Heed Kafka’s words this PassoverTzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36
Franz Kafka, a 20th century Jewish novelist, famously wrote, “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”
Kafka’s poignant reminder that much of our own suffering may be due to the all-too-human propensity to seek to avoid suffering serves as a counterpoint to the Passover haggada’s injunction to locate ourselves within the story of our people’s deliverance from suffering under Egyptian bondage. Indeed, we are enjoined to imagine that our forefathers’ and foremothers’ experiences as slaves in Egypt is our own; further, we are commanded to re-experience our people’s redemption as if we ourselves become free from Egypt. This is our raison d’etre as Jews.
Recall that time and again our tradition implores us both to empathize and extend ourselves to others precisely because we know the experience of having been slaves to Pharaoh. The command to place ourselves in the experience of another is at the heart of a Jew’s spiritual life’s work. Or, to paraphrase Kafka, we can “hold [ourselves] back from the sufferings of the world. That is something [we] are free to do and it accords with [our] nature,” but consider what we stand to lose — in Kafka’s words, what we stand to “suffer” — for a failure to step outside of our own comfort zone and into the shoes of another.
Passover is the celebration of freedom, but surely not a freedom that separates us from the experience of others. To the contrary, any notion of freedom that distances us from the pain of the world is no freedom at all. Indeed, we retreat from the world at our peril. After all, it is in the very act of empathizing with others and in our embracing the opportunity to be part of solving for life’s challenges that allows us to realize the promise of redemption in our own day.
For this reason, if we approach the seder table with a bemused detachment as opposed to seeing it as an opportunity to expand our appreciation for all we have; if we focus only on what we stand to lose as opposed to all we have to share; and if we feel ourselves oppressed for remaining open to the existential pain of another, as opposed to hearing in their lament a call to action, then for our taking the path of least resistance, we shall miss the opportunity to embody the essential message of our faith. And at this time of year, especially, it is precisely this act of ostensible self-defense that is “the one suffering [we all] could [and ought seek to] avoid.”
May each of our Passover celebrations move us closer toward alleviating suffering — everywhere.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)