Now that the holiday of Passover is over, and I have eaten foods that were forbidden for the eight days of the holidays, thus satisfying my leavening-deprived body (if a body can actually suffer leavening deprivation), I am in a much better position to reflect on why, once again, I chose to endure this torture.
The author Jonathan Safran Foer (2012) has recently written a new translation of the Haggadah, the book that details the story of Passover as well as the rituals and prayers for the Seder, the ceremonial meal on the first two nights of the holiday during which the Passover story is retold. In an article explaining why he chose to translate a work that has already been translated about 7,000 times already, he said, “Though it means ‘the telling,’ the Haggadah does not merely tell a story: it is our book of living memory. It is not enough to retell the story: we must make the most radical leap of empathy into it.” (Foer, 2012)
For this leap, Foer reminds us of a passage from the Haggadah: “In every generation, each person is obligated to view himself as if he had come out of Egypt.”
“As if he (or she) had come out of Egypt.”
Obviously, not every Jewish person is going to get on a plane and fly to the Middle East each spring to observe this literally, nor would each person voluntarily choose to somehow enslave himself or herself—to employers or teachers, for instance—even for just eight days.
So what is this supposed to mean?
Well, the less reflective stance simply says we eat unleavened bread—matzah—and abstain from foods containing yeast or other leavening agents, which for Jews of Eastern European extraction also includes most other grains and legumes, since they increase in size in water. We clean our houses from top to bottom, getting rid of all bread products, down to the last crumb. If we have boxes stored in the cupboard, we sell it to a non-Jewish neighbor right before the holiday, usually for a minimal amount, and then buy it back, usually for the same price, after the holiday. We use different dishes and cutlery, and cover shelves in the refrigerator with foil or paper. Anything we can do to make this time separate and different. And we discuss those differences at the Seder: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
But in the 21st century, like most other religious rituals, Passover observance clearly differs from Jewish home to Jewish home, and may bear little resemblance to the actual requirements of Jewish law. I recently overheard a woman on the street tell her friends about how she had arbitrarily decided only to keep about four days of Passover, rather than the full eight. Some people keep it at home, but have non-Passover food out of the house. Some may have Seders but serve non-Kosher food. Some may not go to Seders but follow the dietary restrictions religiously. Even enslave themselves to those restrictions.
But does this really capture the feeling of being slaves in Egypt thousands of years ago? Does this create a real feeling of empathy with or compassion for our ancestors?
I think not. For all the years that I have suffered through the dietary restrictions—more difficult for me as a vegetarian since I rely on beans and grains in my diet, and most Passover observers use this time to indulge in meat, chicken, and fish—I never felt like I was a slave in Egypt. I simply felt like I was following an obligatory ritual possibly designed to torture me personally.
But then one year, I came upon one teacher who asked a question I had not heard: What is YOUR PERSONAL Egypt?
The question stunned me. My personal Egypt? As in, how did I enslave myself?
In existentialism, we talk all the time about freedom and choice, but how often do we remember how we are slaves? To our fears, our hopes, our emotions, our habits, our thoughts and beliefs?
So on Passover, the more reflective path is to take a leap of faith into our own personal enslavement. In his article, Foer (2012) said that part of his journey into rewriting the Haggadah was “to take a step toward the conversation I could only barely hear through the closed door of my ignorance; a step toward a Judaism of question marks rather than quotation marks; toward the story of my people, my family and myself” (Foer, 2012). He said that he only recently discovered in himself the longing to really understand his own beliefs rather than “know” them only through the humorous stereotypes of current pop culture, like “Seinfeld.”
One does not have to be Jewish, or religious, or even believe in a higher power to ask him- or herself about his or her own personal Egypt? One only has to be willing to admit that he or she doesn’t have ALL the answers.
It is a brave step to truly and humbly admit our own ignorance, and then choose to remedy that. But as all of those who have transcended their own personal enslavements know, once one tastes freedom, there is no going back, no matter how difficult the road ahead may be.
One thing I know for sure. I had been a slave to a religious ritual. Now I know I am making a choice, even if I have to make that choice a dozen times a day during each day of the holiday, each time I am tempted to stray by another person’s delicious-looking cookie or the laziness of not bringing my own homemade lunch. And I remember that I have the freedom to make the choice. A freedom my ancestors did not have. By choosing to remember my ancestors’ enslavement, I remember my freedom.
Foer, J. S. (2012, April 1). Why a Haggadah? The New York Times [online edition]. Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/opinion/sunday/why-a-haggadah.html?scp….
— Sarah Kass