Chag Sameach!

Passover, like any other good story, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is a nervous energy, getting everything in its proper place as dictated by the word Seder itself. The middle is a somber walk through slavery and suffering in all its various forms, including voluntary digestion of horseradish. The end is a song of gratitude and lively debate about the big questions in life. Never one to be shy about reorganizing tradition, my Passover morning began with a lively debate about the big questions in life.

My coworker and I sit on opposite sides of a very thin wall and a critical argument, but the line of demarcation is excruciatingly thin. We agree on all points down to the one that matters: what is real? The point of agreement is that one can read meaning into anything: any text, any ritual, any myth. Our examples ran the gamut: The Bible, The Book of Mormon, Twilight, Harry Potter, Passover Seder, LDS Temple worship, ancient Sanskrit texts, Persuasion, Hemingway, etc. The point of disagreement became whether that constitutes reality or not. She claims it does not and she’s a self-proclaimed nihilist because if it.

I claim each human being exists in their own reality, and any attempt at capturing, portraying, sharing that reality can connect with another human being and help them find or generate meaning in their own reality. Often this attempt to capture manifests itself in story form -- this is what happened to me and how it changed me for better or worse. That story can be broadcast orally, digitally, or textually. But the story is always the same, and repeated often. Ritual is born here, and I believe that’s how we connect with each other and to something greater. Whether you call that God, the Universe, The Human Experience makes no difference. It’s plugging more than one person into a reality that wasn’t originally theirs. That makes me a…. broad-spectrum ritualist? Not sure on that one, but this question of reality is the one I contemplated all through Seder last night.

At one point, the Rabbi announced we would break with tradition and the singer would lead us in a classic American Gospel anthem, which connects us Jews to African American Slaves. The entire room of curious white Christians, Ashkenazi Jews, and one Israeli sang a moving rendition of “Let My People Go.” Not a single African American in the room, but somehow I walked away more compassionate for their plight. As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in Starbucks and across from me is a black man. Instead of my usual first thought: “how the hell did you get to Idaho?” I’m sitting with this: “how has the narrative of American history affected your personal narrative? What has slavery done to your inner monologue?” I’m nearly in tears, reminded of the horseradish from last night and the embitterment of the lives of the Jews under the stern hand of the Egyptians. How gut wrenching it must have been for this man to sit in any American history class and realize two things simultaneously: none of these founding fathers look like me and for all their ideals of personal freedom and individual responsibility, they saw fit to only count me as 3/5ths worthy of that inalienable right.

For me, that’s real. That somehow my participation in a ritualized narrative of the journey from slavery to freedom based in one group’s reality allowed me to tap into another’s, equally remote from my own. It’s transitioned my intellectual knowledge to a visceral understanding, from theorem to practicum, from the head to the heart. Father Martin at The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake, City last year said something in the Ash Wednesday homily I’ll never forget: we often think of Lent as giving something up. But the Lenten Fast actually has three parts: abstinence, fasting, and service. If you come away from Lent with introspection that doesn’t lead to compassionate action outside yourself, you’ve missed the point. So, not only has this ritual added an emotional experience to my personal reality, it’s motivating me to ask myself: what do I do now? What can I do to help ease the burden of the American slavery narrative for African Americans? I don’t know yet, but I’m ready to find out.

Vanessa OlerComment