Jews have big mouths. Put those big mouths in a society that reveres freedom of speech and it’s a sight to behold. On the whole, it’s a wonderful attribute. We analyze everything, we criticize endlessly, we kvetch, we yell, we do everything but shut up. It’s as if we’re taking revenge on all those centuries when we often had to watch what we said. Here, in the land of the First Amendment, keeping quiet is no longer a Jewish ailment.
I’m always amused when I hear an American Jew complain, “They’re trying to shut me up!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to shut a Jew up.
But in this column, I will try.
You see, there is one time when our big mouths don’t serve us so well. It’s when we sit down for a holy meal. Take Shabbat, for example, a time for reflection and joy. You know how to spoil the joyfulness of a Shabbat meal? Just complain about Obama. Or Bibi, or Abbas, or Iran, or BDS or just about anything else we complain about during the week.
It’s not that these issues are not important. They are. The real question is: Do they belong at a Shabbat table? Do they uplift us?
With the Passover seders coming up, my own challenge will be to shut myself up. I’m so upset these days with the way President Obama has been treating Bibi and Israel that it will be hard for me to contain myself. I, too, have a big mouth, and I love living in a country where I’m free to criticize everything, including my president.
But am I obligated to use that freedom at a seder table?
Let’s play things out. I’m sitting at a big and noisy seder with my family. Someone brings up the subject of a nuclear Iran. My brother, a renowned scientist who always has brilliant insights, is sitting next to me. I am tempted to get his take on the situation, especially on how Obama seems to be appeasing the Persian mullahs. But I know that if I do that, we’ll be in for a good 30 minutes of talking about politics.
Meanwhile, what would happen to the Exodus story? Where would the mood and the energy of the seder go?
It’s true that if you adhere closely to the haggadah — especially the haggadot that drive the conversation with questions and suggestions — you’re a lot less likely to go off on detours. But we’re human. We’re used to saying what’s on our minds.
If I have to choose between a metaphorical discussion of the Four Sons and a political discussion of the four terror states encroaching on Israel, the latter feels way more urgent.
So, we’re trapped between two time frames: the urgent versus the timeless. Passover clearly deals with the timeless. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “The Jewish festival of freedom is the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world. Across the centuries, Passover has never lost its power to inspire the imagination of successive generations of Jews with its annually re-enacted drama of slavery and liberation.”
If we let our mouths wander into the urgent and the political, how will it inspire our imaginations? How will it help us re-enact the drama of our liberation? Should the starting point be what’s on our minds or what’s in our story?
Too often, we do mental gymnastics and convince ourselves that a discussion of politics is appropriate to a spiritual setting. I can imagine that many Jews this year will look at the passage that says, “In every generation, enemies rise up to destroy us,” and connect it to the Iranian nuclear threat. I will probably do the same. But how will that make the evening different from any other?
How will it uplift us?
It’s not just that politics can lead to unpleasant conversations. It’s more than that. No matter how urgent or important, politics and current events are simply not very inspiring. For inspiration, you can’t compete with the timeless lessons and stories of our tradition. And Passover is the mother lode of timeless lessons.
Now, if an ancient and epic story of liberation doesn’t speak to you, and you feel you must talk about something more current, here’s an alternative: Talk about your own stories of liberation. You can start with a discussion of what negative habits have enslaved you over the past year and how you plan to free yourself. Personally, I might talk about freeing myself from always complaining about the news, and especially about Obama.
After all, if Obama has been ruining my mood lately, why should he also ruin my seder?
Happy and meaningful Passover.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.