Israel, After Obama: This Year, for Passover, I'm Burning My Cynicism

This Passover, I'm going on a fast from cynicism. Who has patience anymore for the ennui, the omniscience, the certainty of failure? Obama's visit may be a sign that something good is beginning to happen. Maybe even peace.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

The president of the United States came by a few days ago. Caught us by surprise. Going in, no one knew quite what to make of the visit. We had to fit Passover preparations around it. His people told us to expect very little, and I doubt if any of us expected even that.

Lord, how I love it when we're all wrong.

It's the only time anything changes around here. No matter what we think or practice, no matter where we lie on the scales of politics, religion, class or ethnicity, we're so sure of ourselves all the time. We're so very certain that things will work out badly - or, more often than not, stay fixed at the terrible level of emotional subsistence that all we've grown to call home.

Lord, how shocking it is when we're forced to deal with something good.

When the president spoke to students Thursday evening, even before the ovations finally subsided, the cynicism began. From the hard right and the hard left, from here to Seattle, a consensus: it's delusional to think that this will change anything, improve anything, be any more than one more load of pap.

Enough. Who has patience anymore for the ennui, the omniscience, the certainty of failure. The mind that can never be caught open. The eternal cynicism.

Who has the time to waste on it anymore, or the energy? Something is beginning to happen here. The cynics can choose to ignore it, or belittle it. Sure, maybe they'll be proven right, and it will all go up in smoke. But something is beginning to change here. A sea is beginning to part.

Monday morning, when our family collects the last crumbs of bread in the house and burns them in the traditional introduction to Passover, I'm throwing in something more this year, along with it: my cynicism.

I'm not sure what it's going to feel like, looking behind and below and in dark places and hard-to-reach corners and dislodging it. I'm not sure how I'll feel, going without it. Stripped of armor, probably. Pale and pasty, naked maybe. A little stupid. But better off.

This Passover, I'm going on a fast from cynicism.

I'm going to give it a week. But I'm going to give it everything I have. And when this week is done, I'll do everything I can to give it another week. And another.

The president's speech was one step toward the sea that may be parting. The fact that an Arab Israeli woman won The Voice balloting was another. Let the hard left call this nothing, and the hard right call it everything. It was neither. But it was important. Because it was another step forward.

If it all stops here, the cynics, in their consummate tedium, can smile that knowing half-smile of theirs - the hard right which says there can't be peace because the Palestinians are all violent terrorists who want the Jews dead and the land to themselves, and the hard left, which says there can't be peace because any Jewish state is inherently unjust and illegitimately ethnocentric, and because the Israelis are all colonialist exploiters who want the Palestinians expelled and the land to themselves.

But what if there is one further step, and another? What if people come to the realization that the hard left and the hard right offer them, in the end, nothing? Nothing but the worst of what we have now.

As I was given to understand, the idea of Passover is to take the rhythms and the long-fixed furniture of life, and to upset them, shift them, clean them out – all to restore a lost sense of proportion and a lost sense of perspective, of vision. A fresh start. A Spring.

By tradition, when the Children of Israel reached the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt, out of slavery, the sea did not part for them. They began to wail and weep, suspecting they should have chosen to keep the life they were accustomed to, bitter and hopeless as it was. The cynics among them said it was delusional to think that there was a way ahead.

One person, though, Nahshon, took one step into the water, and then another. He kept walking until the water reached his waist, his chest, his neck. He took one step after another until the water was above his mouth and touched his nose, threatening to drown him. Only then did the sea part.

Something's beginning to happen now. If it's real, it will be scary. But if it is real, and people take one step after another, even if it takes years and years, what waits on the other side is peace.

If we don't take those steps, if we give in to cynicism, we'll be living this bad imitation of exile on and on, drowning in it, enslaving ourselves as we enslave others. If we do that long enough, the sea will come to us. And it won’t stop at our mouths.

Who has time or patience anymore for same old useless, empty fights, the way-cool faux righteousness of cynicism? There's too much waiting for us on the other side.

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