The Visible and the Invisible, the Hidden and the Reveale
Simon Schama is the famous British historian now at Columbia University who, when he was at Oxford wrote his famous book on the French Revolution, Patriots and Liberators that won him the Wolfson History Prize and instant recognition. His 1978 second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, turned him into the famous historian of the Jewish people. His 1987 volume on the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, The Embarrassment of Riches, though primarily about the golden age of the Dutch republic sewn together into a state of the lowland Protestant cities dominated by a new rising middle class, also gave that Jewish history great depth. The great Dutch thinkers in international studies and politics at the time, such a Hugo Grotius, were readers of Hebrew and were heavily influenced by the ideas of the Hebrew nation-state that so influenced the creation of the modern political order.
Last night on PBS I watched one episode of Simon Schama’s famous BBC series The Story of the Jews that first aired on BBC last year. The episode I saw was called “Over the Rainbow”. It covered the history of Ashkenazi Jews from the shtetls and cities of Europe until their rise in America from the lower east side in New York to become kings of song and music and the dream factories of Hollywood. The title is taken from the 1940 Oscar winning song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the musical, “The Wizard of Oz” with lyrics and music by Edgar Yipsel (E.Y.) “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen, two Jewish boys from New York’s lower east side, the latter the son of a renowned cantor. Yip wrote the lyrics for such classics as “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” that became the anthem of the American depression and featured in Schama’s documentary. Among other classics, Yip wrote “April in Paris” and “Its Only a Paper Moon”.
The episode in Schama’s BBC series opens with Schamas standing in an empty and crumbling but once very impressive synagogue in Košice, Slovakia built when Košice was the European capital of culture that competed with Marseille in France. As seen in the documentary, the pews are all gone, the plaster is crumbling and the brilliant reds and blues have all faded – though the exquisite quality of the stained glass windows have remarkably survived. Schama briefly and succinctly tells the story of the once prosperous Jewish citizens of the town, almost all of the over 17,000, who perished in the Holocaust. As Schama says at the very beginning of the episode, they are gone, they are absent, but he can feel and experience their presence by standing in that shell of the synagogue
For, as Schabas sees it, the meaning of that core moral imperative of Judaism, tzadakah, does not just mean obligatory charitable giving or even justice, but fairness rooted in a Jewish sense of solidarity with one’s fellow Jews and with the community at large. In Yiddish, according to Schama, there is no word for “individualism” for the Jew is a Jew because he or she is first and foremost a member of a community with obligations to that community. That presence of the community is what Schama experienced in the forlorn emptiness of the Košice synagogue.
Absence and Presence. Schama explored those themes in his earlier work, Landscape & Memory that literally touched on the intimate relationship between one’s physical environment and folk memory. This is why his famous TV documentaries touch us even as they gloss over the historical narrative. But there is another dimension to the foundation of life in the struggle to survive and the tactile relationship with all of that which supports life – earth, air and water. It is ire. It is hope, the dream of a better future, It is desire and the passion to create that future, for oneself and one’s community.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?
Simon Schama’s message in the series comes out loud and clear in the episode I watched – Jews retreat inward into Hasidism when they are rejected and, when accepted, embrace the external world and want to be fully a part of it. Schama tells the story of the universality of the Jews while offering the full flavour of their unique particularity. It is a lesson Pauline Marois would do well to learn and perhaps she would abandon her Charter of Values. For instead of celebrating the greatness of the French reality in Canada and in Quebec in particular, that charter attacks the particularism of the various minorities in Quebec and legislates what they cannot wear.
In our Passover Seder, as I mentioned already, for the first time all six of my children will be home for Passover, including all nine grandchildren, two returning all the way from their home in Israel. We will have thirty-six members of our family and friends celebrating this festival of freedom. As is usual, our seder is run as a Greek symposium, the original inspiration for the most famous dinner in the cycle of festivities of the Jewish year. The theme this year is Absence and Presence, the hidden and the revealed, the invisible and the visible. We will explore the meaning of each of the fifteen sections of the seder and all its themes in terms of that dichotomy. Everyone, especially the children, will play a part.
The seder begins with the Kadesh. Kadesh is about presence and bonding, of family and friends, of old and young, of linking past and future. But most of all it is about a call to service to a hidden God, an absence rather than a presence. Further, this is not a tale of progress, of how the present is an improvement on the past, but a tale of resurrection and re-enactment, of remembering and redemption, of reliving the past as if it were the present. We are present; we try to make the Past present; and we experience God’s absence, and it is that absence, that which is missing, that we emphasize when we try to make the past Present.
The ceremony shall be observed throughout the generations for all times. This is a never ending project. Yet the pledge is regarded as a mitzvah, a commandment, but also a mitvah in Schama’s sense, a blessing freely taken up as a duty to be executed to be a moral agent to contribute to the well being of the community. So to celebrate Passover is both to obey an external command of God and, at the same time, to observe a ritual as an expression of freedom as self-legislating for oneself.
God who commands is invisible. He is hidden. Not only are we to accept this hidden and invisible God as the source of our categorical commands, but the God is the ONLY source. Further, that God is One. The Divine is not contained and manifested in the many different spirits that characterize ourselves or that are often equated with animal totems. The Divine Absence is the One and Only source. As the story of the escape from Egypt is told, we are commanded to both love and fear this One and Only Divine absence. Why both love and fear?
