This is the perhaps the biggest challenge for Jews like us – do we focus our energies inside or outside? And as we do one what implications does this have for the other?
By looking inside I mean focussing on the internal rhythms of Jewish life, standing in long queues in Kosher supermarkets , chasing bits of Chametz around the house with candles and feathers and – finally – dipping our sprigs of parsley into salt water while proclaiming that we, ourselves, went forth from Egypt.
By looking outside I mean focussing on the external challenges of freedom in a world which demarcates increasingly brutally between the free and the deprived. Last week I was contacted by a producer of a new film on the Falun Gong alleging practitioners in China are not only imprisoned in conditions akin to slavery but subject to having their organs harvested for transplant from their still living bodies! And there is plenty to be concerned with closer to home also.
I love the rhythms of Jewish life and I do genuinely believe that these rituals; the dips and cups of wine and everything else matters in a cosmic scheme grander than I can truly comprehend. But there is a line, for me. I came across some photographs of the grand Rebbe of Satmar in a field in Yuma deep in the American mid-West to supervise, personally, the harvest of wheat for Shmurah Matzah. Click here: http://m.jewishaz.com/arts_features/feature/yuma-farm-plays-role-in-satmar-passover/article_6b594008-bf62-11e3-a617-001a4bcf6878.html?mode=jqm_gal to see Rabbis, tzitzit billowing, examining wheat kernels through a gemmologist’s eye-piece in search of fermentation. For me, at such a level of insatiable pursuing legal minutiae, I fear for our people’s ability to differentiate the wood from the trees.
I feel struck to the core when I come across contemporary abuses of freedom and I do genuinely believe that, as a Jew, I have an empathy, a responsibility and an insight to share into the desperate importance of liberty and the appalling truth of deprivation. But what, of this bleeding heart, amounts to more than a shrug of the shoulders as I get on with my cosy privilege and what, of such activism as I do provide is actually ‘Jewish’ aside from a general universal ethical decency. Universal ethical decency is no bad thing, of course, but is this really what Rabbis and Jewish communities should be focussing on?
For me the balance is found in this way. We are habituated by life, exempted from engaging particularly in anything by the sheer volume of everything that bombards our daily existence. Our secular existence lulls us to consider every day the same, every season and every relationship becomes little more than another entry in a demand/supply ledger where I attempt to satiate every immediate hunger for the least financial cost. Judaism is a radical counter-narrative to this. Judaism insists that I pay extraordinary levels of attention to the passage time and Judaism insists I focus on every human interaction as though I interact with a creation of the Divine encoding in their existence the image of the Divine. Judaism commands I stop with all the absolute elevation of the material above the spiritual. And, I believe, that if I develop these practices within myself and the community I am a part of, we will begin to see the world differently. We will develop understandings and levels of empathy and action that are particular to our Jewish journey. There are, of course there are, many wonderful things shared by other faiths and cultures, but my path to freedom is a Jewish path, a path that connects me to Exodus and Sinai. My engagement with the universal – the outside – is forged by my engagement with the particular – the internal.
Pesach is coming. May we all be lifted higher and driven to an increased engagement with these, and other, questions of freedom. May we all be blessed with a wonderful Chag.