Of Seders And Selfies


Wherever Jews live, they will be sitting down on Friday night to recall and commemorate their collective past as slaves in ancient Egypt. In the diaspora, we will hold a second seder, again making a spiritual connection to a history that began, as the rabbis emphasize, in the disgrace of servitude and beatings and infanticide, and ended in the triumph of exodus and redemption.

At the seder, the most-observed of all Jewish customs, we take for granted the elevated way that mature people deal with tragedy — with respect, with reflection, with prayer, with attachment to community, with the perspective of one’s individual ego subsumed into a greater whole.

This week came a reminder that such a nuanced approach to tragedy is not universal.

Last Thursday, a building in Manhattan’s East Village exploded, likely caused by a gas leak, collapsing it and two neighboring buildings, leaving a pile of rubble; two people died in the blast.

Within a few days, the selfie sticks came out. Bypassing gawkers took pictures of themselves, smiling and waving a peace sign, with the still-smoking destruction and firefighters searching for bodies in the background. The site that had destroyed people’s livelihoods, and left dozens of New Yorkers homeless, and traumatized a city, had become a backdrop for look-at-me snapshots, like Disney World or the Eiffel Tower.

This demonstration of narcissism at a venue of death, which earned instant condemnation, (“Village Idiots” screamed a New York Post front-page headline), is nothing new. Last year some Israeli teens took and posted on Facebook selfie pictures of them posing at Auschwitz. The pages went viral.

“It has become quite the modern ‘thing,’ people clowning, sticking out their tongues, lifting thumbs up, grinning like loons in somber and sacred places,” wrote columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. “They’ve done it at Auschwitz, at the New York memorial to the victims of 9/11, at the American cemetery at Normandy, at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, at grandmother’s funeral.”

People who engage in such boorish behavior are either unaware of history or lack an appreciation for its meaning and lessons. The message of the seder teaches otherwise — we remember our history, we identify with our forebears who endured pain even as we spill drops of wine to show that we do not gloat over our enemies’ defeat. We treat the past with honor.

That is what has helped preserve the Jewish nation since it emerged from slavery 3,000 years ago. That is what we will repeat at our seders this week. In this spirit of gratitude and respect, we wish you and yours, dear reader, a healthy and joyous Passover.