- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Walker Percy called it the search. Or at least his alter ego in " The Moviegoer" did. Outwardly, John Bickerson Bolling, or Binx to his friends, was just another stockbroker. Inwardly, he was a vacuum. Strangely, miraculously, he was aware of it, at least at those rare receptive moments we all have. That is when he became real. Binx had a name for those moments: the search. Or as he explained it:

"What is the nature of the search, you ask. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn't miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair."

When it comes to explaining the nature of faith and despair, I think ol' Binx has it all over old Kierkegaard with his Fear and Trembling.

There is still another name for the search: ritual. Not as in mere ritual. But as in entering the Ever Present, breaking the tyranny of time, doing away with past, future and what only passes for the present. The everydayness, Binx called it. And the condition of being so sunk in everydayness that we're unaware of it, he called the malaise. To wake up, he called the search.

This is what ritual, before it has become stale custom, does. It sets us free. Tonight we will be set free. For tonight is the first seder of Passover, the meal that is more than a meal, just as ritual is more than ritual. The watch night has come, the night every slave people waits for. It is the full moon, the 14th of Nissan, Juneteenth.

We enter the search through what the Italian thinker Giambattista Vico called Fantasia. By which he meant not fantasy but the full power of the historical imagination that obliterates the tyranny of time. Every celebrant should observe the seder, the ancient rabbis taught, as if he himself were part of the generation going forth from Egypt. They were wrong only about the as if.

Vico was on to something; he was in on the search. That's why he was so out of step with Rene Descartes and the other, everyday philosophers of his time.

Binx was in on the search only intermittently, when something would catch his eye, some piece of flotsam in the tide of the everyday that would start him off. Some clue. Then he would come awake.

What kind of clue? Why, us. The Jews. Here is Binx waking up: "An odd thing. Ever since Wednesday I have become acutely aware of Jews. There is a clue here, but of what I cannot say. How do I know? Because whenever I approach a Jew, the Geiger counter in my head starts rattling away like a machine gun; and as I go past with the utmost circumspection and every sense alert the Geiger counter subsides. When a man is in despair and does not in his heart of hearts allow that a search is possible and when such a man passes a Jew in the street, he notices nothing. But when such a man passes a Jew in the street for the first time, he is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach."

It is a terrible thing to be a clue, and perhaps more terrible not to know it, to be so sunk in despair we don't notice. And how, after all, could a clue be aware of what it signifies?

Binx has noticed our unknowingness: "The fact is, however, I am more Jewish than the Jews I know. They are more at home than I am. I accept my exile." I think the word Binx is searching for to describe his Jewish friends is clueless.

We're clues and don't know it. Well, some of us do. Queen Victoria, long in mourning for her prince consort, asked Benjamin Disraeli in her despair if he knew of any proof, any proof at all, of the existence of a God. And all he said was, "The Jews, ma'am."

By all the laws of history, we should have disappeared centuries, aeons ago, with the Canaanites and Jebusites and all those now so safe from history that even their names have to be made up by the archaeologists on the basis of the slimmest leavings, and sometimes just speculation.

That's why the historian Arnold Toynbee hated us, of course, because we spoiled his life's work, his learned theory about the inevitable rise and fall of every civilization. He didn't know how to fit us into his historical taxonomy, and so in the end classified us as a "living fossil." Well, tonight the fossil leaves Egypt again. No, not again. For the first time.

Vico had a similar theory about the rise and fall of civilizations, but he noted in passing that, of course, his theory didn't apply to the Jews. We had been touched by something beyond time. And it is impossible to read even modern Jewish history, in which all the laws of probabilities seem to have been reversed, without saying, with Vico, "Of course."

It is not history that gives Passover its warrant. Quite the opposite: What makes tonight so full of promise and burden, like freedom itself, is that it breaks through history. It disrupts the everydayness. Why is this night different from all other nights? Not because we are set free, but because we may realize we are set free.

Nor is it the celebration of freedom that fills this night with awe but what follows: the plunge into the Wilderness. That is, the search. And tonight it begins anew.


Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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