Wait...shit...she has used that word before. Um...what is Pesach again? And what is a seder? Pesach--or Passover--is a Jewish holiday in the spring that commemorates the exodus out of Egypt. The seder is the ritual meal that recounts this exodus. We read from a book, called the haggadah, and there are certain prescribed foods that must be eaten. Last night kicked off this eight-day holiday.
Marge Piercy writes in her book Pesach for the Rest of Us:
A seder can give a sense of connection—spiritual or activist or communal or simply sensual. The traditional haggadah tells us that each Jew should feel as if she or he (it of course said he) personally was freed by the Exodus and left Egypt that night—an empathy across history that every haggadah tries to make happen in each individual who attends. Martin Buber urged us to feel a connection through history back to that first generation that dared seek freedom.
So there's no division. It's not that you're sitting at a nice table in a suburban house listening to a story. You are in Egypt. You are grabbing your dough because there is no time to let it rise. You are feeling the anxiety and elation of the exodus, understanding how it feels to be released from slavery with the chance that you won't make it to the other side of the Red Sea.
It is wrong to use the word "them." It is all about the "we." We were slaves in Egypt. We fled Egypt. We were led by Moses. There is even a point in the ceremony where we talk about the four types of children: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who does not know enough to ask. The wise son asks "what is the meaning behind these commandments?" (because it's never wrong in Judaism to question something if you do so respectfully). The wicked son asks, "what does the seder mean for you?" effectively removing himself from the ritual. It is fine to question, it is fine to be uneducated, it is fine to not even know enough to ask. But to divide yourself from the experience? That is considered "wicked."
So, we're told to be empathetic. To essentially reenact the feelings, the emotions, the thoughts that we went through when we were leaving Egypt. It's a difficult feat. I mean, it's hard to really get a sense of the panic when you're in a comfortable suburban living room. And it's hard to appreciate the matzah and hold it as a memory of what you went through when you had to flee when you semi-resent the matzah and the fact that you can't eat pasta for eight days.
And at the end of the day, can you really teach empathy? Can you tell someone "be empathetic" and have them become empathetic? Can someone outside of the experience understand what it is like to be in the experience without even dipping a toe into its waters? And how annoyed would you be if your mother started saying, "when we were at the retrieval..." Would you be touched or would it annoy the crap out of you if other people were co-opting your experience in order to practice empathy?
One morning, I woke up at my Jewish social action camp and my counselor slapped a letter on my shirt before breakfast. No explanation. My friends and I sat at the breakfast table talking about how our counselor was a nutjob and I left on the A as part of our middle-school-girl joke mostly because I saw that a few other kids also had an A on their shirt and it was probably some bizarre Jewish thing that I just didn't know about yet.
After breakfast, I went to my first activity and sat down next to a counselor that I really liked when I got in the room. He promptly got up without a word and moved to another seat. My heart started to pound as I wondered why he was angry with me. The activity was jujutsu and my friend, Rachel, and I were usually partners. But on this day, the group was uneven because she was absent and the counselor asked me to sit out since I didn't have a partner. I watched the entire activity from the edge of the mat.
I was a pretty sensitive 14-year-old (and still am--sensitive, I mean. Not 14) and I spent the next activity period--art--wondering why the jujutsu counselor was angry with me. I thought I was probably being paranoid, but the art counselor never took anything from me when I offered it to her. She needed scissors, I would hand her a pair, and she'd take the ones that Liz or Alicia were holding out. That's okay. Maybe she didn't see mine. Or hear me calling out things like, "HERE SUSAN I HAVE MORE BEADS RIGHT HERE IF YOU NEED THEM" as I held out a dixie cup full of glass beads.
At lunch, after I helped myself to the food that was being passed around, the counselor at our table snatched the plate from me and brought it back to the kitchen. She returned with a new plate of food and said to the rest of the table, "I just thought we'd want a different plate now."
Back at our cabin, I went to the bathroom and when I came out, the counselor loudly exclaimed that she now needed to go bleach the bathroom and we should all get into our bunk beds and be quiet while she was busy.
At rest time, I stared at the ceiling and wondered what I had done to piss everyone off.
Even dumping ice water out of an empty tennis ball can over the top of the shower didn't earn me this reception.
Even the time when we were messing around in the bathroom and I accidentally pulled the sink out of the wall, flooding the bunk, didn't earn me this reception.
I must have really fucked up somewhere.
At free time, my friends told me that they didn't want to hang out with me. I had obviously done something to piss off every counselor and frankly, they didn't want the guilt by association. So I spent free time alone. I read a book. I pretended that I was fine. Just reading a book. It's my fucking free time. And that's what I like to do with my free time. Sit by myself. Read a book. Not socialize.
Everywhere I went, people ignored me. Or moved. Or scrunched up their nose as if I hadn't bathed in three weeks. Even though all the counselors used to joke that I was the cleanest kid at camp. No one joked with me anymore. No one came close enough to me to joke with me. At dinner, a few people got up and moved from my table so I ended up skipping the meal because I was afraid I'd also have to eat alone.
Will Melissa ever learn why everyone hates her suddenly? Can empathy really be taught? Tune in for the second installment of "Teaching Empathy" because this post is getting way too long...