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We Leave Egypt Tonight

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Psst, pass it on. Tell the other slaves: We leave Egypt tonight.

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 enough, he was aware of it at certain moments. It was at those moments that he became real. 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." Like some other fictional characters, Binx is more alive than the rest of us most of the time. That's because he's in on the search.

Binx would understand why tonight is different from all other nights. Tonight, the first night of Passover, we quit Egypt. Not "as if" it were the first time, but for the first time. That is what ritual accomplishes when rightly performed, that is, not as just ritual. All things become new. We are newborn. As in the search.

The search breaks the tyranny of time. It takes us into the Ever Present, doing away with past and future. It shatters what Binx called everydayness. Binx had a name for being so sunk in everydayness that we're unaware of it. Kierkegaard called it despair. Binx called it the malaise. The search clears away the malaise. And we awaken.


This is what living ritual, before it has become stale custom, does. It sets us free. Tonight is the watchnight, the night every enslaved people waits for. Soon it will be the full moon. It is the 14th of Nissan, Juneteenth, the start of the search.

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

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 with 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 a man awakes to the possibility of a search and 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 more terrible not to know it. But how, after all, could a clue be aware of what it signifies? We are witnesses despite our unknowing selves.


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

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

That's why Toynbee, the once popular historian, hated us so. We spoiled his life's work -- his theory about the inevitable rise and fall of every civilization. But we refuse to disappear. Despite everything. It's not as if it's our doing. It just is.

Our continued existence seemed to irritate the great scholar, or at least Arnold J. Toynbee used to be thought of as great. He didn't know what to make of us. He didn't know how to fit us into his historical taxonomy, his Darwinian chart of civilizations. So in the end he classified us as a "living fossil." A petrified remnant of a dead past.


Well, Dr. Toynbee, tonight the fossil leaves Egypt. We head out for the desert and begin the search anew. Today we are sunk in the slavery of the everyday. Tonight we set out into the wilderness called freedom. Pass it on.

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