By Rabbi Daniel Lichman
I have spent the past two weeks in isolation - not leaving my flat until my virus symptoms had passed.
This Passover, how can I do that which the Haggadah requests of me: to consider it as if I myself had left Egypt/Mitzrayim, when I am restricted in my own Mitzrayim, the narrow place of my home?
This Pesach is indeed different from all other Pesachs.
The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) lays out the guidelines for the Pesach Seder. It says that when our children ask us about the story of our redemption, we should begin to tell the story in degradation and end the story in praise.
The Talmud, meanwhile, records a dispute between the Babylonian Rabbis Rav and Shmuel. They disagree about what constitutes ‘degradation’ and what we are to offer ‘praise’ in response to.
Shmuel offers the explanation that we know so well: degradation is avadim hayinu - we were slaves - and so praise is our response to being freed. His telling of the story revolves around the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt.
Rav’s perspective is different. He argues that degradation is, in fact, idolatry. (I understand idolatry to refer to when we pay attention to that which is false, hurtful and unethical - even as it is appealing, compulsive and addictive.)
For Rav, then, praise is the worship of the true Ground of all Being - the paying attention to that which is truthful, healing, ethical and loving. Rav’s telling of the Pesach story will begin with our ancestor Abraham, leaving idolatry and turning towards Truthfulness.
In true Jewish fashion, the Haggadah records both of these stories. In the magid/story-telling section of the Seder, we begin with the Shmuel version of the story and move on to Rav’s version.
The two positions offer perspectives on what is important in becoming free. Shmuel’s perspective considers our material or external condition - the taskmasters or oppressive structures which are outside of our control and restrict our freedom.
For Rav, what is important is what we pay attention to, what we are intentional towards - in other words, our inner-thinking. Put another way, Shmuel’s story is concerned with our material condition, and Rav’s story with our spiritual lives.
Right now, as we sit at home in a material condition governed by social distancing, going out only for short daily excursions, Shmuel’s telling of the story is difficult for me to inhabit. Rav’s telling, however, has never been more important.
Social isolation has given us the most remarkable opportunity to observe what we pay attention to and what we are intentional towards. As we tell the story of Rav’s Pesach, we can remind ourselves of the possibility of profound freedom in our spiritual lives: the possibility for healing, the opportunities for intentional connection with others, the contemplative moments awarded by spaciousness in time, the noticing of what it is that is truly important to us.
This Pesach, may you be able to consider it as though you yourself have left Egypt, as you turn your attention and your intention towards that which is healing, connecting and loving.