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Freedom, Dialogue and the Acknowledgment of the Other: Thoughts on Pesach

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

As a scholar of the early modern I am obsessively interested in the variegated modalities of individuality, together with the diversified forms of tension between the particular and the general. Naturally, then, the rhetoric of freedom and redemption which the exodus saga abundantly reverses on Jewish and non-Jewish readers of the Bible is of significant interest to me. Yet, despite the widespread Western readings of this narrative, the Biblical text and its later rabbinical elaborations do not propose a redemption conceived as the “action of freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave” (OED), but rather wish to reconceive it as the process through which the individual is empowered to establish and maintain a dialogue, with fellow men or with God, and thus to perceive his or her individuality as a function of the presence of an Other. In other words, one is only truly free and redeemed when capable of turning monologue-like statements into the dangerous, fallible and disconcertingly arduous dialectics in the presence of an interlocutor.

Pesach is a social event – it takes place in the interaction with others and it brings to light generosity and acceptance. Thus writes Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shvitat Yom Tov, VI:17-18:

“It is forbidden to fast or recite eulogies on the seven days of Pesach, the eight days of Sukkot, and the other holidays. On these days, a person is obligated to be happy and in good spirits; he, his children, his wife, the members of his household, and all those who depend on him, as [Deuteronomy 16:14] states: “And you shall rejoice in your festivals.”

The “rejoicing” mentioned in the verse refers to sacrificing peace offerings, as will be explained in Hilchot Chaggigah. Nevertheless, included in [this charge to] rejoice is that he, his children, and the members of his household should rejoice, each one in a manner appropriate for him. […] When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut. And with regard to such a person [the verse, Hoshea 9:4] is applied: “Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners, all that partake thereof shall become impure, for they [kept] their bread for themselves alone. ” This happiness is a disgrace for them, as [implied by Malachi 2:3]: “I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your festival celebrations.”

The Rambam is certainly not eager to use circumlocutions and expresses the idea of a social holiday in the clearest of terms: the destitute and the poor must be, as part of the holiday, be taken care of. Those who do not so, and close themselves within the privileged privacy of their wealth, are not feasting in obeisance to Divine commandments, nor are they remembering the redemption from the Egyptian slavery, but merely rejoicing in their guts. As Rav ShaGaR writes, freedom is intimately related to familial and congregational sharing of happiness, and to a generosity which expresses the fully social meaning of Pesach – freedom is communal, and inclusive, it goes beyond privileges and levels all economic differences.

Redemption is therefore a moment of enfranchisement, from which results, in this social perspective, the individual’s recognition of the presence and importance of his peers – the redemption of the “one” is accompanied by the understanding of his or her connection to an “other,” and by the full awareness that the latter’s presence is not merely something to be tolerated, but rather a conditio sine qua non for the moment of redemption to be acceptable. This, needless to say, clearly goes against the Western logic which conceives the necessary interaction with others as an obstacle to the accomplished and full freedom of the self-possessed I. On this line of thought, Rav ShaGaR reminds us in one of his essays on Passover, one may want to mention Jean-Paul Sartre’s “l’enfer c’est les autres” or better, hell is the interaction with others. On Pesach, we are reminded, the stranger turns into a member of the family, the poor takes a rightful place at the table, while the encounter with this “Other” becomes the true actualization of Redemption. And yet, that which is freed is not merely the individual, in his or her physical and social sphere of action, but also speech – as Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote in his Pri Etz Hayyim , Pesach can also be read as Peh sah , the elocuting mouth, pointing to the fact that the redemption of the individual entails also the awakening of kinship and the capacity to relate to the other verbally . The Haggadah is a clear example of this, as the narration of the Exodus structured in the form of questions and answers, signs and the interpretation thereof, a text constructed specifically in order to awaken the curiosity of the reader and to induce verbal interaction. When speech is free, words cease to be the partial ex-pression of internal thoughts and truths, manifestations of that which is hidden for the “other” to interpret and, hopefully, understand – a redeemed speech is one which is effortlessly expressed to the interlocutor without the fear or thought of what his or her answer will be, and the acceptance of the response as part of a dialogue in which both sides fashion their utterances in function of things said by the other. In a state of slavery, Rav ShaGaR reminds us, utterances are mere monologues, and the individual is trapped in his or her self-possessed subjectivity, an inexpressible interiority caged within the exterior appearance which the interlocutor is never allowed to fully understand – freedom is to expose oneself to the words of the other, allowing these to enrich and change our identity.

Where Pharaoh fails to listen, and only succeeds in making statements, ignoring the Divine message relayed by Moses and Aaron, Pesach comes to teach us to listen – to listen to the people, listen to those around us, to listen to our interiority and to how it tries to break out of a prison-like exteriority. Pesach is about embracing the weak, about establishing a dialogue with the unheard, and the necessary relinquishing of monologue-like utterances. In a redeemed dialogue, both sides utter thoughts and accept the constant change of things as a function of interaction and acceptance, embracing the terrifying sense of loss this acceptance of the interlocutor’s words entails, and reassuring the “other” that on this night, on this specific night which is different from all other nights, we will embrace his or her difference.

Strength, courage and power are not about affirmative statements, penetrating arguments, and the capacity to overcome an enemy – strength and courage are solely the capacity to expose oneself to dialogue, breaking out of the bondage of an unexpressed interiority and manifesting it univocally to an equally accepting “Other.”

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.