Three millennia ago, the Jews stood at the Jordan River’s banks, about to return to the Promised Land. They must have been as scared and excited as we were the night before leaving for college. They were shepherds, nomads, many hardly older than we. Their leader, Moses, had died only a month before. Unsure of the path ahead, yet with no path back to the desert, the Jews did the same thing that tonight, Jews will do worldwide:
They celebrated Passover.
Through the age-old storytelling format of the Seder, Passover’s festive meal, parents pass down the Exodus story to their children. Egypt enslaved the Jewish people, working and beating them fiercely. God promised freedom. The stuttering Moses and his brother Aaron stood up to Pharaoh, one of the world’s mightiest kings. For the first time in history, they demanded liberty for the long-oppressed, in the name of God — the intangible, true force of morality.
Tanach, the Jewish Bible, also gives us the story at the Jordan, the first Passover by those born after the Exodus. More than a powerful heirloom from the past, Passover becomes a lens through which to see the present. The Jews were finally returning to the Promised Land, yet in a spiritual sense they were leaving Egypt anew. God proclaims: “Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from upon you.” Why wait 40 years after the Exodus for this declaration? God suggests that the Exodus was not over, that it is never over, that we are always freeing ourselves of the “disgrace of Egypt”: the fears of our pasts; our defunct worries and mental shackles; the bitterness that oppression can implant in one’s soul, giving the oppressor his greatest victory.
Our continuous Exodus spurs us forward, showing us how free we can be. It also lets us celebrate how free we have become. As the Passover at the Jordan concludes, the manna — food that rained in the desert, symbolizing God’s aid, but also dependence on it — ceases to fall. “Israel … ate from the grain of the land, the day after the Passover,” Tanach explains.
So it is for us. The mitzvah of Passover makes the ancestral personal, asking that one tell one’s child: “Thus did God for me in my Exodus from Egypt.” The rabbis interpret, “In every generation, one must look upon himself as if he personally has come out of Egypt.”
The Hebrew word for Egypt, “mitzrayim,” means “narrow place.” Each of us, at some point, has felt trapped in a narrow place. Maybe that means a high school where one felt constricted in seeking friends and in figuring out what kind of person to be. Maybe that means feeling out of place in one’s hometown, or unchallenged in class — or over-challenged in class, stumbling under the weight of APs, shrinking ourselves down to fit the “narrow place” of a resume to send to colleges.
By God’s grace, or maybe just well-crossed fingers, we have ended up together at Yale, a “wider place.”
“Mitzrayim” can be not only narrow conditions, but also a narrow way of seeing the world, one from which we must free ourselves, one that limits us from reaching out to people and living a spiritually full life. And, tragically, “mitzrayim” can be astonishingly literal. Hank Stanton, a Holocaust survivor born in Vienna, writes in his essay “A Passover Miracle” of how a Nazi raid on his 15th birthday forced his family to “cower” in “the farthest corner in the farthest room.” There, they listened to the “high, keening screams” of people “in horrible pain or abject terror.” Grabbing Jews from their homes, separating families and “throw[ing] their captives into the back of the trucks,” the soldiers skip Stanton’s home.
“We have been passed over!” Stanton writes, finding his story within the story that gives Passover its name: In God’s final plague, before Pharaoh finally releases the Jews, every firstborn Egyptian dies, but the Jewish slaves are passed over.
“To this day,” Stanton writes, “I cannot say why we were saved” — or why six million Jews never were delivered from their narrow place.
The Seder allows us to clutch and cherish our freedom, as would the people we used to be. We sit reclining on pillows, a symbol of luxury. But we self-consciously discuss why we do, rendering freedom fresh; we are not quite used to it yet. We dip our appetizer, as only elites did in classical times. The appetizer — a green, like celery — symbolizes growth. But we dip it in salt water, symbolizing our enslaved ancestors’ tears. We drink four cups of wine, a symbol of joy, but the Seder’s final taste is matzah, the dry, unleavened bread the Jews ate while escaping Egypt, having no time for fancier baking — the bread by which Jews have remembered the Exodus ever since.
We need that yearly taste, lest we grow too comfortable. If we take our physical and spiritual liberty for granted, we risk forgetting how many people are deprived of it. Passover challenges us to remember and fight for them, seeing that we could just as easily be among them. Tanach continually commands: “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
From poverty in neighborhoods not far from Yale’s, to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, to violence in the Promised Land itself, countless people of all backgrounds still feel like strangers, suffering in “narrow places.” The annual miracle of Passover is that our ancestors’ slavery becomes ours, the slavery of people worldwide becomes ours, and the Exodus is not completed until all reach the “wide place” of gratitude.
Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.