Posted in Miscellany

*Passover Journey

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover with us. Now we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free.

If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought forth our ancestors from Egypt, then we and our children, and our children’s children, would still be enslaved to Pharoah in Egypt. Therefore, even if we are all learned and wise, all elders and fully versed in the Torah, it is our duty nonetheless to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

In every generation one must see oneself as though having personally come forth from Egypt, as it is written: “And you shall tell your child on that day. ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.'”

(All quotes are from the Passover Haggadah, New Revised edition by Rabbi Nathan Goldberg, Ktav Publishing House Inc, Hoboken, NJ)

The word “Haggadah” means the telling, referring to the story of the exodus. It was finalized in the middle ages, containing material that dates back to the oral tradition. The context is one in which Israel was seen as a lost home that would be restored by the Messiah to a displaced, despised, oppressed people who never knew when tolerance would give way to expulsion or murder. Israel meant the Messianic days, the era of peace and miracles.

The Messiah hasn’t come. The world is still a place where many people experience oppression, nationally and individually. So where do I sit with this?

As a child, I heard family members say that they had experienced slavery in the concentration camps and the freedom of liberation. I heard that with gratitude for my own relative freedom as a Jewish girl in Canada, and thrilled at the way the exodus had had so much personal meaning for African-American slaves, for my relatives under the Nazis who found freedom.

And yet it is not the whole truth. Only about 10% of the people in concentration camps survived. That’s not much of an exodus. How many slaves escaped? And despite the election of Obama, racism is still alive and well in the U.S., where prisons are overflowing with African-Americans, and in Canada our prisons are disproportionately filled with First Nations.

But there is a deeper, darker underbelly to my ambivalence.

My own childhood experience was not one of freedom. It was one of desperation as the story-tellers visited their own version of the plagues upon the next generation, behind closed doors, without announcements, proclamations of war, or newspaper headlines.

The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, the generation of slaves dying out, their children growing up without the direct memory of hunger, hard labour, or the whips of slave masters. Instead they heard the story of God’s outstretched arm, of the pillar of fire at night and the cloud by day leading their parents and aunties and grandpas to freedom. Well, to wandering in the desert anyway, until they all died out and their children marched on ahead.

So I try to keep my bad memories as hidden as I can, creating good memories for my children. They see through the guise. They know it isn’t easy for me. But they don’t know the details, and it isn’t their reality anyway. However much I long for complete freedom, perhaps it can never be. Mine is the desert, the startling flowers on cactus, the long walks through heavy sand, a rest at the watering hole, the shade of palm trees, the walk again. I left, but I cannot arrive.

Like Moses, at the last hour I will stand on the top of the mountain to see the land that is my children’s birthright, the place of peace and miracles, and with God’s kiss, I will lay down my bones, and they will go on.

But wait. There’s more to the story. Moses was 120 years old when he died. “His eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” He died “by the mouth of God.” He knew God’s kiss. “And no one knows his burial place to this day.” (Deut 34)

As a privileged prince, he killed a slave master, discovered his origin, fled into the desert, became a shepherd, poor and isolated, reluctantly took up leadership, parted seas, struck rock, became a raging punishing bull when he discovered the golden calf, took on too much, sang to the people, and finally, alone, at the top of a mountain, saw what?

Did he see all the peoples that would be conquered and killed according to Kings and Chronicles? Did he see the current situation, the devastation of mothers mourning children, of children filled with fear and hate and hopelessness?

Or did he see the brightness that only those who have known evil can see, did he feel the peace that only those who have known unbearable turmoil can feel? Yes I think so. I think that after the desert, after pride, humility, rage and mourning, he saw the possibility of peace that the story of the Messiah promises.

Perhaps I will never go where my children will go, and they will never go where I can go. I would not choose it for them. I would not choose it for myself. It is a gift that I do not accept with eagerness, and yet it is a gift.

Those of us who have known slavery do not have to die out in the wilderness. We can live on the mountain. We can receive God’s kiss. And when we are finished with this life, our spirit will go with our children and our grandchildren because there is no barrier to love.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

6 thoughts on “*Passover Journey

  1. We all walk through deserts, I think, some of us longer and more arid than others. It’s a real gift to be able to find those mountaintop experiences, to have moments when we feel the presence of God.

    I have a hard time with Lent – the focus on pain and suffering bothers me, I admit, and I find myself pulling away from church during this time. I guess I don’t want to be reminded of life’s hardships and cruelty, even though I know they abound in every nation still today. I’d rather dwell on the miracle of being brought through the wilderness and into the light.

    Very thoughtful post, Lilian.

    1. Becca, your reply is thoughtful and thank you. I think Lent is there for people who need the opportunity to face and deal with the hardships of their life. The miracle can’t otherwise be full appreciated or experienced, but not everyone needs the religious expression of the desert. For some, knowing hardship is enough. For others, there is a need for more–to have it expressed for them, to connect with the divine from the inside of suffering.

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