As I listened recently to a podcast I like, Ear Hustle, on the lives of the men who are inmates at San Quentin prison is Northern California, one of the incarcerated men made an interesting statement that gave me pause. His sentence carries with it a great degree of solitary time - more so than the normal prison sentence even - and he was explaining to the interviewer that he was a part of an existentialist group. He and a group of other men wrote notes to each other on the nature of existence and the passage of time. This group has an existence that is very short on meaningful activity. In general, men at San Quentin have a lot of time to think about the life they aren’t living or the things they aren’t doing. It leaves them with a need to to ask the larger questions. Questions like ‘if I’m not accomplishing a task or living in relation to the needs of another person, what, exactly, am I here for?’
The tradeoff, of course, is that these men have all the time in the world to contemplate, because their actions have led to society revoking their right to free will. They have lost their freedom, and so their ability to create meaning is severly (and rightfully) limited.
By contrast, a person with a job and family and activities has immense freedom. But they also spend a lot of their time in motion, and have a lot less time for contemplation on existence. It takes a significant amount of brain capacity to think about what activities come next and how to do them and who to see and what to talk about. In the absence of all of that required stimulation is occasional stillness. The stillness is when we busy people occasionally have time to stop and say ‘what is all this?’
The incarcerated person has no activity, and only contemplation. A person in slavery, on the other hand, has only activity, and no time for contemplation.
Passover comes for both of these individuals - the incarcerated and the enslaved. It comes once a year to stop us in our tracks and compel us to reflect, if we are not in the habit of it, or to appreciate our freedom, if we have not noticed it. We live lives of relative ease in comparison to many; without deprivation or suffering, and complete with community, connection, activity, and rest time. Passover was invented at a time when none of those things was regular or common. In stopping to reflect, within the context of the busy activity of a seder, we remember the day we became free many centuries ago, and we pledge to appreciate how precious it is to live lives of meaning that belong to us and us alone.
- Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, PA. These are a collection of thoughts and writings since he joined the community in Erie. For more of his past writings, click here.