Slavery, freedom, and me

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In the Jewish imagination, spring cleaning takes on an additional intention: spring cleaning means Passover is coming. It means cleaning out all the bread, yeast, and oats (and spelt, barley, rye) and their byproducts from our kitchens, our cars, and anywhere else crumbs might be found. Passover also means hosting, or attending, a seder, (literally, order) the dinner where Jews tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. During the seder, the order we follow is written in a book called the haggadah, which takes us through the story of the exodus in a symbolic, non-linear way. The haggadah is a pedagogically interested text -- it is going to tell this central story of slavery to freedom by using foods, by telling us other, different sub-stories, and by asking questions.

In preparing for the seder we place a large plate at the center of the table. This plate displays the foods that will tell the tale: some parsley (to symbolize spring), a shank bone (symbolizing the Pascal sacrifice), an egg (again, spring, wholeness), matzah (a symbol of the quick exodus from Egypt--so quick, in fact, that our ancestors did not have time to let the bread rise), haroset, a mixture of apples, walnuts, and honey (symbolizing the mortar that the Jewish slaves used in Egypt), among others. Amidst all these symbols the rabbis tell us that there is one central and simple intention: each one of us should feel that we, ourselves, went out from Egypt.

This is personal. We are commanded to imagine, to embody through these foods, a memory that we were brought out of Egypt a very long time ago, or perhaps, just yesterday.

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During the seder we read an allegory about four children. One is simple, one is wise, one is naughty, and one does not know how to ask. Each of these children poses a question about the Passover story (albeit the question of the last child is silent -- she or he does not know how to even ask).

The wise child asks: What are the laws that the Lord our God has commanded us?

The naughty child asks: What does this service mean to you?

The wise and the naughty child ask essentially the same question, with one big difference: The naughty child says, "you," while the wise child says, "us."

The children, are, of course, metaphors for each one of us, for different ways that we act. The message in the allegory is that we would be wise to use the first person pronouns more often than the second person pronouns. Another way to say this is: Whenever we point our fingers outward, we might want to consider pointing them at ourselves first.

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My mother-in-law raised my husband Joshua and his brother Paul with this awareness from the time they were little boys. If one of them came home and said, "Little Jimmy made me angry," she would suggest that they say, "I feel angry in Little Jimmy's presence." This is a simple but crucial step: she was teaching them how to own their feelings, how to point the finger in, before pointing it out.

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It is one of the most natural tendencies to wince, or want to step back, when we are in the presence of any painful scene. This is also true of our own feelings. When we feel angry, fearful, or resentful, our first response is to turn away from those feelings in ourselves. We want to put up a wall between us and what we don't want to feel. We might act out of our anger or fear, but we never stop to really experience those feelings.

Teachers who have trod the path of the spiritual life suggest that we do otherwise. Tonglen practice, a Tibetan Buddhist practice of meditation, suggests that with the in-breath, we breathe in what is painful, whether it be anger, shame, or envy. On the out-breath, we breathe out relief from the pain, whether it be friendliness, love, or simple relief. We can do this toward ourselves or toward others.

This is very different from the normative impulse of breathing in what is good and breathing out what is bad, the "in with the good, out with the bad" that any normal person would want to do. This is a practice where we turn to face the suffering--our own or others'.

This practice isn't about making oneself a magnet for suffering, or in any way calling suffering upon ourselves. Of course we want well-being for ourselves and others, and we don't wish suffering on anyone, including ourselves. Rather, this is more about turning to what is already present, to the pain that we already feel. By encouraging ourselves to turn toward the suffering, we trust that we have the strength to face it. And, slowly or quickly, what dissolves is our resistance to the suffering.

In the presence of our human condition, in the presence of other people's suffering and other people's joys, we are encouraged to look inside to the places within us that can relate to where they are. That is how we can deeply connect--we bring the experience of each person we meet close to us. We breathe in our own anger, resentment, or pain that might be triggered by their stories, just as we bring in the joy that might be evoked.

The wise child is saying, "Tell me about what happened to me, to us." She is saying, "Yes, I am willing to open my heart up to the possibility that I have felt this, so that I may understand this experience."

And that is what I believe the seder is trying to teach us by saying, "You must feel that you went out from Egypt." In this season of Passover, may we all be in touch with our own experiences of going from slavery to freedom, whatever that may look like.

Vanessa Boettiger is a local rabbi and spiritual director.


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