Friday, March 26, 2010

Matzah and the "N-word"

The Passover seder is post-modern avant garde performance art. We not only tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but each of is required to regard ourselves as if we went out of Egypt. So the performance is by us, for us, and about us. All lines between the subject of the story, the performers, and the audience are erased. The whole purpose of the story is to cause people to ask questions and engage with the story, not merely to entertain and amuse. And we have innovative and unconventional props used in innovative and unconventional ways. "You wanna know how bitter slavery was? Eat this!"

The central object of the seder is matzah. And the symbolism of matzah makes an odd transition during the seder, and one that, in a strange way, reminds me of a changing symbol of oppression for American blacks: the word "nigger".

At the beginning of the seder, after Yachatz (the breaking of the middle matzah), we point to the matzah and say "ha lachma anya - this is the bread of affliction or poverty." This is the symbolism of Matzah at the beginning of the seder.

But at the end of the Maggid (or storytelling) section, the matzah symbolism takes a turn. We say "This is the bread that our ancestors ate when they left Egypt in haste." It is now the bread of freedom, the bread we ate when we left Egypt. The symbolism of the matzah changed from oppression to freedom during the seder itself.

Why? The answer, I think, lies in what came between these two mentions of matzah: freedom.
One was before Maggid and the other after. And once we complete the Maggid section, we are free. Only a free people can change the meanings of their symbols—the signified of their signifiers—especially symbols of oppression. But we do.

Perhaps the closest analog is the use of the word "nigger" in American life. This was the worst term of oppression for American blacks during much of the 19th and 20th century. But towards the end of the 20th century, a strange thing happened. Some American blacks staring calling each other "nigger" in a lighthearted or joking or casual way. When I first heard this, I was startled and surprised. And that was exactly the point. They were reclaiming this word from their racist oppressors, in effect saying "I am free. I own this word, and I can use it anyway I want. I am not afraid of it, and you cannot use it to oppress me."

Yup. That sort of in-your-face up-yours attitude towards oppression is exactly what Passover is about.

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