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Day 89: Spring Rituals

“The commandment of Passover is only to the Jewish People but the story and the idea of freedom that the holiday embodies is for all people all the time. What separates the human from the animal is our free will, directing our own lives; when freedom is threatened we turn into animals.”

Today is one of the most holy days in the Jewish religious calendar. Passover, the night that is unlike any other night, is a celebratory re-telling of Jewish history. The heart of the story is an exodus, of breaking free from what binds us, and in the case of the ancient Jews, of escaping slavery. As a child I was always struck by the suffering that we celebrated. Although plagues were endured, Jews were left to wander in the desert for 40 years before finding the Promised Land.

As a descendent of a Russian Orthodox family, I have surprisingly little religious training. In fact it is only in the last few years that I started to revisit where I connect to my Judaism. As a child I searched for the spiritual meaning and the connection to God. Making Sedars for my own children, I have wanted the holiday to be full of the meaning rather than the tradition. In our retelling, instead of focusing on the hardships of our ancestors, we talk about what has bound us and how we are seeking freedom from our own limitations.

The other part of the Passover story that is often missed is how hard it is to move toward change in our own lives. Looking at how we resist change, even change that will lead us out of pain and unhappiness. This is why the Jews had to wander in the desert for a generation, because finding change internally is much deeper work than making a change in our outer lives. Our ancestors were no different from us; they had to see in a new way to find the Promised Land. This is the truth about finding freedom; it starts inside of us and travels to our outer landscape, not the reverse.

My favorite part of the Sedar as a girl and still now is at the end of the service when we open the door to let Elijah, the prophet come in and sip from the cup we leave in the center of the table. Opening the door to Elijah is a way of embracing a world that can change and welcoming a future that holds the unknown. Believing, even for a moment that a prophet will come and bless your cup is a way of embracing the possibility of redemption.

think the great lesson is that change is possible, that how things are now is not how they have to or will always be. I don’t know if you want to get political in your column, but I think Barack Obama was so effective in his campaign, because, like Moses, he awakened hope. I think that’s what the seder night is about. It’s about the idea that things can change, and each small step we take contributes to the slow working of redemption in the world.

There is a tension between the part of us that wants to just stay in the known, stay in the old, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if there is no room to move or grow, and the part of us that wants to change. But there are a number of forces that can cause us to break free. One is pain itself. Feeling the discomfort is a great impetus to change. Another is believing that change is possible, finding hope. I can’t tell you how many people come in to therapy and really don’t believe that they can change; they think that how they have been is how they will always be.

It’s interesting, though, that in the Exodus story, the Jews end up wandering for 40 years in the desert after leaving Egypt, and the ones who were the former slaves never actually make it to the Promised Land. It’s only the next generation that arrives in Israel. Isn’t that kind of a depressing notion? What does it say, from a psychological perspective, about the possibility for making change in one’s life?

You know, Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander, who was a Hasidic master, said it was easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Jews. Similarly, it’s often true that people move on and leave [bad] situations, but then they go and recreate them, because the deeper dynamic that got them there in the first place hasn’t really shifted. People change their outer circumstances, but their inner landscape remains unchanged. Deeper work really has to address the images, the deep-seated images, we have of ourselves.

“Ah. Here I am! Estelle. I’ve got my whole identity with me.” But if I take the time, as I did before this interview, to just sit down, close my eyes, say a prayer, open myself to spirit, then my identity begins to expand, and I remember that I’m not just Estelle, the personality, that I’m a soul, that I’m an embodiment of the Divine, and I move from what Jewish mystics say is “small mind” to “big mind.” And in that other state, the bonds of the self, the small identity that limits us and dictates who we think we are, it frees up — it’s sort of like a zooming out that you would do with a camera, but it’s zooming out all the way to infinity, all the way to eternity, beyond time, beyond space. And in that moment of deep meditation, or prayer, anything becomes possible, because you are rising above the workings of time.

s that just a mental shift that one makes through meditation or prayer or …

It’s the goal of all spiritual practice. That’s the secret meaning of Passover.

For those who have never been to a Passover seder, can you describe what happens briefly?

Food is an important part of the seder. Do you have a favorite Passover food?

I make a knockout haroset, which is a mixture of apples, dates and nuts drenched in wine. You put it on matzah, with a little horseradish, and the taste in your mouth of the bitter and the sweet says it all about life. You know, that there is a bitterness to the Passover story, remembering this history of oppression, of having been once slaves and not free, and at the same time we have this sweet taste of freedom and of love in our mouths.