It was in reading chapter 23 of ‘Catching Fire’ (otherwise known as Book Two of The Hunger Games trilogy) when it hit me with the full force of a plague of locusts: Lightning. Blood rain. Fog. Monkeys.
This modern, dystopian tale has the markings of a recast Passover story. Think about it: there’s oppression, enslavement, hunger as both a reality and a metaphor. The death of children. Katniss may not exactly be Moses, but her first presentation at the games is a fiery one, indeed.
We need our heroes. We need our children. We need our stories . . .
Evolution is a funny thing. The human mind’s capacity to conjure hail and locusts, an all-knowing, all-powerful God that can part a sea just long enough to let the good guys get through and the bad guys drown now conjures forms of torture that stretch the imagination. The ten plagues recited during the Passover seder – blood, frogs, locusts, darkness, etcetera, etcetera – pale in comparison to what the Capitol powers-that-be in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy put the young tributes through. And, yet, it speaks to something as powerful today as in biblical times, namely, the will to survive and the endurance of the human spirit.
In the Passover story, we have a God who ups the ante each time the pharaoh, his heart hardened, refuses to let the Israelis go – until the final plague, death of the firstborn, takes his heart past anything it can handle. What could be worse than that? – except maybe a world in which games are premised on children killing each other to death. In the godless world of Panem, risen from the ashes of a civilization that destroyed itself, it’s left to the inhuman heart of President Snow to keep upping the ante. There is no letting go of his grip, no softening the stone that is his soul. Only conquering. Goliath is ultimately brought down by a girl with a bow and arrow.
As archetypal heroes go, it doesn’t get much better than Katniss Everdeen. She heeds the call, questions it, retreats, comes back with a vengeance underscored by her inherent humility: “Power. I have a kind of power I never knew I possessed.” She walks into the fire, one too many times perhaps, and emerges with just a little more wisdom than a teenager can be expected to handle. Too much blood is shed, too many people suffer. Those who manage to survive will have a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, to heal. No one says it better than Katniss: “Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.”
So here we sit, between the dark futuristic world of Panem and the Biblical world of the past, held together by the power of stories and a collective unconscious that spans time and cultures. Yesterday I watched a real president make a pitch for something that should need no pitch, namely common sense and decency and keeping politics in the political arena where it belongs. Today I watch tractor trailers flying through the air in Texas, no special effects for a twister of a movie, the real deal.
Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, burns on. Moses is never the same after his encounter with the burning bush.
Each year, Jews around the world gather for seders. The more traditional ones take hours. The condensed ones cut to the chase – drinking wine, breaking matzoh, asking the key four questions, reminding ourselves we were once slaves and now we’re free. Traditional seders read through the entire Haggadah. Less conventional ones turn the telling into a dialogue – about hungry children around the world and families left homeless by war and natural disasters. The fictional President Snow may be the embodiment of every evil dictator humanity has known – and more. But we all know that truth is too often stranger, and darker, than fiction.
More and more I think that stories are what we live by. We may be curious about the facts that give rise to them, dig around for what really did or did not happen, question why we tell the same ones year after year, a kind of hunger all its own. It’s never the same, though, if we’re really listening. Just watch the delightful movie about a Passover seder gone awry, When Do We Eat? Or read The Hunger Games if you already haven’t. Then sit down with friends and family, sip wine. Share stories. And, eventually, eat.