In every generation, the Haggadah tells us, each of us should regard ourselves as though we had personally been freed from Egypt.
It's part of the timeless wisdom of Passover. A crucial event that brought our people out of bondage thousands of years ago is re-enacted each spring. We get to taste, year after year, the sweetness of liberation.
But liberation into what? Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes in her book, My Grandfather's Blessings: "The choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown."
How true for the Jews who fled Pharaoh! They hurried to escape slavery and then wandered, lost and full of complaints, in the vast desert. Who would feed them meat? Where were the melons and cucumbers they used to enjoy? Why did Moses abandon them for so long? Maybe life hadn't been so bad back then compared to this endless wandering — and such a monotonous diet of manna.
Since then, we Israelites have been uprooted from many lands. It doesn't stop us from continuing to celebrate the story of that first struggle for emancipation and the pursuit of a homeland.
On another level, here is our chance to contemplate liberation from our own internal oppressors. Remen further notes: "Few of us are truly free. Money, fame, power, sexuality, admiration, youth; whatever we are attached to will enslave us, and often, we serve these masters unaware."
Which masters do we serve now? Bernie Madoff was clearly enslaved by greed. Those who endure one plastic surgery after another to ward off the natural ageing process are addicted to some version of perpetual youth. Parents who have trouble letting their adult offspring make their own decisions (and mistakes) are held hostage by a need for control.
But when does a need cross the line into enslavement? We all understandably have needs for abundance, a youthful spirit and a modicum of control. When these spiral into embarrassing behavior or end up hindering those we should be helping, then we're still in our own Egypt.
Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, can translate as "narrow straits." Beginning at birth, we pass through some pretty narrow straits before emerging from the womb. We leave a comfortable, well-fed existence to enter a rough-and-tumble world. But we're free to shape our own destiny. We choose the unknown, and we make it our own.
So in mid-life, what's still enslaving us? What material or emotional hooks could we leave behind?
Perfection is perhaps the first to go. No one's life has gone as smoothly as they'd envisioned it when young. Anger at our parents — both for what they did and didn't do — tends to soften. Reaching a mature age ourselves, we see how fragile, conflicted and complicated is the web of human interconnectedness.
When Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his soldiers after the fleeing slaves, you can imagine their terror. Miraculously, the waves parted. The Jews crossed the Red Sea, and the soldiers, following, drowned. No matter how much the Jews later whined about their fate, it seemed part of God's plan that they would get out of Mitzrayim.
We'll probably not encounter such sea-parting episodes. But if we pay attention to our own small liberations and stay conscious of those obsessions that would pull us in, then the Haggadah speaks to us even more broadly with its message of freedom. A zisen/"sweet" Pesach to all!
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail: [email protected]