What makes our suffering more worthy?

When I was younger, the Haggadah we used at Passover had a farcical play in the back, jocularly re-enacting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We used to perform it every year around the Seder table as our version of telling the story of Passover. There is one line from the play that has stuck with me through all these years, a line my sister and I quote to each other throughout the year, and one that seems particularly relevant as I look back at what I’ve just written:

“Woe to us, we are in trouble.”

Tonight marks the beginning of 192 hours of abstention from bread, leavening (except eggs), inflation (except beans), and alcohol (except wine, rum, tequila…oh hell, get me a beer). Why? So we can remember when we were slaves in Egypt. So we can pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world. So we can make our lives marginally uncomfortable for a while, to remember our history and to prevent us from experiencing it again.

Though noble enough in origin – as my father says, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” – this holiday feels in a way self-righteous. Most haggadot (the Passover dinner-service guidebook) will, at least now, mention the hardships facing minority groups in other areas of the world. I’ve seen mention of Southeast Asia and the USSR, and in the 90s we were into the African dictators and Eastern Europe. Feminist haggadot often mention inequality for women in different parts of the world, and I think we have one in our house discussing sex slaves. These days particularly leftist haggadot will even mention Palestine.

But the buck stops here. We acknowledge the suffering of others; we hope and we pray that these people will experience freedom, justice, and liberty, just as we were freed from Egypt and wandered around the desert (independently!, mind you) for forty years. Hooray for us, now go find your own Moses.

We are so focused on preventing our own history from repeating itself, though, that we cannot see when we are inflicting terrible collective damage on other people. We – and all minorities – are and must be survivalist. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if we don’t protect our clan, surely we will meet our demise. Thus we may only in good faith marry among ourselves, live in homogeneous communities, pray only for the health and welfare of our own kind, and while we wish well upon others, there is always the unspoken addendum to “may you be free”: “but not as free as we.”

Perhaps it is time for us to stop worrying about ourselves to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps it is time for us to give money to a charitable yet non-Jewish organization (like a Catholic or even secular hospital, for instance). Perhaps we ought to recognize that behaving with the clear and direct intention of simply preventing our own history from repeating itself will inevitably mean we, or others, will inflict the same hardships on other minorities, and we have set ourselves up only to be complicit spectators or active perpetrators of similar crimes.

Why do we, as people who have suffered, not hear the same cries for help, not recognize new histories moving down the same paths as ours once did, not step in and speak out? Half-drunk around the dinner table two nights a year is not enough.

With its spiritual and ideological focus on freedom, Passover is a time not to talk about our hopes for others, these fluid fragments of ideas, but to act on them. To actually believe in what we say, without addenda, and to put our idle words – all people will be free – into action.

I believe in “next year in Jerusalem,” but I also believe in next year in Damascus, in Ramallah, in Amman, in Jeddah, in Cairo, in Manama, in Gaza City, in Tunis, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Paris, in Havana, in Augusta and Madison, in Tokyo, in Naypyidaw, Burma, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and throughout the world. We deserve freedom no more and no less than anyone else, and if we are going to spend 8 days a year saying it, we’d best start spending 365 days a year believing it.

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One thought on “What makes our suffering more worthy?

  1. It is conventional to blame instability on entrenched elites, who profit from their own incompetence (to paraphrase Asmiov in an early Foundation novel).
    But “all politics is local” (Tip O’Neil?). It is more persuasively conventional to expect political events to be family reunions or funerals–because the alternative is a UN-like talking shop where nothing gets done because, aside from Factor A (above), nobody talks the same language in any sense at all. My reality is not your reality–this comes closer to a description of what we have to work with in politics (and in a crisis, the divides get wider as your terms seem more and more designed to exploit me).
    But I will suggest that this, too, is incompetence claiming virtues it does not possess. The best conversations are with total strangers precisely because they are where we take the time to reciprocally define our terms. The reason we don’t do this more often is it makes our “friends and family” look like a bunch of shills and stand-ins for our own unwillingness to get out of Oblivia, that fictitious country where most of us spend most of our time.
    A test: does your father live a circumscribed life politically out of keen short-range economic or power calculations (all per assumption only) or because, every time he tries to have a candid–real–conversation with his associates, they blow up and storm out of the room?
    So what’s the answer? Learning to talk to a camera or microphone or absent reader of keyboard rhetoric might be the discipline: giving an empty room absolutely a first-class explanation of the thing you’re worried about, and, lo and behold, that empty room will come to life–someone will appear out of the gloom in a dark corner and say, “My God, I was thinking the same thing.”
    I wonder if that phenomenon could be memorialized in a religious ritual? My God, it’s Elijah, sitting at our table!! What news do you have for us?!

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