Bound to Be Free: The Passover Spirit in 2016

Rev. Kelly Murphy Mason

Near the reflecting pool at Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC is a large slab of stone engraved with the motto: Freedom Is Not Free. Whatever individual feelings we might have about American military intervention in various foreign conflicts, the sentiment behind that statement seems indisputable. Most of the freedoms enjoyed by the majority of people around the globe have in fact been rather hard won. Historically, people have had to grapple to be free from their oppressors. Struggle almost always precedes liberation -- the wisdom teachings of the world’s great spiritual traditions testify to that. Unitarian Universalism, rooted as it is in Jewish and Christian thought, is no different here.

Earlier this month, the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation of White Plains held its annual Passover Seder in Fellowship Hall, with scores of CUUC congregants in attendance. Throughout April, UU congregations across the country join with other churches in celebrating the Jewish festival of Pesach. For Jews in general, Passover is a household celebration – a ritual done at home, in the company of family and friends, following along with their chosen version of the Haggadah, that scripted retelling of the story of Exodus. Some of these have such titles as the “Pride Liberation Seder”, “Wellsprings of Freedom”, the “Freedom and Justice Seder”, or simply, the “Freedom Haggadah”. The theme of liberation remains constant in each, writ large on human history.

The Exodus event itself is epic: the Israelites are kept as slaves in Egypt, under the oppressive regime of Pharaoh, until Moses, sent by God, begins to broker their freedom. The LORD GOD wishes for God’s people to be let go from their bondage and start their sojourn to the Promised Land. In principle, the Israelites want to be free and to take their rightful place a Chosen People in the Promised Land. In practice, they have a number of qualms with the mode of their liberation, with Moses and his faulty leadership, and ultimately, with the inscrutable machinations of the LORD, their God.

As they pass through the Red Sea in triumphal procession, though, the Israelites are still ignorant of hardships that will face them on the far shore and the desert stretching beyond it. In his book To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner observes that Passover marks
“the season when the Jewish people was born – out of the confinement of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea in a birth metaphor, into life and freedom…. it represents… the coming to life of an entire people.”
Like any newborn, the liberated Israelites are vulnerable to the elements, shocked by the newness of the world, and prone to fits of squalling. The infancy of Israel is not a comfortable time, least of all for Moses, who is confronted with serious concerns for his people’s survival. Remember that the Exodus story is replete with tales of mass infanticide – as a baby, Moses himself was floated down the river Nile to be spared the killing Pharaoh had ordered of the Israelites’ sons; also, the tenth and final plague the LORD GOD used to smite the Egyptians is the slaying of their firstborn. Israelite children are only spared because their parents marked the entryways to their homes with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, so that the plague would pass over their families.

According to Jewish scholar Arthur Waskow,
“the Pesach [or Passover] ceremony may be a way of dealing with dealing with the most intimate struggles for life and freedom in the family, as well as in the grand and glorious struggles of world history.”
In his book Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, Waskow notes that Passover
“intertwines the birth of children and the birth of freedom, as if to teach at the root of both is new potential, whether biological and personal or political and historical; as if to teach that the biology of spring and the sociology of freedom are in some deep sense the same.”
Indeed, every Passover meal leaves a symbolic place on the Seder plate for a single egg, signifying the possibility for new life.

Part of any Passover celebration involves giving children special roles to play, and our Seder here in the CUUC Fellowship Hall allowed a goodly number of them to participate fully in the ceremony. Using prompts from our Haggadah, the children got to ask questions about the elaborate ritual around the meal and then after dinner, they made a game of finding the piece of unleavened bread, the hidden matzoh called the Afikommen. Usually, the search takes some time, and last weekend, while we were waiting, my husband and I enjoyed retelling one of our favorite family jokes.

My husband Ben is Jewish, and whenever his parents host the Passover Seder in their home, it invariably involves a mix of Jews and Gentiles, our nephew’s cousins included. A few years ago now, when one of the young cousins grabbed a piece of matzoh and opened his mouth to take a sizable bite, his older sister told him: “Don’t get too excited – it looks much better than it tastes.” The adults all laughed, which prompted my father-in-law to remind everyone that the Jews call matzoh “the bread of affliction” for a reason. It’s a nice bit of Jewish humor, to be sure, but it communicates a deeper human truth about our excited, outsized, and often unrealistic expectations for the new.

Waskow calls Passover “the quintessential festival of newness, creation, creativity, freedom”, and notes that it celebrates
“the birthtime of the people and their ability... to emerge from slavery to freedom and from exile to self-determination”.
But the business of becoming truly self-determining involves a great deal of hard work; it involves surrendering the customary and familiar and striking out into unknown territory, some of it likely deserted. The forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert with Moses underscored just how momentous a shift had to happen in their consciousness and just how trying it can be for us humans to leave behind what we know best, even if what we know best is confining, degrading, or even oppressive. In very many cases, freedom can feel disorienting. Staying free can involve struggle against a host of powerful impulses.

Renowned psychologist Kenneth I. Pargament has done a great deal of research into a subject he has termed “spiritual struggle.” In the article by that name which he wrote for a handbook called Judeo-Christian Perspectives on Psychology, Dr. Pargament maintains:
“In Jewish and Christian thought, spiritual struggles are not simply... ‘life crises’ or ‘critical transitions’. Instead, they represent crucial moments of time, when matters of greatest value are at stake,”
values like freedom, for instance.
“According to most religious traditions, the pathway leading to the sacred is neither straightforward nor painless. It is, instead, marked by obstacles, difficult terrain, wrong turns, and dead ends.”
He catalogues three kinds of spiritual struggles: the interpersonal, the intrapsychic or internal, and the Divine. All three figure prominently in the story of Exodus.

