'Twas the Night of Our Seder . . .

by Lawrence Bush
Printed in last year's March-April issue of Jewish Currents
Illustrations by Rod Morrison

A family dinner? What’s the big deal?
Let’s skip all the talking and get to the meal!
It’s Passover — why not pass over the chatter?
And pass out the matzo balls! Hey! What’s the matter?

Sorry! Okay, I’ll be quiet, I promise.
I’m listening. Yes, I remember you warned us
that this is a seder, and “seder” means “order.”
I’m calm now. I’m ready. (I’m starving! I’m bored!)

That plate in the center — is that what’s for dinner?
If so, I’ll be going to bed ten pounds thinner.
That lamb bone looks scrawny and burnt, and the rest
makes me think that my parents forget we have guests!

Ahh, but this part I like, when we all sip some wine.
(Mine’s really grape juice, but that suits me fine.
I’ve tasted that sweet wine — it really tastes yuck.
I hope they put grap
e juice in Elijah’s cup!)

Mom lifts her glass. “To Moses,” she says.
“Who’s that?” wonders Petey, our non-Jewish guest,
though I warned him: No questions or we’ll never eat!
No wonder he’s skinny, my curious friend Pete.

Dad clears his throat and says, “Good question, guy.
Let’s read the hagode —you’ll hear by and by.”
Sigh! Here goes! He’ll tell the whole story of Moses
while we sit with nothing to eat but charoses

And matse and horseradish . . . What? It’s my turn?
Oh, yeah! The Four Questions! I worked hard to learn
to pronounce them in Hebrew, to make it sound right . . .
“Why’s this night different from all other nights?”

In the land of old Egypt, centuries ago,
Our people, the Hebrews, were slaves to Pharaoh.
Oy! How he worked us, from morning ‘til night,
building garrison cities of towering height.

Although we were slaves, this Egyptian king feared us.
“What if a war came, and with all the fuss
the Hebrews rebelled, and our enemies won?
There are too many slaves! I’ll kill off their sons!”

Yocheved, a slave mother, hid her new baby
for three months until there was no time for “Maybe . . .”
Desperate, she floated her son in the Nile
in a basket that bobbed close to shore. Meanwhile,

Miriam, sister of this poor baby boy,
hid in the reeds, and saw, with great joy
that Pharaoh’s own daughter had come to the river.
The cool, lapping tide was about to deliver

the dear little sailor to royalty’s feet!
Her maids fetched the basket. She cried out, “How sweet!
“This must be a Hebrew slave baby,” she said.
“By my father’s command, this child should be dead.

“But I will adopt him and raise him as mine.”
She saw Miriam. “Girl! Do you think you can find
a nurse for this baby?” “I sure can!” she said,
and ran for her mother, who came fast and fed

her hungry slave baby, who now would be free —
a member of Eygptian nobility!
“His name shall be Moses,” said Pharaoh’s kind daughter.
(“Moses,” some say, means “pulled from the water.”)

So Moses grew up in the palace, but knew
from his nurse that his people were slaves, the Hebrews.
He must have felt guilty, living so high
while the rest of his folk just barely got by . . .

One day, as a grown-up, he went for a walk
to visit his people. Moses was shocked
when he saw an Egyptian guard beating a slave.
His guilt and his anger rose in a great wave

and he killed that Egyptian, and buried him there
in the sand. Then he realized, “I’d better not dare
go back to the palace! When Pharaoh gets wind
of the fact that I did this, he’ll ask for my skin!”

So Moses ran off to a neighboring land
where he worked as a shepherd, and asked for the hand
of Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. They married.
Until he was eighty years old, Moses tarried

there, far from the palace, far from the cries
of his people, the Hebrews, and their bitter lives. . . .
One day, as he herded his sheep on a mountain,
He saw a weird sight — it was really astounding.

A bush was aflame. The fire burned high,
yet the bush did not burn, its leaves did not die.
How could this happen? Moses drew near —
and then a great Voice made him tremble with fear.

“I am the God whom your ancestors knew
and now there is something I need you to do.
Go back to old Egypt, and tell the Pharaoh
that God has commanded him: Let the slaves go!”

