiate closeness - with God to whom we are near, but can never truly see; with our neighbors to whom we’ve always sought similarity, but from whom we will always be slightly different; and we negotiate closeness with our loved ones from whom we so often try to distance ourselves, but to whom we are constantly drawn back and back again to sit with around the seder table.

We may be neither here nor there, far nor close, estranged nor united, alien nor native, Aramean nor other.  This is how, this is why, and this is where we find ourselves - amid the stories and memories of the Jewish people.  

Somewhere in the middle.

As we read from the Haggadah - V’yotzi’einu adonai mi’mitz’ray’im b’yad chazakah oo-veez’ro’ah n’tu’yah/God took us out of Egypt, from narrowness, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.

And it is from that narrowness that is the middle from which we reach for such deliverance - extending our now powerful and strong hands, stretching our arms to reach backward and forward, pulling together here and there, pulling together near and far.

Imagine everyone, all over the world, reaching out at the exact same time. This happens but for a moment during Seder.  And so we return each year to try once again for that brief moment when hands might grasp hands.  For it is then, when we all reach out to one another, that surely we might have the chance to redeem ourselves, to redeem our people, and perhaps most importantly, to redeem the world.  


Check out an in process collection of prayers for Israel at
Peace Will Come: a year of praying for Israel