Looking at the Interpreters

Mar 31st, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays
“In 1948, Ralph Ellison heard the street slang Oh man, I’m nowhere and heard the identity crises, negation and psychic despair provoked by daily life under white supremacy. In 1961, James Baldwin, writing ‘Fifth Avenue, Uptown,’ perhaps writing from Paris, remembered a different greeting: ‘How’re you making it?’ ‘Oh, I’m TV-ing it.’ Perhaps those greetings and their interpretations say more about the interpreters than about those who are purported to use them. Don’t get corrupted!” (“Harlem is Nowhere” by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts)

We will spend much of the Seder examining and interpreting the words of people who are hurting: “What does the Wicked son say?” We examine the Son who does not care enough to ask. We wonder how the slaves reacted to their suffering: “Why did they cry about their work when their children were being slaughtered to provide baths of blood for Pharaoh?” How could the students of the Rabbis interrupt their teachers’ Pesach discussions to remind them to say Shema?

I suspect this is why we, the interpreters, begin Maggid with an (worthless in practical terms) invitation to all who need a place to celebrate Pesach: We have to interpret the story with a generous spirit. We have to listen to all the ideas and opinions offered over the Haggadah with generosity. We have to create an environment in which the stranger will feel comfortable joining our Seder.

We must also not, as did Baldwin, write while in Paris of the angst in Harlem; if we want to understand Abraham and Jacob, if we want to examine our children’s questions, if we want to discuss the slaves in Egypt; we have to be where they are/were: “In every generation a person must see himself as if he left Egypt.” Be there. Be a generous interpreter. Don’t get corrupted!

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