I was a volunteer in a maximum security prison while I was in college. I met with the Jewish prisoners several times a semester. One of the most memorable experiences I had there was when I spent Passover in prison. We were in the gym for half a day. There was time for socializing and time for a Seder. I led the Seder.
Imagine being in a maximum security prison with a whole lot of men who will most likely never leave the confines of the prison walls…and being there on Passover, the festival of freedom. Listen carefully, and you will hear the clanging of the barred doors being slammed shut behind you. All around you are grey cells and metal bars and locks and sullen guards.
What could you possibly say to the inmates? How was I supposed to stand in front of all of them talking about the journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom and our celebration of that journey? How could I explain the words of the Haggadah: You shall tell your child it is because of what Adonai did for me when I, myself, went forth to freedom? Is that journey, from slavery to freedom, really a journey my prison congregation would understand, or even ever experience?
But in the Baskin Haggadah, the words to the Maggid, the telling of the Passover story, not only talk about our journey from slavery to freedom, but also about our journey from degradation to dignity. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzyrim, which comes from the root tzar. Tzar means narrow. So our journey from Egypt is a journey from a narrow, constricting place, a place that confines us and does not allow us to spread our wings and grow, a place that holds us back. We journey from Mitzrayim, from narrowness, to the wide open spaces of the desert, to freedom. To a place where we can blossom and fulfill the promise of the best that is within us. Our journey is from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the desert. Our journey, in the words of the Haggadah, is from degradation to dignity. And that journey is a journey that the men I encountered in the prison could make. Although they lived in a narrow constricting place, for them, the message of Passover was that they could find a place of dignity, even in the midst of the degradation of prison. Our focus that afternoon was on how each one of us could make the journey towards living a life of dignity, meaning, and value.
When we speak of moving from slavery to freedom during our Sederim, we are really focusing on two levels of meaning. Our ancestors left the slavery of Egypt and entered the wilderness of the Sinai. Despite their history of slavery, they learned how to survive in that desert, and they learned how to thrive. They matured and blossomed, and they journeyed to Sinai. We use their experience and their journey to illuminate our own. We too have been ‘enslaved’. We too, yearn for freedom.
Our own journey, from degradation to dignity, is one we all make multiple times throughout our lives. Perhaps we felt inadequate and learned to trust ourselves. Maybe we thought we were not up to a particular task but we persevered and succeeded. Perhaps we were held back by illness and journeyed to wholeness.
Or maybe a job kept us confined, unable to use our creativity and wisdom, but a new opportunity opened for us and allowed up to flourish. It might have been an abusive individual or a school bully. But we were able to move away from him/her and instead focus on the healthy, loving, happy relationships in our lives and rejoice in the goodness of those we love.
As we sit around our Seder tables and remember the journey our ancestors made from slavery to freedom, let’s take some time to celebrate the journeys of our own lives, the growth, learning, and blossoming. Let’s remember the struggle and look to the results, and recognize how important that journey has been, and how much we’ve gained. Let’s think about what held us back, and how we broke free, how we survived, and
most importantly, how we now are thriving!
May this Pesach be one of blessing for you and all those you love!