Hearing Suffering

Haggadah Section: -- Exodus Story
Kafka once wrote in his journal: "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."

The "you" that Kafka is addressing might be himself, or it might be each of us. But it also could be -- and here's the stunner -- the God of Exodus Himself. It accords with His nature, too, to hold Himself back from the sufferings of the world, something He is quite free to do, and apparently does rather well, withdrawing into the godlike completeness of His remove until He is wrenched out of it by receiving suffering humanity's revelation, which comes in the form of wails.

Wails come straight from a soul stripped down to the bone, and they are always a revelation. To hear someone's wails is to see a self revealed in ways usually kept hidden, driven by extremes to dropping poses and speech. Wailing draws the hearer into an intimate space, whether the hearer wants to be there or not -- and the God this passage would appear not to have wanted to be there, and we can all sympathize with His desire to be anywhere else. But then He is there, summoned out of His remoteness by revelation. Revelation is generally presented as proceeding from God to man. Here the revelation travels in the opposite direction. The God of Exodus is not so unlimitedly free after all. He is bound by moral obligations, even if it takes an unwelcome revelation to remind Him.

Tonight we dream of freedom. But should we dream of some godlike freedom that draws us ever more distantly away from one another, self-contained our preoccupations with self-image and the ways and means for self-projection and self-protection, then this passage reminds us of what we chance to lose. It is in the intimate spaces that the unwelcome and necessary revelations come, and we withdraw from those intimate spaces at our peril.

From The New American Haggadah, Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer; Selection by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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