After 61 years, and at least 100 Seders, you would think that I could recite every prayer in the Haggadah from memory and explain every prayer and passage. And yet every year I am surprised by new readings that I don’t recall hearing before…. And discover new meanings in the text. How the heck is that possible?
I know that I am not the only one for whom this is true. Why else would the Torah say, not once, not twice, but four times that we were to tell our children the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Why does the Haggadah remind us every year that we should approach the story of liberation as though we ourselves had been freed from Egypt? Why all the repetition, why the demand that we present the story in the most intimate way possible, retelling the Exodus as our own story – when clearly we weren’t there, and besides, we all already know the details of the events, right? Something more needs to happen though, in order to make the story personal and deeply important. That something is repetition.
I know that recent headlines have helped me understand this better, but I’m not sure which ones. It might have been the latest case of yet another woman stepping forward to tell her story of how a man with power used their position to sexually assault her. How many times have I heard this story? Back in 1991, Anita Hill testified to Congress about being sexually harassed by a supervisor at the Department of Education. The Senators who heard her testimony ignored her story – and that supervisor now has a seat for life on the US Supreme Court. Fifteen years later, in 2006, Tarana Burke began what she called the “Me Too Movement” to help reduce the feelings of isolation of women who had survived sexual violence. Another eight years later, women began to testify against Bill Cosby, reporting cases of rape and assault. Most women of course knew and understood these stories all too well, but for too many men, any discomfort was fleeting, and we moved on. Finally, in 2017, when over a dozen women spoke out about traumas inflicted by Harvey Weinstein, men started to pay attention. New stories broke, week after week – and suddenly men were wearing “TimesUp!” buttons at the Oscars and proclaiming how shocked, shocked we were that this sort of behavior was going on and how could we possibly have known. Now of course we do know what the women around us have known all along, and even if nothing like this ever happened to us personally we cannot deny that this abuse is taking place.
But it might not have been that issue. It might have been the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that finally mobilized hundreds of thousands to march across the US, demanding that legislators stand up to the NRA and regulate lethal weapons. Why wasn’t the shooting of 18 people three weeks earlier by a student at Marshall County High School in Kentucky enough to get my undivided attention… or the shooting of 18 people at Rancho Tehama Reserve School in California one month earlier… or the killing of 9 people at Umpqua Community College in 2015… or the killing of twenty first grade children at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012? Of course, I knew of these events, but how many times did I have to hear about students being shot before I took even a small action like participating in the March for our Lives, or sending a check to Moms Demand Gun Safety and the Giffords Campaign; how many times did I have to read the headlines before I took action as though my children too might be students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Then again, my epiphany might have been the Sacramento police shooting of a young black man in his grandmother’s backyard, because his cellphone “might have been a gun.” So Stephon Clark became the latest in a long line of names of black people who have died at the hands of police, another Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice – and here in Chicago, Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier, Bettie Jones, and really how many more names do white people have to hear before we understand structural racism in the US, and why Black Lives must matter? In each case, time and time again, there are no consequences, and police are acquitted of wrongdoing. Of course I am outraged by this, but can I honestly say that my indignation is a sufficient response?
The latest refugee crisis… the people who died prematurely because they could not afford needed healthcare… the shooting of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories…. These are news stories that do horrify us on the first hearing… but it seems that they require dozens more repetitions before we even pay attention, before we are outraged, before we take action.
Each of us is commanded to tell the story of the Exodus over and over and over again, because the ancient Rabbis knew that we don’t listen well, most especially to the suffering of others. We have to hear the stories of suffering and liberation repeatedly, because only then we can take the next step of internalizing them as though we ourselves had been strangers in the land of Egypt, as though we ourselves had been liberated from slavery. How many times does one need to hear the stories before we fight against sexual assault as though we ourselves had been assaulted, speak out about structural racism as though we ourselves had been shot by police, work for justice in the Middle East as though our homes and communities had been subject to a military blockade? I hope for a time when I can hear another human being share their story of trauma, and just that one story becomes enough for me to stop what I am doing, bear witness, and consider how I might take meaningful action for healing and justice.