The Seder gives us each permission to tell our personal story of enslavement honestly and openly, taking an important step toward freedom.
by Rabbi Sherre Hirsch
Each year, when my family and friends gather around the Passover table, I like to open my Seder by asking everyone to think about what enslaved them this past year, and to share it – not at that moment, but when they feel the time is right in the Seder.
A few years ago, my youngest, Levi, had just finished his attempt at the Four Questions (with the help of his older sister), as I continued in Hebrew with the Avadim Hayenu paragraph describing how we were slaves in Egypt. I then asked Isaac, my cousin’s friend, if he would read the same paragraph in English. Nervously, he began, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us from there with a mighty hand,” and continued to the end, “The more one tells about the leaving from Egypt, the more he is praiseworthy.”
At that moment, he paused and said, “Does this mean that it is praiseworthy for me to be in exile?” At first I was confused by his question. But before I could ask him what he meant by it, he continued. “I used to be in Egypt, and illegal substances were my Pharaoh. It was unbearable; and I lost my friends, my wife and even my livelihood. But now I am leaving that slavery. I am in exile and it, too, is incredibly difficult. I am tired and weary from all the therapy, meetings and effort I have to put in each day just to wake up in the morning. Even sitting here is hard. It is not just the allure of the wine. Just sitting here still trying to be comfortable in my own skin is almost unbearable. My mind keeps racing and I have to remember to stay in this moment. But I just read that sitting here and telling you my story is not only important but it is praiseworthy and it has given me strength.”
Right then I understood in an entirely new way why we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus. We all know that our story is not neat and pretty. And in reality, neither was Abraham’s. If you remember, God promised Abraham that he would become a great nation, but he did not tell him how long it would take. And it took a really long time! Once we were freed from Egyptian slavery, it was another 40 years until we received the Torah and another 360 or so years before we arrived in Canaan.
And the story the Torah tells us about those years are not sweet anecdotes of how we traveled through the beautiful wilderness together in bliss and harmony. They were in fact the opposite. The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar (Numbers) describes how we kvetched about the food and the water. How we complained to Moses about the trek. How we challenged his leadership. Even how we rebelled and suffered the consequences, death at the hand of God. It is not a story that shows us as a people in the best light.
But we are commanded to tell the story because if we weren’t, we would never tell it. Who wants to talk about suffering? Who wants to talk about the skeletons in their closet? Who wants to discuss when we acted poorly and mistrusted our family? No one. We have been taught to keep our dirty laundry to ourselves, otherwise people will think less of us.
"WE ALL KNOW THAT IF YOU'VE BEEN MARRIED TO THE SAME PERSON FOR 18 YEARS, NOT EVERY DAY HAS BEEN CHOCOLATE AND ROSES. BUT WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DISCUSS THAT. WE ARE TOLD, TALK ABOUT YOUR SUCCESSES... KEEP YOUR PROBLEMS TO YOURSELF."
Just look at Facebook. We carefully construct our posts to make sure that others perceive us in a good light. No one ever posts: “18 years of challenges and struggles but we are still surviving.” Rather the post reads: “18 years of marital bliss.” Come on. We all know that if you've been married to the same person for 18 years, not every day has been chocolate and roses. But we are not supposed to discuss that. We are told from a young age, talk about your successes. Display your awards, announce your promotions, and publicize the greatness of your children. Keep your problems to yourself.
Except that the Haggadah tells us on one of the most important holidays of our year to talk about our Exodus from Egypt. Talk about the struggles and difficulties. And it even goes further to say that, when you do, “it is praiseworthy,” because Judaism knows that it takes tremendous courage and strength to tell that story. It is easy to talk about everything that you have achieved; but it is much more difficult to talk about the blood, sweat and tears it took to get there. Part of us always wants it to look easy. Yet Judaism is telling us to go against that instinct. Be vulnerable and honest. Share with others on this holiday that this journey called life can be bumpy; that not every road traveled will be paved with rainbows.
It will not drag down the mood of your Seder table. Isaac did not lessen the spirit or dampen the atmosphere. To the contrary; he inspired it. After he shared with such openness and honesty, each one of us, including my four small children, began to open up about their own struggles. The discourse became a rich exchange of love and support between one another, the kind of conversation I had only dreamed of having at my Passover Seder table.
Every one of us has a story of enslavement. Maybe we were not addicted to drugs and alcohol like Isaac, but we all have stories about freeing ourselves from the shackles of something, be it an addiction, a bad relationship, or any bad life situation from which we want to break free. We all have stories about how we worked to transcend these situations, about how we tried again and again to free ourselves physically, spiritually and emotionally from those feelings of being oppressed, subjugated and controlled by someone or something else.
And, for most of us, that story may not even be close to over. We may be in the midst of it right now, on this very Passover.
Talking about these struggles is not easy – not for the ancient Jews, not for those, like Isaac, enslaved by addiction; not for anybody. But only by acknowledging them, embracing them, and sharing them can we begin to learn from them – and inspire others to do the same.
On this holiday I want to challenge you to be bold and courageous. Rather than talk about how you are enslaved by your demons, talk about what you are doing to try to free yourself from them. If you are struggling with your weight, talk about what has worked and what hasn’t. If you have struggled with worry and anxiety, talk about what you are doing and not doing to try and alleviate it. Do not be afraid to talk honestly and openly. For when you do, you will not simply be discussing freedom, you will be experiencing it firsthand.
Freedom has never been a physical place. Even in Canaan we were not free. Though not physically enslaved, we still faced a huge number of enemies, literally, as well as emotionally and spiritually. Rather, freedom is the realization that you are not alone and isolated in your journey. It is the knowledge that when you trip and fall, others will be there to support you and help you stay the course. It is to know that your mistakes and missteps are not fodder for others to gossip and judge; rather they are moments for others to rise and lift you up.
This is why Passover is the most celebrated holiday of the Jewish year. It is the one that enables us to truly connect to the people in our lives because we are commanded to be vulnerable in front of them; to share the stories of our struggles. Passover is the story of our people and it is the story of each one of us. And when we come together we realize that maybe we are not yet completely free of problems. But that we are on the road to true freedom because we have God – and each other.
(Originally published in spring 2015)
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch regularly appears on television, writes for national journals and magazines and lectures nationally. She is the author of We Plan, God Laughs and Thresholds, How to Thrive Through Life’s Transitions to Live Fearlessly and Regret-Free and also serves as spiritual life consultant and lecturer for the Canyon Ranch Companies. Her second book, , can be ordered on Amazon.