Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Time, Memory and Imagination

When all else fails, kick the tires. Doesn’t usually help, but if you don’t hurt your foot, sort of relieves some of the tension.

Passover in Israel can be like that. Doesn’t do a lot of good, but provides an enforced break from the daily workings of the State, such as they are, and of life in general.

Schools are closed, post offices work part time, banks half-time, that means its nearly impossible to find one open, offices work at a minimal load, and the roads are filled with cars, bumper to bumper, as if going somewhere was important enough to wait in traffic for hours.

The local grocer told us he’d waited an hour just to get into the parking lot at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds. Another neighbor related a two-hour drive from Maale Adumim to Kalya at the edge of the Dead Sea, a distance of perhaps ten miles, normally covered in as many minutes.

Bumper to bumper. Edge of their nerves, top of their lungs, as TV producer Norman Lear once wrote about life in his childhood apartment in Brooklyn, which he used as a model for his enormously successful TV show “Archie Bunker.” Passover holiday. A time to enjoy life. Except there are limitations. Firstly, the issue of Chometz. Forget for a minute that Chometz is really a fiction. What is Chometz? Ask a Rabbi. Some will give you an intelligent answer. Others will mention flour and bread and things that don’t have a Kosher For Passover label. Most of the rational world believes these labels are invented by the Rabbis to help keep the Rabbis in business. Someone, after all, pays to a Rabbi to certify something is Kosher for Passover.

Once a Talmudist told us Chometz is really Time. That’s it. Time. How do you put a label on Time? Flour and water make up Matza. But also bread. What separates the two? Yeast? No. Time. Matza can’t rise. Is given only 18 minutes for the flour and water to mix before they’re rolled out into dough and thrust into the oven. Flat bread, unleavened. Let it go 20 minutes, no good. It rose. It’s bread, can’t eat it. Chometz. Two minutes makes it Chometz. Time.

But this restriction has been with the Jewish people for over three thousand years, since the Exodus from Egypt. As Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion said once in a speech to Americans, ‘Does any American know the date when the Mayflower left on its voyage? Or what the people ate on board? And that was only three hundred years ago. We, the Jews, know the date we left Egypt, the fifteenth of Nissan, and what we ate, Matza. And that was three thousand three hundred years ago.”

Time. And as the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Saks, wrote in his commentary on the Haggadah, Memory. The story of Passover is one of Memory. Memory that stretches over Time. A story that captures the imagination. Like Melville’s Moby Dick. A big white whale. That’s easy to imagine. Six hundred thousand men, not counting women and children and the “mixed-multitude”, nearly a million and a half people, left Egypt. That’s a lot of people. Like the whale, that captures the imagination.

The good Rabbi goes on to relate how the precepts of equality were inherent in the Passover story. How the slaves fled Egypt and the tyranny of the Pharoh and became free men. He further talks about the justice inherent in the Torah, how the fatherless and the widow and the poor were thought about, provided for, explicitly mentioned. We are to leave the corners of our fields unpicked, for the poor and windowed and fatherless. We are to go through our fields only once, leaving the rest of the crop to be picked by those less fortunate. We are not to murder, or steal, or cheat on our spouses. On and on. Lots of good stuff in there.

Of course, applying the good stuff isn’t always so simple. When then Prime Minister Netanyahu thought up his financial plan for Israel, including the Americanization of industry, and cutting back drastically on social welfare programs, it is doubtful he would have approved of leaving the corners of the fields unpicked, or only one pass by those harvesting the crops. He’d probably have said it was wasteful.

Then again, he had people watching out for him. He didn’t need the handouts. The corners of the fields. He had one of the Likud honchos, Hirschson, the present Finance Minister, allegedly embezzling from two charities and putting the money in the Likud coffers, to pay off election campaign debts, while lining his own pockets as well.

The Passover story set the tone for social justice, says Rabbi Saks. Unlike most heroic stories, the protagonist, Moses, did not go through the tale as a pauper only to discover late in life that he was really royalty. Nope, in this tale he starts out as a Royal and gives it all up because some bush burning in a mountainside talks to him. One wonders if they had peyote out there in that desert back then. Lots of Native Americans would probably tell you about burning bushes talking to them, too, but of course, none of them wound up leading a million people across the state line.

The social justice issues are a problem in Israel, where the enemy isn’t interested in social justice for the Jews unless it comes with extinction. But the Jews, ah, they bemoan the plight of the enemy. Gideon Levy, a columnist in the prestigious Haaretz newspaper, is a one-man roadshow for Palestinian rights. And based on the Passover narrative, and Rabbi Saks take on Jewish social justice, Levy is right. Secretly many Israelis side with him.

In our neighborhood a local Palestinian worker wanted a fancy dirt blower to help him clean the sidewalks. Several of the Jewish neighbors got together and raised the money for him, as a show of good faith after twenty years of service. These human-interest stories don’t make the papers, or Levy’s column, but they exist. Other neighbors helped this fellow get treatment and special glasses for his daughter, whom the Palestinian doctors thought blind. Now she’s back in school. When he needed surgery he turned to the Jewish neighbors for help, and they provided it. Does that mean he is against the Palestinian cause? Doubtful. But it does mean that those oppressor Jews are doing little things we never hear about for the needy, Palestinian and Jewish alike.

Passover is like that; bringing up stories of a heroic past, of struggle and freedom and victory. And amazingly, it is a story that has been repeated year after year, generation after generation, for thousands of years. And it is only one story among many. And it is the “story” which keeps the “memory” alive over “time.” The “story” which captures the imagination. The “story” replete with its multi-layered meanings that stokes thought and creates discussion.

Now the holiday is over, again, until next year. The Haggadot are put away in storage along with the Passover silverware and pots and pans and dishes. Stored in a closed space where no “Chometz” will get to them. And next year, they’ll be trotted out and put on the shelves, the Haggadot placed on the table, the story read, once again, retelling the heroic tale of escape from oppression into freedom.

Maybe kicking the tires helps some people, but for a reminder that there are mysteries in the world, besides those involving the ultimate cause of traffic jams, not much beats Passover, and the story of redemption.

Time, memory and imagination.

Now go and tell that to your children. Bet they listen, even if they don’t believe a word of it.