Passover begins this evening. Although I won’t be celebrating the holiday in its traditional forms, the essence of the holiday is profound, one worth serious inquiry much of the time. Frequently, not just once a year, I ask myself: What does it mean to be free? What if true freedom means embarking on, or remaining in, an unpredictable Exodus?
In the Passover story we remember that Jews, enslaved by Egyptian overlords for generations, have a chance to escape on short notice. They don’t have time to prepare for their journey, which is why we eat matzah, unleavened bread, to recall the hasty departure (perhaps the origin of “last minute-itis”). As they flee Egypt, they come to the edge of the Sea of Reeds. With the Egyptian army at their heels, they have no choice but to wade into the water, even though death seems imminent. As the story is told, God parts the waters and allows the Jews safe passage; the Egyptian pursuers, however, drown as the waters return. Despite this and other impressive miracles, the once enslaved Jews, accustomed to Egyptian deities, lacked faith in their invisible God.
Jews who celebrate Passover are asked to put themselves into the shoes of their fleeing ancestors, to pretend that they themselves are leaving Egypt. Sadly, to do so these days is not a stretch. One only has to read or watch the news to get a taste of how terrifying that experience might have been, and still is for untold numbers. Many, many humans are in the midst of a contemporary exodus from Syria and other countries, embarking on dangerous, unpredictable and even fatal voyages to Europe, where they may or may not find immediate refuge. While the flow of new arrivals has slowed in recent months, multitudes are crammed into camps in Greece, their future uncertain, freedom elusive. Some are even sent back.
The Jews who chose to leave Egypt (not everyone did), wandered for 40 years in the desert, even though they were just a few hundred miles from the Promised Land, a distance less than the pilgrimage route of El Camino de Santiago. They wandered as punishment for disobedience and non-belief; it’s also said that the passage of two generations helped ensure that those who entered the Promised Land no longer had the mentality of slaves. Even Moses, the leader of the Exodus, was not allowed to cross into what is now known as Israel.
Whether one believes in a higher power or not, the Exodus allegory is a reminder that freedom does not happen overnight, even for those of us whose lives are not in immediate peril. It might take generations. Harriet Tubman, nicknamed Moses for her heroic role in guiding slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, has been chosen as the new face of the $20 bill more than a century after her death. And, the Black Lives Matter movement reminds everyone that while de jure slavery no longer exists in this country, not everyone is truly created equal, let alone can live freely or pursue happiness, in a society shackled by institutional racism.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is leading a movement to free our political system from bondage to corporate interests and PACs and to remind the country to stop worshiping the Golden Calf of big money. While I’m not elevating him in stature to the biblical Moses, there is a parallel: Sanders may not live to see the fruits of the progressive movement or even make it to the White House, which doesn’t make his revolutionary campaign and his efforts to raise the country’s consciousness any less valid or heroic. If votes don’t count equally or aren’t counted at all, can Americans truly claim that we live in the land of the free?
The optimists reading this piece will point to how far the world has come since the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They will say that progress is being made, albeit slowly. They are correct, but I also wonder if those in favor of incrementalism are, in some ways, subtly enslaved to the comfort of the status quo, which serves fewer and fewer people. It seems that we still have a long way to go. We are still in Exodus.
The refugees fleeing to Europe raise many difficult questions. A concrete example: there are around 3000 unaccompanied child migrants in Calais who want to come to the UK and many people feel we ought to let them in. Shades of the Kindertransport. However, there is an efficient network of criminals who would see this an opportunity to get more clients in, so nothing is happening.
My reading of the message of exodus is simple: everything we have we have contingently, so we must carry on if we lose our possessions or our health. Go bankrupt – carry on. Get cancer – carry on. Find yourself standing outside the palace at Thebes with your eyeballs in your hands – carry on. (That last one was King Oedipus.)
I am re-reading Gillian Rose’s “Love’s Work” without understanding much, though she writes beautifully. I hope to keep at it until I understand the phrase “Keep your mind in hell and despair not” which she quotes.
“Everything we have we have contingently” – so true, yet so easy to forget.