One of the recurring themes I have conveyed to students over the years is the power of symbolism. Symbolic acts may not often effect universal change, but they do help us make statements about who we are and for what we stand.
Take Passover for example. The Seder was never intended to focus on our appetites; we enjoy plenty of feasts all year round. We do not have to clean, shop, change dishes and cook with such intensity before Passover, just to prepare another, elaborate dinner. The Seder is primarily about directing our hearts and minds toward the symbols on our Seder plate. The matzah, bitter herb, karpas (green vegetable) and charoset all connect with fundamental themes of freedom, oppression and community. By cavalierly dismissing those themes, we ignore a valuable opportunity to both acknowledge (with gratitude) our past and appreciate our contemporary religious freedom to identity as Jews. How we identify is certainly open to many paths; but the Seder enables us to at least commit to some kind of serious Jewish path which works for us.
Therefore, the Seder is one occasion when the symbols take precedence and the meal is secondary. The symbolic gesture of eating a dry, mostly tasteless piece of matzah suggests that we ‘sacrifice’ a little bit of enjoyment for the greater purpose of connecting ourselves to any Jew, who has ever confronted anti-Jewish hatred throughout our history. The matzah and bitter herb alone, will not satisfy our hunger (I am no fan of horseradish…). Nevertheless, they certainly represent a symbolic gesture of debt to generations of Jews, which courageously stood up to oppression. Eating that matzah may not lead to an ethical transformation of humanity, but it may spark a change inside of us.
This week, an unprecedented, symbolic act took place throughout our country. Students from our high schools and middle schools walked out of the classroom and on to the street, in symbolic solidarity with the students from Parkland, Florida. They knew how one, symbolic gesture would not of itself motivate Congress into creating meaningful gun legislation. They knew how a single, symbolic gesture might not necessarily change one adult opinion about the need to wake up and protect our children from the guns which have killed too many of their peers. Yet, the symbolism behind their self-initiated act of solidarity speaks volumes. Our young people, many no where close to voting age, expressed their outrage over something far more long term than the daily matters of their social lives. Our students took an initial step toward making their presence felt as citizens of the United States and as the generation preparing to take an active role in shaping our country’s future. They made a statement about life not merely being about creature comforts or about building an impressive college resume. They expressed a voice calling upon all of us to wake up and to start taking action before more Parkland tragedies occur. They expressed their voices publicly and emphatically; suggesting that freedom means little if each day they must live in fear, wondering when and if our legislators will have the courage to act.
In global terms, the school walkout this week was perhaps more symbolic than transformative. Yet, the students participating – here in Great Neck and throughout America – took an initial step toward making their presence count. They made an emphatic statement about the value of freedom and about the value of living in a safe, secure environment. I hope we listened, along with our county, state and national representatives. Our students made an important, symbolic gesture, foreshadowing what we will express in two weeks at our Seder tables: Connecting ourselves to the values of freedom which are fundamental to the quality of life we all deserve.
Photo credit: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/282864