In my last blog, I wrote about spiritual preparation for the Passover holiday, how the deep metaphor of purging our diets of chametz — leavening — also relates to locating and clearing out whatever puffs up our egos or clogs our ability to remain present and compassionate. The other wonderful metaphor of the holiday has to do with the exodus from Egypt itself. One meaning of Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is “narrow places” or “straits.” The most common analogy is the journey through the birth canal to life. But as deep metaphor, as spiritual preparation, the exodus is taken to symbolize any passage out of constraint or enslavement and into freedom.
As I clean and cook for the holiday, I am tuning into the places that pinch and asking myself what freedom looks like. As so often happens, something wonderful came along to help.
Daniel Burstyn is a subscriber to my blog who lives on an amazing progressive, environmentalist kibbutz, Kibbutz Lotan, in the Arava Valley in the southern Israeli desert.
Recently, on an elist we both belong to, Daniel shared a teaching from Yair Caspi about making the exodus personal, which is part of what tradition dictates: In every generation, we are told, we are obliged to take part in the story as if we ourselves had actually left Egypt. “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that God took me out of Egypt.'” (Exodus 13:8) The story that unfolds as part of the ritual meal, the seder, is therefore told in the first person: when we were in slavery.
This teaching offers five additional questions for the seder as a way to further personalize the story, celebrating our own release from whatever bondage we have experienced. “The joy of the holiday,” Yair Caspi wrote, “invites us to relate only tales of Mitzrayim that we have left behind us. Tell only tales that end with success, with great Chesed (loving-kindness, expansiveness), or miracles. Don?t remind anyone of the Pharoahs sitting at the Seder table. Hopefully, that will be the exodus story for next year.”
You don’t have to be Jewish or celebrate Passover to do this work, and you needn’t confine it to the seder table. I shared the questions with a group of friends, and all of us got an impressive amount of information about ourselves from answering them right then and there. The questions are Yair Caspi’s, but the comments (including any spins, twists or errors I might have made) are mine:
1. Where was your personal Mitzrayim?
Where were you held in constraints or enslaved and exploited? What trap held you for a time? My answer had to do with family and childhood: my Mitzrayim was being repeatedly called upon to help with family problems in ways that required me to sacrifice a child’s expectation of care, instead becoming a caretaker.
2. Who was Pharoah?
Who or what held power over you? Who was your oppressor? My answer was my mother, whose words still echo in my head: “Do it for me, honey. It will cost you so little and mean so much to me.”
3. For what tasks were you exploited?
The children of Israel were forced into hard labor, making bricks without straw. What labor was demanded from you? My answer was to give care and attention, again and again, to those who did not reciprocate or attend to me.
4. What was the “fleshpot,” the hearty meal, which almost kept you there?
Even slavery has its compensations, or at least enticements. Nowadays, we have a name for the feeling that persuades the prisoner to bond with his captors — the false sense that greater safety lies there — “the Stockholm Syndrome,” although I like the way Paulo Freire put it better: “internalization of the oppressor.” My answer was that I was attached to a certain idea of myself as a powerful helper, a problem-solver, and didn’t want to give that up.
5. What miracles happened in the course of your personal exodus?
In the Biblical exodus story, plagues and wonders impress the Egyptian captors, and the Sea of Reeds is parted to permit the children of Israel to escape on dry land. I think perhaps my resilience was a miracle, whatever force drove me to question, to seek dry land instead of remaining mired.
But truly, what comes to mind is the teaching about Nachson, prince of the tribe of Judah. After the children of Israel escaped, they came to the Sea of Reeds and stood there, terrified, not knowing what to do. Nachson reached into himself and stepped beyond his own fear and vulnerability, straight into the water. The teaching says he kept going until the water came to his nose, until he could go no further without drowning. It was precisely at that moment of greatest risk that the waters split, allowing the multitudes to cross on dry land.
My miracle is that when I escaped from my personal Mitzrayim, not knowing what awaited me, I stepped into a world much bigger, more exciting, more painful, more fulfilling, more demanding, and far more beautiful than I had ever dreamed.
May you be released this spring from whatever holds you in its grip!