Moses was nervous. He feared for his life.
“Please,” he said, “I’ve got two kids and a wife.
I lisp something awful. I’m really quite old.
Can’t you find someone else?” But the Voice hollered, “No!

“I’ll supply words, and magical strength.
Pharaoh is stubborn. He’ll go to great lengths
to ignore my command and hold onto his slaves,
but I will defeat him with horrible plagues!”

So . . . Moses, quite bravely, went back to the land
and stood before Pharaoh to made this demand:
“Let the slaves go!” “Go jump in the mud!”
“Then you’re cursed! The Nile River will run red with blood!”

The river turned bloody, and all the fish died.
The people of Egypt were thirsty. They cried
out for water. Their king gave them shovels instead,
to dig wells — while to Moses he just said: “Drop dead!”

Soon after, Moses came back with a warning:
“You’d better start listening, or frogs will start swarming
all over the place! Let my people go free!”
Pharaoh just sneered at him. “Try and make me!”

Frogs on the table! Frogs on the floor!
Frogs in the homes of the rich and the poor.
Frogs in their shoes! Frogs in their beds!
Frogs in their underwear! Frogs on their heads!
Then lice, flies, and illness! Boils, hail and locusts!
And darkness so thick that no one could focus.
All Egypt was suffering, but mean old Pharaoh
kept changing his mind about letting the slaves go!

The last was the worst plague: the death of the child
born first in each family. Egypt went wild
with sadness and grief, as they buried their kids.
Even Pharaoh’s son died — and the king flipped his lid!

“Get out!” he commanded the slaves. “Get out now!
Don’t even pack up! Just leave now, and how!”
Well, the Hebrew slaves found Pharaoh’s words so surprising
that the bread they were baking had no time for rising,

Which is why matse sits on the Passover plate . . .
Mm, matse! I thought — but Pete made us wait!
“Why’s it called ‘Passover’? And how come the slaves
Didn’t lose their kids, too? How come they were saved?”

“The story,” Mom said, “is that God gave instruction
that homes marked with lamb’s blood would see no destruction
The Angel of Death knew which houses to spare . . .”
“To pass over!” Pete shouted, ignoring my glare.
They fled to the sea. . . . Meanwhile, Pharaoh rued
his decision to set the slaves free, and pursued
them with chariots right to edge of the water.
On one side, the sea — on the other side, slaughter!

A Hebrew named Nakhshon plunged into the sea.
“I’m not going back! I’m going to be free!”
Then the ocean split open! A bridge of dry ground!
The Hebrews ran through; the army stormed down.

And as soon as the freed slaves were safely across,
The waters crashed down upon chariot and horse!
“Another ‘pass over,’” said Pete. “What a tale!
Is it true, or just make-believe? How can you fail

“to believe in a God who makes miracles like these?
And why talk about it, if you don’t believe?”
I sighed. I stood up. I explained to my friend:
“Y’see, Pete, the question that counts, in the end,

“is not whether Passover’s just an invention,
but how come we Jews choose to celebrate redemption!
Nobody knows if we ever were slaves.
Nobody knows if there ever were plagues.

“But year in, and year out, we take this occasion
to talk about how we can seek liberation!”
“You sound like a rabbi — I’m proud of you, dear,”
said my mom, while Daddy proclaimed me a seer.

“Good! Now that the whole story’s finally told,
can we please eat before the matse grows mold?!”
“Sure,” my mom said, “we can finish up later
with singing and so forth — please, would you play waiter

“and bring out the matse-ball soup, with a ladle?”
Faster than grandma says, “A sheyne meydl!”
whenever my big sister floats within sight,
I dashed to the kitchen, thinking how this night

is different from others because eating so late,
makes all the food special — even fish glop tastes great!
And if Moses came, saying: Let’s fly the coop!
I wouldn’t get up before finishing my soup!


"At My Seder Table”

An offering of two artworks for Passover. Click to enlarge!