It can be tempting to give that story short shrift in part because it has such an ambitious scope. As Dr. Pargament notes, Jewish and Christian scriptures alike “are replete with stories of conflict among families, friends, tribes, and nations”, but these can carry different meanings to diverse people at various stages of life. Yet all of them seem to contain natural prompts toward further spiritual development and greater spiritual maturity, albeit at tremendous personal cost.

Although he served in the Army during that conflict, my father never visited the Korean War memorial before he died. Sometimes I wonder whether that was related to any self-consciousness he had about only having served stateside. But my father enlisted in the Army; he was not drafted for the war. Enlisting gave him a way out of his tough New York City neighborhood and tougher family situation. At home, he was routinely subjected to his single father’s verbal attacks, physical assaults, and uncontrolled rages. I’m not sure if my father had many misgivings about his basic training or his drill sergeant, but I’m quite sure he was desperate for a new life. In the Army, he learned to box; he even won the Golden Gloves for his weight class. My father never made it overseas, but my father did make it to Texas and into the ring. He got a fighting chance at becoming his own person.

It’s possible that his stint in Texas was my father’s time in the desert, and while it was nowhere near forty years, I have no doubt that it was a transformative place and time for him. I’m also conscious of how largely Texas figures in the march of generations in my own family, where we have struggled to be free of some deeply troubled legacies, with a measure of success alongside a measure of failure. What Passover reminds me is that the movement toward liberation is lurching and often moves at a generational pace, which is to say, more slowly than any of us would like. Don’t forget that Moses himself was denied entrance to the Promised Land. In his reflection on the holiday, Rabbi Kushner is right to “carry the profound message that freedom is hard”, exceedingly so, and that we stand a chance at arriving at it only if we are truly bound and determined to be free, if we are willing to strike out with a tremendous sense of urgency, before our bread has even had time to rise, and entirely ready to face fresh affliction.

Our greatest hope for human liberation lies in our wanting something new and different for future generations – a better life than we ourselves have known, perhaps, or that we could even fully imagine. It requires tremendous love on our part. It means having children who may be strangers to the circumstances we may have known; it quite possibly involves breaking with history itself. It demands our whole-hearted embrace of the Passover spirit, with our becoming like those Jews Rabbi Kushner describes in gi, the ones who take the story of Exodus “personally”. Ask yourself: What would you do to be free – free in the broadest sense of the term? What compulsions or addictions or habits or ensnarements would you surrender? What assumptions and demands would you give up once and for all? What would you leave behind for good, in the service of freedom for years to come?

In my work both as a community minister and clinical pastoral psychotherapist, I often counsel people who need me to reflect back to them the depth of their desire to be free – of constraints and limits not of their own choosing. “Do people simultaneously experience ‘pain and gain’ from their struggles?” Dr. Pargament inquires. It seems they do.

One of my most memorable clients lived very near to my father’s old neighborhood in the city. Demographic shifts meant that it was no longer an ethnic Catholic enclave; now it housed African-American and Afro-Caribe families in multifamily dwellings. My client had worked for years for her mother, whom she called a “slumlord”; she had been horribly exploited in that family arrangement and now lived in alone in a basement apartment in one of her mother’s buildings, where she was expected to do unpaid property management.

Having grown up in the Black church, she was raised with the clear expectation that she would be a dutiful daughter. She was also raised with a potent, soul-centered connection to the Exodus story. On the weekends, she would go to local animal shelters, repeatedly, and visit the animals kept there. She wanted a dog, but the building policy – effectively, her mother’s – forbade her from getting one. Whenever she talked about playing with the dogs at the shelter, she lit up from within. I must have been smiling at the sight of that, because once, she got quite upset with me and demanded to know why I would smile at her predicament.

“Oh,” I said, genuinely surprised. “Do you not know where this story is going?”

“No,” she replied. “Where is it going?”

“You’re going to get your dog,” I told her. Understand that this was not a clinical intervention on my part; it was a flash of spiritual insight, born of my recollection of decades of Passover Seders, the Exodus story, and the promise life holds for people bound to finally be free.

“But dogs are not allowed in the building,” she objected.

“That’s right,” I told her. “So you’re going to move, and you’re going to get your dog. And that’s going to be your story.” And within months, it was. My client moved to another city, found an apartment that was quiet, peaceful, and bright, and brought home a pet she loved. She emailed me the occasional update thereafter, and while I was always glad to get word from her, I couldn’t have been happier that she had gone. That New York neighborhood had been her Egypt-land, in much the way it had been my father’s. As Dr. Pargament observes, “struggle may be a necessary precursor to transformation.”

Freedom has never been and will never be free, no. Freedom Is Not Free. Just the arduousness of preparing for and observing the week-long festival of Passover points precisely to that truth. Our CUUC Seder fell early this year, so there’s time yet for another Passover celebration. The first night Seder will be held on Friday evening, and then several more nights of Pesach will follow that. So celebrate at home, if you like, with family and friends; celebrate with your Jewish neighbors; celebrate with another UU congregation or local church later this month, even.

No matter what, though, be sure to celebrate Passover in your heart, for a little while at least, this year. Calling it the “season of our freedom,” Waskow notes that Passover can be commemorated
“not only as a celebration of God’s gift of freedom in the past but as an incitement of collective human action for freedom toward the future.”
Its message, he writes, is simple: “It is possible for there to be possibility.” Imagine that! Now - where will the Passover spirit lead you? What could it make possible, either in your life or in our world?
“Love: it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free;
be more like the [one] you were made to be.”
– Sigh No More, by Mumford & Sons

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