La Jolla, California, Passover 2004
A taste of Jewish America on the Passover hotel scene.
So here I am again, celebrating Passover, for the second
year in a row, not in the spiritual wholesomeness of home,
but in the comfort of a hotel. Last year we were in the
Doubletree in Scottsdale, Arizona. This time 400 of us have
gathered in the luxury of the Torrey Pines Hilton in La
Jolla, California, a suburb of San Diego.
Is this the way Passover is meant to be celebrated? Passover
was always about reducing self-indulgence. It was about
freeing ourselves of the slavery of material life and experience
spiritual freedom. Here, we indulge in material comfort
– our beds are made, food all prepared, dishes washed,
24 hour tea room – as we recreate the exodus from
all constraints and limitations (Egypt, Mitzrayim
in Hebrew, is rooted in the word meaning constraints). The
biggest complaint people have is that the steak is too rare
or that there are only two ping-pong tables.
Is this leaving Egypt or entering it?
I am yet again, scholar in residence. Perhaps my role is
to be the conscience of the group – to make everyone
feel a bit guilty, between meals that is, about our comfort
The irony doesn’t escape me that this too is a luxury that
I am able to enjoy the amenities of hotel vacation while
writing about its vices.
But then again, is this hotel comfort that much different
than the comforts of home? After all, we live in a free
country, enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Kosher for Passover
products – that would have made our grandmothers tremble
with shame – fill the grocery shelves. Today they
even have Kosher for Passover pizza, for heaven’s
Why, one could even make the argument that now we finally
have the opportunity to celebrate true “cheirut”
(freedom), which is the essence of Passover. Do we need
only discomfort and crisis to feel the bitter “Egypt”
of our lives?
Yes, it’s true that physical deprivation may make it easier
to feel the need for freedom, but Judaism never preached
asceticism and self-denial.
The challenge of our times is to not allow our comforts
to numb our senses into complacency. Our exodus today is
to free ourselves of the slavery that material freedom can
impose upon us, and initiate passion and vivacity even when
we have all our physical needs met – with equal intensity
to the energy generated when we have to overcome adversity.
Our ancestors were forced to fight for their beliefs as
they faced enemies all around them. Today we have to willingly
elicit the fight from within against perhaps the greatest
adversary of all: Apathy.
As one fellow told me at the Passover barbeque the other
night: Why do we need Moshiach when we have all these comforts?
Reminded me of the baalibatisher fellow who asked a Chassid:
Why is the Rebbe crying so much when he blows Shofar –
he has such a beautiful wife and family?...
Indeed, one can even say that the Passover hotel scene
amplifies both the comfort and the challenge of our times
– to overcome the obscene self-contentment of the
Ok, now that I have justified this hotel phenomenon, I
am sure that some guilty Jews can come up with more reasons
to torture ourselves…
Jewish guilt – another important subject to address. So
common is the concept that it’s become a cliché. But would
you believe that guilt is antithetical to Judaism? Purposeless
guilt that just demoralizes you is un-G-dly. Feelings of
guilt and for that matter, anything demoralizing that does
not motivate you to become better, is rooted in the evil
inclination that seeks to break a person down. But that
discussion is for another time.
Meet many interesting people. The crowd this year is more
educated and of higher caliber than last. They actually
welcome the opportunity to challenge and be challenged.
At the Seder I meet a woman who has come solely as a result
of reading this weekly e-mail column! I think about the
power of technology, another luxury of our times that can
reach people in unprecedented ways when utilized properly.
Thursday, April 9 – Sea World
Visit the famous San Diego Sea World.
Very mixed feelings.
Must be over 20,000 people here today, each paying approximately
$45. As I watch the powerful Shamu (killer whales) splash
the lower 14 rows of spectators, and the elegant dolphins
and sea lions jump through man-made hoops as tiny sea otters
scurry about, I can’t help but wonder two things at
On one hand people are drawn to the astonishing beauty
of the water world, the incredible wisdom in each creature
– nothing less than witnessing a divine sight. At
the same time, it is a spectacle of animals in captivity,
many of which were bred in this cage. What do the animals
really think about their own performance? As they keep feeding
the big fish, you get a sense of the manipulation we see
around us all day. “Here, I’ll throw you a bone,
just keep jumping through my hoops.”
It doesn’t help to find out that the place is owned by
Anheuser-Busch – yes the beer maker. Now I understand why
they’re selling caps for Bud Light…
Don’t get me wrong. I am hardly a party pooper, and I thoroughly
enjoyed myself at Seaworld. It was fascinating to walk down
the dark caverns and see the ominous sharks snake through
the shadowy waters. Or to watch the sleek seals swim seamlessly
through the water like a knife in warm butter. No doubt
this can inspire us to appreciate the world which G-d blessed
us with. Many personal lessons can be derived from all these
miracles of nature.
Yet, you can’t ignore the commercialization of it all.
With all the watery beauty you get the seeping sense of
other forces at work.
It may sound strange, but success can be harder to handle
than failure. Comfort can be more difficult of a challenge
than angst. Freedom and prosperity can be more enslaving
Man, what a complex world we live in. Everything is intertwined
– good with greed, altruism with acquisition, love
and profit, sensitivity and coarseness, beauty and frivolity.
We have been blessed with freedoms that our ancestors would
have considered Messianic. May we continue to be blessed
with evermore comfort and prosperity.
But as the Alter Rebbe says: G-d blesses you with the material.
You must transform matter into spirit.
This is the challenge of our times, the exodus from Mitzrayim
in our generation: To free ourselves of the material comforts
that bind us and see the material simply as a means to achieve
the spiritual. To recognize that materialism can enslave
us more than poverty can, you can be financially independent
but live in the deepest psychological slavery.
Passover today is not to be deceived by superficial comforts
and deceptive security. It is to discover that true freedom
is only independence of the psyche, liberation of the spirit.