Marking the passage from slavery to freedom
JERUSALEM (JTA)—Transitions are never easy.
You decide to leave one place that is known to you for some unfamiliar territory. You don’t feel quite like yourself (and probably won’t for a while). You try to act like everything is fine even though you know that your whole life has just been upended. It will take time until things begin to fall into place— when you start to integrate the “old” you into your new identity, when you can trust that your life will make sense as you take this step into the unknown.
And while we all might experience one or two of these major transitions in our lifetime (marriage, divorce, becoming a parent or moving cities), the transition for the ancient Israelites, from slavery in Egypt to freedom, was one of epic proportions.
After suffering under the oppressive yoke of bondage, the promise of redemption was palpable. With God’s guiding hand and Moses in place to lead the way, the Israelites had their matzah in hand and were ready to go. Their transition to a new life – from being slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt to servants of God – was set in motion. While the steps along the way may have been unsure and filled with trepidation (there’s nothing like the sound of Pharaoh’s army behind you and a sea that isn’t splitting before you to make you wonder if you made the right decision), the Red Sea did split, and faith that everything would be OK won out.
While the biblical narrative that recounts the Exodus from Egypt has power in the linear nature of its telling, the way that the rabbis ritualized that transition in the Passover Haggadah is anything but linear. They transformed the raw material of the Exodus story into an associative, sometimes disjointed pedagogical tool. And in this disjointed medium of the Haggadah is the message. Transitions are not a straightforward endeavor. They are a process that can be meandering, confusing and rife with double meanings and complexities. What are the ways that our experience of Passover can shed light onto how we experience transitions in our own lives?
Embrace complexity. Eat matzah.
The most ubiquitous symbol of Passover, matzah, is in itself a conundrum. It is the bread of affliction, which reminds us of the hard bread the Israelites ate in servitude in Egypt. But it is also the food that the Israelites baked on the eve of their departure. It’s the same substance (just flour and water), but the meaning of the bread changes based on how we relate to it. When we were passive recipients of the bread it represented our affliction and reminded us of our identity as slaves, but when created with our own hands it represents the moment of our freedom.
It might have been simpler to have two different kinds of bread – a flat bread to represent slavery and a fluffier one to represent freedom. But instead, on seder night we are obligated to eat matzah and imbibe the two identities at the same time. We hold the complexity – even as we celebrate freedom, we remember our harsh past. More than that, our past serves as a moral compass and guides us not to oppress the stranger because we remembered what oppression felt like.
When we go through a transition in our lives, we recognize that we don’t negate the past to embrace a new future. Our past experiences ground and guide us as we take steps toward a new identity.
Ask the right questions.
The Rabbis put questions and questionings at the center of the Haggadah’s telling. The nature of asking questions on Passover is in itself an act of freedom. The most powerless—the children—traditionally ask the Four Questions. Then four children ask questions based on their own characters: the questions that everyone is thinking but nobody dare articulate.
Only free people can ask, wonder and challenge. Being able to ask good questions connects us to the bigger picture and opens doors to life’s possibilities.
Transitions are overwhelming. And when you are going through one, sometimes all you want are the right answers (I’m not sure how many Israelites asked questions when they were leaving Egypt on that 14th of Nissan).
But the Haggadah teaches us to ask questions, even when it might feel frightening to do so. Our questions might range from the wise and rebellious to the simple, and sometimes we might find ourselves unable to ask. The questions that start with “why did I do this?” may lead to broader ones like “I wonder what awaits me on the other side?” Keep asking.
Offer praise and thanks.
In the middle of the Haggadah, soon after Dayenu and right before we wash our hands to eat the matzah, there is a shortened Hallel (songs of praise). It is smack in the middle of the Haggadah. “Praise, O servants of the Lord, Praise the Lord’s name. May the Lord’s name be blessed now and forevermore.” We move away from the heady conversations about why we eat the pascal lamb, matzah and maror, and the meta-values that the Haggadah conveys with the line “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if on had gone out of Egypt.” Instead we sing, dance and offer gratitude that we have made it this far.
This short Hallel stuck in the middle of the Haggadah reminds us how important it is to recognize milestones along the journey. When our tendency is to see how much farther we need to go, the Haggadah reminds us to recognize how far we have come, and to give thanks.
Every day our lives are filled with transitions in small and big ways, from home to work and then back home again. Crises (big and small) happen at these threshold points (kids have breakdowns, adults feel anxiety). These feelings are real because they reflect that we are heading into unknown territory. In our daily lives we ritualize these moments—the goodbye kiss, the welcome home hug. And for our bigger transitions—changing careers, moving houses, leaving a marriage or deciding to have a child—the rituals become larger and more complex.
As we approach each of these transitions, let us move from the narrow places, our personal Egypts, to a place of openness and expansiveness of the desert.