The Many Meanings of Past and Present
(Please bear with me for a bit of personal memory to lead up to a larger historical point) One year when Marina and I were dating we suddenly decided to celebrate Passover. My family did a few times when I was growing up and I had always loved the holiday. Marina was game. I rushed out, bought the appropriate fixings, and found, at a local store, the very last copy of the free book the Manishevitz wine company gave out that spells out the service. (For those of you who have never been to a Passover, it is a holiday, but observed in the home, not the synagogue; the ritual is called a "seder" which means "order" — the order of events. The book which takes you through that order is called a Haggadah, and there are many, many, many versions.) We were thrilled to get the book, and, ever since, with our growing family, we have had a seder. But we no longer use that Haggadah.
One year I got serious, went to a Jewish bookstore in Manhattan, and found "A Different Night" — "the family participation Haggadah" created by the Shalom Hartman Institute. www.haggadahsrus.com/PesachHome2.htm
I love it because it offers so many pathways through the holiday, so many ways of thinking about it and doing it. And that suits us, because we are not observant at all, yet we love having a seder. All of this personal preamble leads up to the lesson I found in the Haggadah for this year.
The story of Passover is, of course, that of the Jews being slaves in Egypt and then escaping. It is a story of change, from slavery to freedom, of exodus and arrival. But — and again for those of you who have been to a seder this will be old hat — you are not meant to listen to the story. Rather you are to experience it. The seder is driven by questions — the youngest child is to ask the adults "why?" "why are we doing this?" "what is this all about?" And then answering those questions is the event. The seder teaches that we know the past by asking questions and by having experiences. We re-enter the past to see the present anew. The entire holiday is about losing and finding, hiding and discovering, separating and rejoining — which is exactly how I see the past.
As individuals, and as members of a group (family, faith, nation, ethnicity, gender, whatever) we look back at our own experience to see ourselves, but also to re-discover a new kind of belonging. Or, within the context of Passover, the story is not that of Jews escaping slavery, but rather of being slaves and finding freedom. We knit together our whole story, the good and the bad, to belong together in the present. And again, that is precisely what history means to me — not a lesson that allows us to escape the past, but a way to knit together everything we are, and have experienced, as individuals and as members of groups. We look back to become whole, to remember being slaves and not being slaves. And to add the final twist, there is absolutely no historical evidence that Jews ever were slaves in Egypt. So to me Passover is a grand way to think about history, even if the history we investigate may not have ever taken place.