Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Passover Homily

“Peace is not just the absence of war, but a virtue which comes from strength of mind.”
Spinoza, Political Treatise, Chapter V

Spinoza’s quotation about peace is exactly what you’d expect from a man who wrote a book entitled The Ethics and turned it into a discourse on the philosophy of God, epistemology, psychology, human bondage, and human freedom.  Spinoza was never one to give profound words their narrowest possible meaning.  So when it came to discussing peace, he was as concerned about inner peace as the outer variety.   Spinoza appreciated that it is far more difficult to enjoy the former without the latter.  But he also grasped that the deepest tragedy of the human condition is that even people who enjoy outer peace – i.e., the absence of “war” – tend to be enslaved by their own emotions.   As a result, the condition commonly known as “peace” consists largely of tormented hearts that live at war with themselves and their societies.  Dr. Spinoza preached that we as individuals can liberate ourselves from those hurtful emotions, but such liberation is indeed rare – as all things excellent sadly are.  

One of the great ironies of Spinoza’s teachings is that he supposedly opposed the idea of free will and affirmed instead strict determinism.  But when you read his greatest philosophical work, The Ethics, you note that above all else, it is a manifesto on how to free ourselves from bondage.  This concept is central to the thinking of any Jewish philosopher, for there are few goods more cherished in the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture than that of human autonomy.

When Einstein, one of Spinoza’s most influential disciples, identified the three features of the Jewish tradition which make him thankful to belong to it, he mentioned “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence.”   Though Einstein never ranked those three items, I’m sure he recognized that the pursuit of either justice or knowledge is made infinitely more difficult if you don’t enjoy the blessings of personal independence.  Not surprisingly, when Goethe, another of Spinoza’s greatest disciples, spoke of the vision that led Faust to tell the Devil that he was ready to give his soul up because  he had finally experienced the ultimate earthly bliss, what was this vision but that of widespread human autonomy.  Here are Faust’s immortal words:

“There is a swamp, skirting the base of the hills, a foul and filthy blot on all our work.  If we could drain and cleans this pestilence, it would crown everything we have achieved, opening up living space for many millions.  Not safe from every hazard, but safe enough.  Green fields and fruitful too for man and beast, both quickly domiciled on new-made land, all snug and settled under the mighty dune that many hands have built with fearless toil.  Inside it life will be a paradise.  Let the floods rage and mount to the dune’s brink.  No sooner will they nibble at it, threaten it, than all as one man run to stop the gap.   Now I am wholly of this philosophy.  This is the farthest human wisdom goes:  The man who earns his freedom every day, alone deserves it, and no other does.   And, in this sense, with dangers at our door, we all, young folk and old, shall live our lives.  Oh how I’d love to see that lusty throng and stand on a free soil with a free people.  Now I could almost say to the passing moment: Stay, oh stay a while, you are so beautiful.   The mark of my endeavors will not fade.  No, not in ages, not in any time.  Dreaming of this incomparable happiness, I now taste and enjoy the supreme moment.”

Nothing was more beautiful to Faust than the notion of ubiquitous human freedom.   And when I take that vision and flesh it out, the result is a world in which self-expression is unleashed to the point where it becomes the norm, not an outlier that requires exceptional courage, and perhaps also exceptional talent, in order to thrive.  What I’m describing seems utopian.   But it is precisely the kind of utopian dream we need if we as a species are to attain our potential.

It is not enough to see self-expression as the domain of so-called “artists” who indulge themselves while the rest of us live in thrall to the narrowly defined roles to which our societies assign us.  Self-respect, self-confidence, and self-expression should be seen as our birthrights – not things we must earn by winning competitions.  Without them, we will not know peace, we will enjoy little freedom, and most importantly, neither we, nor anyone else, will know ourselves.

This weekend, as we celebrate the beginning of the Passover season, we are directed to contemplate freedom and bondage.  And to do so, we are asked to look forward in time as well as behind.  Yes, we speak about how our ancestors were slaves in ancient Egypt, which means that metaphorically if not literally, we too were slaves in Egypt, and we must have compassion for all who are slaves today -- because there, but for the grace of God, go we.  Indeed, it is not enough to have compassion for those who live in bondage; we must act to unchain them.  Otherwise, we will have to atone on Yom Kippur for sins of omission, which are no less profound than sins of commission. 

But it is also not enough to think about the past, or even to lament and strive to change the present.  We must look ahead.   And that is why on every Seder we sing Eliyahu Hanavie.   In English, it can be translated as follows:  Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Stranger, Elijah the Giladite, may he come speedily to us in our days along with the Messiah the son of David. 

We sing that song about Elijah.  And we leave a glass for Elijah.  But do we so primarily as a cry out for the one who it is prophesied that Elijah will bring: the Messiah.  Whether you believe the Messiah is a real human being or just a metaphorical construct, this figure is one of the most blessed in all of Judaism.  We are told that after the Messiah comes, our descendants “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

I would never try to improve upon Isaiah.  But I dare say that after the Messiah comes, we will see a world founded on the principle envisioned by Goethe, through his Faust.  Perhaps we all don’t need to be truly free in order to live in a world beyond war, but believe me, there is no better antidote to war – or the suffering and injustice that leads to war -- than freedom.  

Many Passover songs are sung only during the Seders.   But for many traditional Jews, Eliyahu Hanavie is sung literally every week at the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath.  That fact underscores the song’s importance.  When we leave the pleasant confines of the Shabbat to return to the stresses of the work week, we need to dress ourselves in what is truly holy: namely, our love for God and our hope for a Messianic future.  In that future, it will not be enough for soldiers to stop killing people’s bodies or slavers to stop killing people’s dignity, but we ourselves must stop killing our own aspirations to create, to adore, and to dream.    

You don’t have to live 3200 years ago to experience slavery in Egypt.  And you don’t have to live literally in bondage to experience a lack of freedom.   Until the Messianic age, freedom will always be the exception, not the norm.  In fact, one of the key differences between us and the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is that they realized that they did not know freedom, whereas we fool ourselves into thinking the contrary.   Spinoza was no fool.  I suspect he wasn’t fully free either, and he knew it. 

Allow me to conclude with a famous story about an 18th century Hasidic Rabbi named Zusha of Anipoli.   As the story goes, he was crying on his deathbed while his disciples surrounded him, and nothing anyone said could comfort him.  “Why do you cry,” they asked him, “You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.”   Zusha’s response is priceless:  “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?’ Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential? Why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine?”

Why wasn’t he Zusha?  Because the Messiah hadn’t come yet.   And from what I can tell, he’s not hanging around us either.  It remains our job to do whatever is possible to usher in his arrival, or her arrival, or their arrival, rather than expecting miracles from above.  There is no better time to start then at the beginning of Passover. 

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