Tonight I will sit down with family and friends to participate in the tradition of the Passover Seder. For the most part, the ritual is the same every year: retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt so future generations will remember it and keep retelling it. But why bother?
The Jewish people have a long history of being chased from place to place, being persecuted, triumphing and then continuing to recount the story. As a child I remember well the annual seder, our house full of relatives, my mom scurrying around the kitchen and my dad trying somewhat unsuccessfully to keep everyone focused long enough to at least make it through the first half of the story before someone yelled, “When do we eat?” And, all my life, I’ve heard the refrain, “Never Forget,” referring to the Holocaust when six million Jews and five million others were slaughtered by the Nazis. This collective remembering might seem antithetical to the urge to forget tragedy and unpleasantness in one’s history. But we Jews hang onto everything and not only that, we tell our children and charge them to carry on the obligation to keep the story alive.
The obvious answer might seem to be that we remember our difficult and often treacherous past so that it can never be repeated. And the argument could be made that remembering gives us some control over the future. But one has only to read the daily news to realize that history does, indeed, repeat itself. Mass shootings keep happening, corrupt dictators continue to oppress, people who are different continue to be marginalized and the list goes on. So it appears remembering and retelling doesn’t actually prevent evil from returning.
I have another thought. The Hebrew word for Egypt is, “Mitzrayim,” or in English, “a narrow place.” The Bible tells us that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, oppressed by the evil Pharoah. The young Israelite, Moses, after being set adrift in the Nile by his sister Miriam, saved by Pharoah’s daughter and raised in the palace, grows up to be the great prophet who leads his people out of slavery, across the Red Sea, into the desert where they wander for 40 years. Believe it or not, as you will, but the point I see is that Moses led his people from the narrow place, their lives in Egypt, into freedom, the desert which eventually takes them into the Promised Land of Canaan. How frightened they all must have been. What a choice! Leave the only life they knew, even if it meant oppression, and follow the leader into the great unknown. And after many, many years, what a reward! The land flowing with milk and honey lay before them.
So what’s my theory? This concept of redemption, of emerging from the narrow place, is something we all experience. I have been afraid, faced my fears and emerged free. I have also experienced narrowness of thought and been enlightened to new ways of thinking, been freed from my own prejudice. And I have felt enslaved by situations and figured out ways to throw off the shackles of a bad job, a toxic friend or a bad decision. So in fact, the reason for the recounting of past difficulties may not be just for the sake of memory. I think it’s a reminder to recognize when we are in a narrow place, and to have the courage to move into our own Promised Land. My favorite quote is by the Hasidic Rabbie Nachman of Breslov, “All the world is a narrow bridge, the important thing is not to be afraid.”