Passover and the Meaning of Exodus: Making it Personal
After years and years of creating what our family and friends had come to refer to as an “alternative Seder” I’ve realized I just don’t have it in me anymore. Or perhaps it would be more fitting to say the format doesn’t fit — again for me that would be. The presence of very young grandchildren in our lives may just have tilted my world just enough for me to realize some other reasons that it’s time for a change.
For over 40 years we did our version of an alternative Seder, with the story, the foods, the jokes that were part and parcel for us. Our Seder, born out of combinations of nostalgia, affection, love of a beautiful table (thanks to my Aunt Rose) and mixed feelings about celebrations with our families of origin, started with my friend Rosanne and me. And then Lino and then our kids, and it got up to 50 people some of the time. There was wonderful food, and there were jokes and Yiddish, and people of different backgrounds.
The story was adapted by moi, from The Book of Adam to Moses (Lore Segal, Random House, 1987) and was passed around the table for people to share in the reading. The story sounded like and was read like a fairy tale, told like an enchanting legend. Before this actual reading, we would include themes of sorrows of the past and present, inner travels as well external troubles. The themes became more sensitive to the audience, so to speak, in that as our kids were of age to be with us at the table, we geared things more to what they could grasp and even care about. We didn’t celebrate the beauty of freedom exactly, as something we actually had — as opposed and contrasted with the cruelties of slavery. Rather we explicitly emphasized that at best we were becoming free, personally and as groups of people. And for many years this was good — really very good.
And then, just recently, I woke up in serious conflict with the format we had used. Let’s say I woke up in conflict with the telling of the story, even though it had been rendered so mild, shall we say, in its translation from the adolescent version to the lyrical one we had read together. Yes, so much had changed, Colorado rather than Long Island, separations from old friends and family, and at the same time it was more than that. It felt like the old reading about the suffering Jews and the enslaving Egyptians, was off base. I perhaps was also beginning to think about gearing the story for a three- year-old and her parents. It would be a small table in any case this year so she would be listening, perhaps even avidly. In truth in a few years — even in one year or two — this may seem to make sense all over again, also because the holiday meanings and history, and the history of how our family had done this, seems important to transmit.
At the same time, however, in our political context, where anti-racism of every type, seems crucial for us to integrate, the stories that make one people good and one people bad, feel passe. If only because in addition, there is not a factual simplistic version of this story as righteous in only one direction. In essence, God is portrayed more like a Bob Fosse character choreographing the plagues and hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, Himself, as much to show His power as anything else. This is actually the story of the God of the Jews inflicting great cruelty on the Egyptian people — a polarizing story if ever there was one. Not to rewrite the history of the celebration of Passover through the ages, but our job is also to learn from history, not to repeat it word for word at any cost.
I do know some people who are content and even regenerated by performing religiously, all the rituals of the Seder, the way it was supposed to be done. And there are people who are devoted to their Judaism while being faithful to their belonging to the larger human race and the larger planet. And of course, there are many others who have left religion precisely because of the exclusivity they found untenable.
I am supposing that there are also many Jews like me who have yearned for tradition and belonging at the same time as feeling that conforming and belonging in traditional ways just don’t work. And at the same time one remaining option is to confront what Exodus means to us, and to make the Passover celebration something we feel wholehearted about. To make the Passover celebration something we wish to mark with our authentic selves, and something we would wish to share even with our youngest relatives or friends.
I am not yet sure: am I shifting in my Passover journey because of a three-year-old in our midst? Or is it that increasingly the discomfort with the “them” versus “us” — a growing discomfort for me over many years — with what feels like exclusivity and demonizing? Or is it both, which at this point in time would have to be okay.
Don’t get me wrong: I love being Jewish. I love the humor and the music and I love the food. I want to honor the history, both of tremendous brilliance and resilience, and also of the torments over the years that call for bearing witness.
Jews have felt excluded for eons. As a Jew I don’t want to forget about the implications of people congregating according to specific belief systems alone and thereby excluding anyone else. Or the fact that along with white and “American” supremacy raging and politics, there remains the toxicity of anti-Semitism in the mix. Exclusivity in general has often led to suspicions (and vice versa) if not outright rejection of those who did not fit the chosen profile.
So, what is Exodus then? In a world that has become so much larger and at the same time smaller in terms of information and interdependence. What is exodus from? I would hope that we might include here an exodus from an easy sense of superiority and an exodus from the often-hidden conviction that we are then entitled to eject and to scapegoat those we consider “others”.
After all exodus could also start by our attempting to accept the various contradictory feelings that reside inside each one of us: this might be the start of the deepest Exodus of all.