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Passover as Passing Through: Exodus from Exile Within

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by Carol Smaldino, CSW

Passover, for those of us tied to its celebration, its food and stories and the festive table around which we sit, is filled and at times fraught with emotion. It poses, however, a dilemma for those of us committed to passing through our problems instead of passing over them. Even though to celebrate Passover in the traditional sense is to experience the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus in terms that order us to appreciate both our historic enslavement and the freedom we have now, it has become a passage way too limited and too narrow for our time.

Like most religious holidays, Passover has a story of good and bad, of us and them. As the victims of the story, Jews for the most part learn to see the genocide of the first born Egyptian babies not as a crime performed by a vengeful egotistical God but as the inevitable and justifiable consequence of a stubborn Pharaoh. We don't ask ourselves how we would feel as a people should God or whatever tribunal have sentenced all German first born to die after the World War II Holocaust. Most of us know that the death of dignity comes upon us whenever we stoop to the ugliness of hatred that matches the most hateful of the most degrading of actions and of persons.

When we are tied by hatred, whether to our stories or our religion or to our exclusivity, we cannot be free. Certainly we cannot be free to shift our perceptions of what is real at a time when our capacity to do so is the true promise of a shift for us and other human beings into possibilities of kindness and caring and community. This becomes something different, something that is about putting forth a notion of exodus as having to do with the freedom from exile, both from one another and from ourselves.

I wonder about a different version of the Exodus, which to my mind would include passing through the experience of exile that some of us feel as we are alienated in a society that is so trapped by comparisons. I wonder about our beginning to voice our thoughts out loud and use the freedom to do so, even in the midst of the judgments of some. And I begin to sense that in part it is living the truth we dare to know that can be the beginning of real community not based on pure worship or surrender but on a respect for human dignity, difference and commonality.

It is not as easy as it might seem to move away from hatred, since it can feel like giving up or giving in. To a certain extent it is a giving up, at least of the notion that we could have or can right now change what has been. Getting back at someone won't give us what we've lost through any persecution or enslavement of our emotions and capacity to choose. Demonizing or even laughing at the enemy goes only so far before it becomes the tired complaint rather than a shift to full use of our own inner resources in the service of compassion and honesty. It becomes easily the kind of gossip whereby we stay superior in our fantasy but ever wary of making ourselves vulnerable to saying our truth out loud.

To experience the the words of Etty Hillesum, a young woman in her twenties who wrote her own journal in Amsterdam at the same time as Anne Frank titled, "An Interrupted Life," is to receive her exceptional awareness of our need to face sorrow to move on, and this is only a small part of her poignancy and depth. Her journal was given to us by those who found and published them a only a couple of decades ago. She recognized--and became convinced--that we as human beings need to face our proclivity to cause war, and more than that to adapt to war and other atrocities precisely because we cause them. Hillesum wrote:

"We human beings cause monstrous conditions, but precisely because we cause them we soon learn to adapt ourselves to them. Only if we become such that we can no longer adapt ourselves, only if, deep inside, we rebel against every kind of evil, will we be able to put a stop to it." (p.81). As long as we continue to protest one evil while accepting and rationalizing all the others, we divide our world into the convenient and the not. And as such we perpetuate the tendency to be numbed to genocide and other forms of threats of annihilation of our planet as a whole.

Etty Hillesum understood the need to pass through grief and sorrow so that hatred is not perpetuated. Even as she stood at the precipice of her own imprisonment and eventual death at Auschwitz, her compassion did not fail her. She wrote:

" Do not relieve your feelings through hatred, do not seek to be avenged on all German mothers, for they, too, sorrow at this very moment for their slain and murdered sons. Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge--from which new sorrows will be born for others--then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply." (p 81-82)

It is part of the contradiction of life that that we can learn and love only if we mourn our history, and that which was done to us and by us. It perhaps part of the same contradiction that it is not by passing over but through--taking a good look and breathing in the total pictures rather than only the parts that comfort or cheer us on-- that we get near the exodus of reclaiming our capacity to see and to care.

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