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July 29, 2014 | 2nd Av 5774

The 39th Passover

April 1, 2001
Marc Rosenstein



 

Once, we spent a year living in Beersheba and did a lot of hiking in the Negev and Sinai during the winter and spring. I wrote a reaction to spring in the desert. Now that I live in the Galilee, I still love the desert and feel that it has a spiritual atmosphere that is different from the greener parts of the country. Every few years, we still read my response at our seder:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
--T.S. Eliot

It is spring now in the desert.
Spring is very beautiful here;
It comes with a stark delicacy that refreshes the soul.
In the wake of the surging floods
Come the iris and cat’s claw and fragrant bloom.
Amid the lifeless rocks and blowing sand,
In sheltered valleys and open wastes,
Spring assaults the desolation and for a time, conquers it.

The coming of spring reminds me of my father,
Who was a slave, in Egypt.
It was in this season that they fled Egypt, you know.
Or at least that’s the way he told it.
He had plenty of stories - all the old men did.
But they are all dead now.
We buried them along the way, wherever we were camped.
My father’s tomb lies in some nameless wadi,
The marker probably swept away by winter floods.

He told fine stories of Egypt:
Of stone houses, of meat, of onions and garlic, of water in abundance;
Of stability, of roots;
Of great cities with massive towers he helped to build.

How hard it must have been for my father
To change:
To move to a crude woolen tent
Pitched amidst the desolation.
To eat the flaky manna.
To drink rationed water.
To wander, ever wander, with the knowledge that if there were to be an end, a goal,
He would not live to see it.
It must have been very difficult to adjust.

It was in the spring, around when we celebrated the Pesach
That my father would think about the past.
Then he would tell his stories on the slightest provocation.
Strange stories, of miracles, of armies swallowed whole by the sea.
The rebellions against Moses and God,
The Golden Calf incident,
My father lived through them all.
He was actually there when God gave the law on Mount Sinai.
He used to pale a little when telling about it,
As though he could see the lightning, and feel the mountain quaking.

In the spring, indeed, it was on the eve of Pesach that my father put all his stories together.
When each family gathered around its fireplace, roasting the sacrificial lamb,
My father would lean back,
And with matzah and wine and bitter herb
He would tell all.
Of signs and miracles;
Of suffering and deliverance;
Of all that has transpired to put us where we are
And where we someday will be.
Yes, he had stories about that too.
Stories of milk and honey;
Of iron and brass;
Of oil and wine;
Of stability, stone houses, roots.

The Pesach isn’t the same now that my father and his cronies are gone.
We keep all the commandments, eat all the foods;
But the fire and life are gone from the stories.
I was not a slave.
I cannot conceive of the fear, the pain, the degradation.
My father’s stories conveyed a certain horror.
But how can I, who have known only the infinite and absolute freedom of the wilderness,
How can I convey to my children the marvel of redemption.

No, the stories are not the same without the original tellers.
Detail gets lost;
The excitement fades.
Perhaps, indeed, my father failed in his duty to teach me;
Was it not incumbent upon him to tell the stories in such a way as to make me a participant in them?
But no, that would have been a superhuman task,
A duty which even the greatest of storytellers could not fulfill.

As the past fades, so does the future.
As the stories of Egypt, of Exodus lose their richness and immediacy,
So the promise, the land, the stone houses
All withdraw into the future,
Pull back from the touch of our imagination.
And the desert stretches before and after.

I wonder how my children will observe the Pesach,
Will they thrill to the bloom of the desert,
Or will they know a softer spring,
Green and temperate?
And what stories will they tell
Will even an echo remain of what my father saw and told?
Can I succeed where even he but barely did?
Will my children have anything but strange formulas and wonder-tales to tell?
If I cannot know slavery,
Can my children know the heart of the stranger?
And what of the promise, the hope?
What of the stories of the end of this wandering?
Will my children inherit the future from me?

The desert knows time only cyclically.
The seasons have impact
But history has none.
All continues as before.
A generation,
Even forty years
Are as nothing.
The blasting, baking heat
Gives way to the raging, sudden floods.
Then the spring comes, with a stark delicacy
And a promise.

 

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