The Haggadah instructs us to approach Passover as if we ourselves are making the journey out of Egypt. We wonder, how can those of us who have never known slavery possibly see ourselves in this account of our ancestor’s?
The story of the Exodus from Egypt exists on many levels at once. On one level, the haggadah is a recounting of the struggle of a people against the oppression of Egypt, and their struggle for freedom which results in the birth of a nation. On another level, the haggadah contains a story that exists within each of us, of our journey to find freedom from what constricts us in our process of becoming. We find ourselves in the story by entering through our own experience of birth and rebirth; through our own struggle to break off the chains of what once was to allow for the possibility of what can be.
This reading of the hagaddah invites us to see each part of the story as a part of ourselves: we are both the Israelites and the Egyptians, both Pharaoh and Moses.
It starts with a groan. An unconscious utterance of suffering that the image, the work, the ideas we are laboring in have grown heavy upon us. Suddenly, we find that the carefully crafted narrative of who we are and what our life is about has come to constrict us. We have less material to work with and less energy with which to work. The straw has been taken away, the bricks are harder to make and we require ever more bricks in order to support the edifice we’ve constructed around ourselves.
Realizing this we yearn towards freedom. Yet we are both Moses and Pharaoh. We seek escape from this narrowness, yet have come to rely on the security, surety, and sense of safety it provides. In the birth of new life, a new idea, a new paradigm, a new version of self, there is a constant back and forth within us as the waves of intensity shake us to our core. Moses demands that Pharaoh send forth the Israelites. Pharaoh agrees, then reverses, agrees then reverses. Through the 10 plagues we experience the escalating constriction and release of the womb, readying us for the birthing process.
The force urging new life into the world is strong, yet the struggle and pain of the birthing process is real. Whether it is the birth of a child, the birth of self, or the birth of a nation, the pangs of labor make us scream the question: What have I done?! Ma zot asinu? The Egyptians regret: what have we done, allowing the Israelites to go? The Israelites ask the same question for themselves: Ma zot asitalnu?! What have we done leaving Egypt behind? The oppressiveness of the past vanishes in face of the fear of the unknown future.
The intensity becomes too much to withstand. We arrive at that place where there is no longer any choice other than complete and utter surrender to our foes or to our future. Sagar alehem ha midbar, the text reads. The desert had closed in around us. With the desert behind us and the sea in front of us we must abandon all expectations of what is possible in order to take that first step into the water’s depths.
We release our expectations of the world and our expectations of ourselves. We let go of all we think we know and all we think we are. In this surrender there is a death that happens. An identity, a former self, is drowned. The gold, the wealth, the accomplishments, relics of a known and mastered life sink like stones to the bottom of the sea. The waters are our mikvah, stripping us down to the bare beauty of our essence.
We emerge on the other side, salty with seawater and tears, ravaged and renewed. And every part of us calls out to God as we sing in praise.
The ultimate purpose of this epic journey? Shalach ami v’ya’avduni. God instructs, “Send forth My people so they may serve Me.” The journey out of Egypt is a journey into relationship to the Divine. Our God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – that which is ever transforming. Passover invites us into the sacred process of undoing the constrictions we have sewn ourselves into–the roles we play, the images of self we have constructed, the expectations of self we have set—so that we, too, can enter the process of transformation. We are called up now to serve this God not through sacrifice, or prayer, or praise, but through living into the fullest manifestation of ourselves as b’tzelem Elohim – beings made in the image of God. We serve God by releasing the limitations we have placed on who we are and what we can be, opening ourselves to the limitless possibilities awaiting us in the unknown.