Monday, April 18, 2011

Of Pesach and Cynicism

Jews are very good at cynicism.

In part it’s a function of our national history; with so few friends, and with those friends generally acting out of realpolitik rather than sincere sympathy, why shouldn’t we be cynical? Whether it was Lincoln contravening the anti-Jewish Order 11 in the waning days of the Civil War, or Trujillo opening the doors of the Dominican Republic to Jewish refugees in the 1930’s, or George W. Bush supporting Israel 70 years later, it’s always been possible to read selfishness into apparent selflessness, especially as those alliances have not always been as solid as we would have wished.

And in part cynicism is a product of our education; our ancestors were cynical about the world, and about themselves. Talmudic sages reflected on the Roman contribution to civilization, and dismissed it as a side effect of hedonistic pursuits. The same sages looked upon their personal piety and deeds and questioned the purity of their own motivations. Our own contemporary roshei yeshiva challenge us every Elul to inspect ourselves with questioning eyes, and in their honest zeal for self-analysis and self-improvement they encourage us to feel better only when we succeed in finding weakness in our greatest successes.

There is a place, properly מוגבל (bounded), for cynicism,

But one result of cynicism, when taken too far, is an inability to accept Good as Good; an inability to subscribe to a philosophy or support an initiative without qualification; an inability to believe that our role models are truly good and kind and sincere and well-meaning; an inability to respect people, including ourselves; an inability of religious leaders to believe that עמך, the rank-and-file Jew, longs for spiritual growth, if only in his/her own way; an inability to recognize the kindnesses that others have done for us; and an insistence upon finding the flaw and the smallness and the inappropriate in the Good and the philosophy and the initiative and the role models and the people and the עמך and the kindnesses.

This is devastating.

But then we have Pesach, the anti-cynical holiday.

On Pesach there is no cynic in our midst; the בן נכר, the one who has estranged himself from Gd and community, is not welcome. Instead, we are all believers.

It’s a celebration which summons us to immerse ourselves, and our families, in belief and trust, and not in self-conscious doubt.

It welcomes us to read biblical verses and sing ancient songs, to get into it with our children on their level and to re-live it late into the night on our own.

It begs us to drop our cloaks of intellectualism [I am not a fan of hyper-intellectual, pilpulish haggadot, although I recognize that they have their place] in favor of subjective personal experience and the haze that accompanies four cups of wine.

Its garment is the white of the kittel, pure and honest and uncomplicated as the day of death.

Its call is the romantic song of Shir haShirim, holy of holies, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one.

May the romance that is Pesach remain with us far beyond these few days.


  1. nice. I agree, Pesach is "dive right in, play with your food, get your hands dirty, 4 cups of wine hazy, dress up desert crazy" holy day. Maybe that's why I like it so much.

  2. Thanks! (I was beginning to wonder why this post had drawn no comments, and whether it needed re-visiting.)