Eliot Spitzer and Male Sexuality

"It is told of Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordia that there was not one courtesan in the world whom he had not patronized. Once, on hearing that there was a certain courtesan in one of the cities across the sea who demanded a purse of denars as her fee, he took such a purse and journeyed forth, crossing seven rivers for her sake . . ." Avodah Zarah 17a

Eliot Spitzer, though no longer governor, could still be a leader and a brave man. Let him step up again to the microphone and apologize to his family for keeping secrets from them. Let him apologize again to the public for his law-breaking and his hypocrisy. Then let him talk honestly about his taste for prostitutes — and urge the decriminalization of prostitution in New York State. He wanted to be a reformer who shakes up the system? This is his chance to do it.

I’m seven years older than our 49-year-old ex-governor, and I’ve been married for eight years longer than the Spitzers, and I’ve never paid for sex for several reasons: a) I can’t afford it, at least not to hire really attractive, healthy women; b) I’d be much too intimidated to respond to solicitations (it’s hard enough for me to call out for pizza); c) it would distress my wife enormously, unless I kept secrets from her, which would damage the intimacy I cherish; d) I can’t comfortably participate in a criminal business that involves a lot of involuntary servitude, exploitation and dehumanization of women; e) I want to have sex with women who actually desire me. Sex for hire would probably not deliver the ego boost that I crave.

Obviously, not all of these are morally-grounded calculations; some are simply expressions of my cowardice. While they have kept my sex life fairly simple and well-sublimated, they haven’t granted me much claim to moral superiority over my several friends who have paid for sex — at least, they’ve paid the extra twenty bucks to have a masseuse deliver “the special” — or over Eliot Spitzer. The former governor may be a hubristic fool for indulging his desires and endangering so much, and a hypocrite for participating in a crime that he has loudly prosecuted — but I can nevertheless relate to Spitzer’s drive to have “power sex,” or whatever it is he was having through the Emperors Club, even if I feel deterred from seeking it myself.

When it comes to sex and monogamy, most heterosexual men seem to be in the same leaky boat. The great majority of the guys I know seem burdened by a sex drive that contradicts civilization’s rules. We want to have sex with more women than we have access to. We envy the bathhouse culture of the pre-AIDS gay community. We waste hours in idle and thwarted fantasy. We have an itch we can’t scratch, and it is stoked by the shamelessly sexualized commercial culture.

Those of us who settle into a monogamous marriage feel emotionally somewhat fulfilled and sexually somewhat thwarted — and we want our lives to contain fewer somewhats, to seem more extraordinary, which the feel and taste of a new sexual partner can certainly deliver.

So I would bet that most of the men I know would like to see prostitution decriminalized and the culture of sexual desire and fulfillment radically altered. Most of them would not go and consort with prostitutes, as they are truly committed to cultivating sexuality as a kind of sacred encounter between loving human beings. But there are men I know and love who probably would find it enlivening and therapeutic to pay for sex out of the context of romance or committed relationships, if they didn't feel shame about it; who would prefer to spend money on sex than on the movies or the opera or a health club or a restaurant or a therapist, if they weren't unnerved by the prospect of the paddywagon or the newspaper headlines; who would love to respond to enticing ads if they didn't believe the women on the other end to be the slaves of gangster rapists.

Of course, decriminalization would not instantly solve the problems of sex-slavery and trafficking, sexually transmitted diseases, or other elements of dehumanization and exploitation that hover over the sex trade. These problems persist, in varying degrees, in Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, and numerous other countries that have decriminalized prostitution, and will persist as long as women have less power, wealth, status and freedom than men. Criminalization, however, only boosts the criminality and the suffering that surrounds the sex industry — and turns the “itch” of men into a plague.

These matters deserve to be discussed. If Eliot Spitzer were the leader I want him to be, he would redirect the spotlight that has had him squinting to cast light into the dark recesses of men’s sexuality. He would urge decriminalization, urge men’s consciousness raising, and set an example for full disclosure and personal growth — instead of simply falling on his sword like some disgraced, tragic king.


Waiting For God: Brief Audio Introduction on Youtube

Waiting For God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist from a talk given on 021708 at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.

For an insightful review dated 030308 visit The Jewish Literary Review.com
Jewish Literary Review.com is a blog that covers Jewish writing, philosophy, history and law.