Sunday, April 24, 2011


Thinking back on this past week, what sticks most in my mind is the feeling of awe for the holiday of Passover. On Tuesday, we had a family seder in which each of us delivered an encomium (defined as a talk in praise of an idea or thing) on behalf of freedom. It is an idea that I encourage all of you who celebrate the holiday to go ahead and steal next year. Every member of my family prepared a piece for the occasion – for example, one of my daughters prepared and performed a mash-up of a Broadway piece and a Hebrew song; the other, a rap; my wife, a haiku; and me … well, you know, it was my typical prosaic philosophical stuff (combined with a not-so-prosaic reading from Goethe). I can’t remember the last time we had such a fun seder.

Then, last evening, I attended a seder that was every bit as enjoyable and inspiring. It was held at the Adams Center, one of the D.C. area’s most prominent mosques. That’s right – a seder at a mosque! It sounds like a crazy idea, and to be sure, the “wine” was mere grape juice. But otherwise, the feel was incredibly authentic. A few dozen Jews and Muslims toasted the cup of understanding, justice, peace and freedom. And when it finally ended, everyone in the room couldn’t help but think to themselves that the real star of the evening was the (fifth) cup of hope.

I guess that’s what we could offer Elijah. It’s not a cup we’re often permitted to enjoy ourselves – certainly our mass media makes no effort to allow us to enjoy it. If you listen to the radio, watch TV or read the newspapers, you’d have to be convinced that this world is slowly going to hell in a hand basket. So many of our problems require a concerted effort to solve, and are we as a species really ready to come together to solve them?

That sounds like a rhetorical question -- one deserving a resounding “Nyet!.” But after such an exhilarating and uplifting week, I can actually pose the question in earnest. I can actually wonder to myself if we might not in fact be up to the task.

At another mosque this afternoon, where I participated in another interfaith event, a famous statement was repeated by a D.C. court judge: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s an expression associated with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who had he been alive today would have been celebrating yet another holiday this weekend, another holiday of hope. I tend to agree with that statement. With time, our world does tend to bend toward justice. And enlightenment. And peace. And prosperity. The problem is that the “arc” is oh so slow, slow enough that it is easy to lose patience and say that we are quickly running out of time and the sky will soon fall down after all.

Perhaps that is truly the media’s biggest mistake: they create a sense of extreme urgency and implicitly suggest that we are never quite up to the task at hand. But what if our world’s greatest problems aren’t as pressing as they appear? Could it be that our environment is more resilient than Al Gore suggests? Or that even some of our craziest provocateurs aren’t so crazy as to blow up this planet in a nuclear holocaust? Could it be that this world -- a world in which black and white people have been learning to live together, straight people have been learning to respect the rights of gay people, and autocrats have been learning to step aside from the pinnacle of power -- isn’t quite as far gone as we might think?

I wish Elijah were here in my living room and I could ask him directly: is there cause for hope? Have these incredible Passover seders really been a microcosm of all the loving, inspiring activity that is taking place throughout the world today? Can we ultimately save our planet and live in a realm where peace and justice reign supreme?

“Not exactly,” I suspect he’ll say. “Peace and justice will always be tempered by conflict. But if you’re asking if things will gradually get profoundly better and better over time … if you’re willing to ignore the bumps in the road, you just might be pleasantly surprised.”

Usually, I would call that Pollyannaish. But this week, I’m not so sure. Perhaps Pollyanna had a point after all.

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