These commandments insist that this is the only way NOT to be governed by either the attractions of our sensibilities OR the passions of our heart. Why obey a source that insists that it will rule over the flesh whether found between your legs or in your breast and heart? Why let an invisible being that gives priority to reason, or thought, or reflection and places the passions, like empathy, and feeling cum sensibilities – like the great tastes we will experience in this meal – possibly in second place? But they are NOT
In second place. Life and sensibilities are the foundation. Desire, passion and compassion are on top. Judgment is sandwiched between them.
If we can come close to understanding our own hiddenness, we might come close to answering the Big Question. Whatever the answer, the extent we get closer to an answer comes in telling the story of when WE went forth from Egypt, from a house of bondage and the story of HOW God delivered US into freedom using a “mighty hand”. Quite a trick for someone who is invisible! Further, note that the arm is outstretched – perhaps for an embrace. The arm is not said to be mighty. The hand is. The hand that writes. The hand that carves. The hand that paints. The hand that cooks. This is where might is to be found. The hand is not there for a mere handshake. That requires an outstretched arm that can embrace you.
So we embrace one another at the Passover table, Jew and gentile guest alike, in one community. And we do so drinking four cups of wine for different stages of redemption. God who pronounces that, “I shall be who I shall be” gives us a sense of absence, of invisibility by taking us back to the place from whence we came, from a place of oppression and impossibly arduous labour, wine as the symbol of blood and physical sacrifice. During the seder we will travel through the rescue from this time of toil and trouble and drink a second cup of wine in gratitude to our escape and physical redemption. We will later in the seder drink a third cup of wine, to remind us how redemption came with an outstretched arm and with great judgment and with the fourth cup of wine how we were knitted together as a people to live with and among the other great peoples of this world.
In addition to the wine, among the other symbols of the seder is the other great symbol, unleavened bread or matzah, “the bread of affliction”. In the fourth stage of the seder service comes the Yahatz, the important point where three pieces of matzah, one piled on top of another and each separated by a cloth and all three covered. We reach in and break the middle layer. The leader of the seder, takes the larger half, the Afikomen, and hides it. An important part of thee seder is when children twelve and under search for the missing and hidden Afikomen. The rest of us are left to explore the meaning of this hidden half.
For the pile of three matzahs symbolize the different parts of the self, not the id, ego and superego of Freud’s individualistic construction of the self, but the eating and drinking and sleeping that the bottom matzah represents, the basic struggle for survival. The basis of everything is chaim, life, my own Hebrew name. As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof,
Here’s to our prosperity. Our good health and happiness. And most important,
To life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life
Here’s to the father I’ve tried to be
Here’s to my bride to be
Drink, l’chaim, to life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life
Life has a way of confusing us
Blessing and bruising us
Drink, l’chaim, to life
God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor
How much more can we be joyful
When there’s really something
To be joyful for
To life, to life, l’chaim
To Tzeitel, my daughter
It gives you something to think about
Something to drink about
Drink, l’chaim, to life
As Schama shows in his documentary, even in the dismal depths of the pogroms of 2005 in the Pale of Settlement,
It takes a wedding to make us say
Let’s live another day
Drink, l’chaim, to lif
So the seder is a celebration to life, l’chaim, to joy and happiness and the delights of our sensibilities. But there is more to human existence than life and physical joy, the foundation of our being, the bottom matzah. There is desire. There is passion. And mostly there is compassion, that which allows us to understand and empathize with another, that which allows us to feel a part of a community and humanity. It is that top matzah during the seder that will be shared among the guests at the table as each takes the haroset, a mixture of fruits and nuts and wine eaten as a sandwich, but unlike in Plato’s symposia, eaten with the bitter herbs in memory of the arduous and forced labour in erecting monuments to supposedly an after-life. Haroset was the mortar that bound those stones together.
If life is the bottom matzah and desire and passion and compassion is the top matzah, but matzah that must never forget the bitterness of our lives just as the bottom matzah never forgets its joys, what is the middle matzah? As in Freud, and unlike the Greeks where reason sits on top of the passions and the appetites, reason as judgement sits between them, mediating between our sensibilities and our desires. The middle matzah does not govern by repression. It understands both the need and greatness of the sensibilities and the importance of the passions to give flight where troubles melt like lemon drops and bluebirds fly, not to the end of the rainbow for a pot of gold, but over the rainbow.
But that is the smaller half of the matzah that stays between life and desire. What about the Afikomen that is taken away and hidden? When we find it, we eat it together at the end of the seder. But what is the invisibility of this spirit in which we partake when we truly break unleavened bread together? What is this geist that draws so richly from our past and projects us into the future? Simon Schama finds the presence of that invisible spirit when he visits the Košice synagogue in Slovakia, the glory of the divine presence, the shechina, that we can only find when we search to make the invisible visible rather than to keep it a hidden secret. For we must not become a Dorian Gray. We must rediscover the divine feminine spirit of the world as its quintessential quality even as we use our understanding and judgement to reconcile our survival instincts with our passions and desires
So have a great seder, everyone, not just Jews, for the Passover seder is a feast which everyone should enjoy and celebrate as we unite l’chaim with a creative and community enterprise in the task of leading reasonable and prosperous lives, but lives that must not lose touch with the hiddenness, the mysterious, the invisible, the quality that will allow us to become more than human. But never gods.