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I doubt that many people truly believe that all of the hocus pocus 10 plagues and miracles and parting of the Red Sea took place. Nonetheless, whatever our personal take, each year we suspend our disbelief and doubt, gather around the table, and recount the story of the Exodus. “We were slaves and now we’re free.” Of course we
were not literally slaves in Egypt, but the Passover text asks us to feel “as if” we were slaves. Two years ago, this imperative sparked a debate between my friends, Thane, a novelist who has written books about the post-Holocaust world, and James, an imminent Holocaust scholar who has written widely about memory and how we commemorate traumatic events, and who served on the committee to choose a 9/11 memorial. Thane claimed that even trying to feel “as if” you had suffered something is like play-acting, and trivializes the essential tragedy simply by stating that for this one night, while we stuff ourselves with yeastless foods, we are one with the slaves of Egypt. If you weren’t in actuality a slave, then you cannot be a “virtual” slave. James contended that play-acting "as if" we were there was just one of many ways of "making these events our own," while being careful not to mistake our play-acting for having actually been there. “The secret is holding both the past and present moments in mind at once--hence, the emphasis on ‘as if.’” And there you have it: our ongoing human search for connection to events that we did not witness or experience renders us willing to serve as our ancestors’ shadows and attempt to make virtual contact with their lives and histories, their enslavement and freedom.
Our three or four hour seder meal is never eaten in haste, (in general, the more religious you are, the less hasty you are, unlike those swift Samaritans). And alas, there is only the lamb shank bone on the seder plate to recall the soulful bleats of the slain sheep. But for me, whether the Exodus happened or not (I’m in the camp that believes it did), at the center of the seder is a hope that miracles exist; that those enslaved--to their jobs, their Blackberries, their desires, their physical looks, their children--may be set free. Every year I feel gratitude that this holiday brings together an eclectic collection of family and friends who are truly authentic unto themselves. We chant and laugh and pray and argue here in America where so many of us struggle to hold onto our past selves and histories, even as we have re-invented ourselves--choosing botulism, Buddhism or both.