Passover this year begins on April 14 in the evening, which makes April 15 the first full day of the festival. Yes, April 15, when the post office is open until midnight and last-minute shirkers postmark their tax returns…perhaps this year there might be some horseradish stains on the frantically-completed returns.
Taxation has been at the root of the American experience and debate since, well, colonial times. Many of we native Bay Staters grew up with a healthy amount of Minuteman zeal, Patriots Day re-enactment, Johnny Tremain, and Boston Tea Party being fed to us in school. No taxation without representation! The Intolerable Acts! Give me liberty or give me death!
Needless to say the debate about taxes continues on well into America’s 237th year. From the Boston Tea Party to today’s Tea Party, “taxation” is a curse word, while on the other side of the coin, lefties advocate for tax-the-rich and talk about America’s low tax burden. Consensus is not forthcoming.
While taxes can certainly spark a spirited debate at your Seder table, I, for one, don’t like spending time at family gatherings talking politics. So instead, why not try something else to spark interesting conversation at Passover this year?
At Passover, the story is fairly scripted. We were slaves in Egypt, Moses confronted Pharaoh, plagues came, we were freed, Ha Gadya, Ha Gadya. Many of us are content with this narrative, and given the fact that by the time the meal comes around there’s been a fair amount of drinking, who really wants to challenge the paradigm?
But I ask you: Did Passover really happen the way we commemorate it? Were we actually slaves in Egypt? Did the Nile turn to blood and did the Red Sea split? Color me skeptical but I’m not entirely convinced, and if you try to separate the “history” from the “memory” of Passover, the waters are quite murky.
Some allege that all pre-Sinai Biblical history was invented. Others claim that Moses was a charismatic religious leader who discovered Yahweh and led a sect of believers out of Egypt and into the Sinai desert. Still others connect the ancient Habirus, a nomadic warrior tribe who may have guarded Egypt’s eastern borders (aka Goshen), to the Hebrews- and there is something radically interesting about recasting the history of the Jewish people as being derived from a culture of ferocious warriors, and not slaves. Can you imagine a Haggadah in which the story is an armed rebellion, not a divine intercession?
Beyond the Egypt part of the story, there is also the strange coincidence that in the ancient Near East there was a spring agricultural holiday in which the storehouses were carefully cleaned every spring to get rid of spoilt grain and make way for the new grain… chametz-hunting, anyone?
These questions are provocative, basically because I want to spark your curiosity. If you troll around enough on Google you can read all of the theories, some of which are a little ridiculous, others of which are eerily believable. I encourage you all to do some exploring so you can prepare to be a troublemaker during the Seder.
So this April, as you steer the conversation away from taxation to avoid a family meltdown, go ahead and take a moment to find something controversial in the Passover myth/story/history that might get everyone yelling at each other for a different reason than politics.
Hopefully it will move the table conversation away from taxation and Obama and into a luscious debate about the Habirus and the Hyksos, or about the pagan agriculture rituals that Judaism co-opted into its Passover story.
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