By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: First day of Passover
Ah, here we are again. It’s Pesach–our z’man cheruteinu, the season of our freedom. And without fail, the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel continues to echo in my heart and mind: “We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by. The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”
Indeed, yetziat Mitzrayim, our liberation from Egypt, is never too far away from our collective memory nor our shared reality. Tradition summons us to sing the songs of freedom in every generation, not only as free souls but as if we are still slaves in the land of Egypt–still carrying the heavy bricks and mortar of bondage and crying our bitter tears. Our seder experiences transform the Exodus from a historical narrative to a familial and communal expression of “hineinu:” We are present, aware and intentional about today, tomorrow and the journey ahead–perhaps giving expression to the enduring teaching of Professor Michael Walzer and his book Exodus & Revolution (which is also found in Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur): :
“Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt–that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”
Judaism calls us to respond to this eternal yearning for freedom not only via our hands clasping together in sacred community and mutual responsibility for one another (not to mention the world around us); but also by virtue of Torah and its wide array of mitzvot: to study, to pray, to love G-d and people, to keep Shabbat and the other holidays, to consecrate the cycle of life, to practice rituals, to act with grace and kindness, to pursue peace and justice, and to free the captive--pidyon sh’vu’yim, an obligation that takes on added importance this time of year.
After all, pidyon sh’vu’yim obligates us to free a fellow Jew captured by slave traders or falsely imprisoned by authorities. In fact, a prisoner goes free thanks to a ransom paid by the Jewish community. But beyond the legalities of the mitzvah, the reason pidyon sh’vu’yim takes on such spiritual significance during Passover season is that we have the time to reflect on what it means to be truly free–to leave Egypt, to embrace Torah, to gain footing in the Promised Land, to live a life that matters…to be a force for good. And if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is right about injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere, than slavery anywhere is a threat not only to justice everywhere, but freedom, too. We are not really free until all are free.
Whatever freedoms we may enjoy, there are those among us or around the world who do not: those living in abject poverty and struggling with enduring hunger; victims of sex trafficking; family members trapped by domestic violence; migrant workers working for inadequate wages; targets of hatred, and political prisoners jailed in pursuit of the plurality of thought and speech.
And there are personal Mitzrayim everywhere, narrow places that confine us and those we love, narrow spaces that keep us stuck in a languishing state of being, tight, unrelenting spots that make it seemingly impossible for us to flourish. During this z’man cheruteinu, we must forget those among us struggling with addiction of all sorts. Or those among us trapped in chronic illness. Or those among us struggling to launch our lives toward some meaningful trajectory. Or those among us who are so lost and lonely and neglected we can barely breathe. Or those among us so beset with grief, we can’t find hope or can’t remember how to make life meaningful.
Pesach calls us to free ourselves, those we love, even those we don’t know. Pesach calls us to step into the Mitzrayim, unafraid or not, to get “unstuck,” to wiggle out of the confines that rob our freedom, to pay the price necessary to liberate our souls from the chains that bind them and our world. What a huge job this work seems to be. How can we get it all done? How can we effect this tikkun olam, this healing of the world. Well, the good and practical news, according to Pirke Avot, is that we don’t have to finish the job: Lo alekha ham’la’kha ligmor. That said, we still have to do our part. But how?
I came across some illuminating wisdom from the Lubavitcher tradition. The question at hand is why we perform urchatz, the washing of hands, twice at the seder. As we sit at the seder table and celebrate our freedom, according the commentary, we remember that we are still in a state of exile. So at the conclusion of the seder, we confirm this reality by exclaiming l’shanah ha’ba birushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem. For me, this exile is more of a spiritual condition than a geographic status. But from this very traditional perspective, there is the hope that all of us outside of Israel will return, the Temple will be rebuilt, and G-d will redeem our people. So while we’re working on this return, we ought to be sure to wash our hands extra carefully and be as pure as possible and ready at a moment’s notice for our redemption.
What I find most compelling in this teaching is the power of Passover ritual to prepare our hearts for spiritual transition and personal healing. And I think the intentionality that flows from this process of tikkun, of soulful repair, can help us achieve the greater freedom we seek. But how?
Let’s go back to last Shabbat to Shabbat Ha-gadol, during which we continued our pre-Pesach preparation with some insightful commentaries on the parashat ha-shavua, Metzora. I am speaking of the work done my professor, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and his collaborator Aaron Z. entitled Renewed Each Day, which focuses on the Torah of 12-Step Recovery, Commenting on Lev. 13:6, “He shall wash his clothes and he shall be clean,” our teachers offer this: “It is possible to transcend our past, to unpack the baggage that weighs us down. It is possible to let go, and be done with it. When we are clean, nothing can make us dirty.”
Remember, the Exodus remains close to our consciousness–and so does Egypt and its legacy of spiritual confinement whatever varied forms. That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to be locked in our past nor must we allow whatever still afflicts us to weigh us down. So like washing our hands during urchatz or our clothes of tzara’at (a transmittable skin plague), we can clean ourselves; our burdens; we can clean them out. We can lighten our load. We can surrender to the Source of Life–the M’kor Chaim, our Source of healing and set ourselves right. When we are clean, nothing can make us dirty. And while this spiritual cleansing may seem a painful task or a scary undertaking or an impossible outcome, our tradition encourages us to try anyway. According to the Talmud, if we sanctify ourselves even a little, we are sanctified (BT Yoma 39a) In other words, if want to quit drugs or alcohol or food or gambling; if we want to flourish instead of languish; if we want hope instead of despair; if we want to find connection and jettison loneliness; if we want to repair ourselves or the world around us, if we want to be clean and free; or we wish to help liberate others, we simply have to take the first step. “Just get started.” Rabbi Olitzky and Aaron Z. declare. “G-d picks up the slack. Process makes perfect–at least as close as we’ll get.” Or if you prefer, practice makes progress–one step at a time. And even if the journey should take us into the wilderness–into life’s uncertainty–there may not be a better place to let go and grow, to discover our authenticity and find our wholeness–perhaps the greatest acts of freedom we can achieve.Can we say hineinu? Can we be present in our ongoing Exodus? Kain yehi ratzon! May it be G-d’s will.
On behalf of my family and my congregation, I wish you all a zissen Pesach. May we put our freedom to work for goodness and blessing. Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation.