In the build up to Pesach, I want to explore each week a different facet of the festival. This week I am exploring the core commandment to see yourself as if you yourself went out of Egypt...
People were baffled, but he did make a thought-provoking assertion. In February 1990, Vaclav Havel, two months after becoming the 1st president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, addressed a Joint Session of the US Congress. Amidst his remarks, he mentioned,
“Consciousness precedes Being and not the other way round, as Marxists claim”.
His press secretary at the time (Michael Zantovsky) has recalled how after the speech many of the senators and representatives in Washington wanted to know what he meant. And understandably so! We too may be baffled. He was, in fact, inverting Marx’s assertion that “Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness”- and, actually, in that speech in Washington he did go on to explain:
“Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.”
Perhaps not so baffling after all. Not baffling, but thought-provoking: which do you believe in, the imaginative ability to shape your world, or the inability to overcome how you have been shaped by it? How can each of us regrasp our imaginative agency - however much life does shape us?
We are living in between Purim and Pesach - you and I are the essential ingredient in this redemption sandwich.
Purim may teach us to overcome fear like Esther, and to ask someone for what we most need, or to be like Achashverosh - to wake up from our slumber and remember that someone or something has been left unappreciated. We are approaching the great redemption of Pesach, with all it’s halakhic responsibilities - with all its shopping, and cleaning, and reading and counting - but all this is to enable us to achieve the seder’s core responsibility: an imaginative one. The Mishna tells us:
B’chol dor v’dor, chayav Adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzrayim. In every generation a person is obligated to see herself as if she went out of Egypt.
Redemption begins with the obligation to imagine.
So what should we imagine?
We can sometimes get stuck in the stage of reflecting on our personal ‘mitzrayims’ - our personal constraints. We might imagine what things can be like and could be like. Imagine love. The passage that we will read in the Haftara immediately before Pesach on Shabbat Ha’gadol can guide us. In Malachi’s words the Merciful tells us: Shuvu alai v’ashuva Aleichem. - ‘Return to me, and I will return to you’. On the day of redemption, “the heart of parents will be turned to their children and the heart of children to their parents”. Redemption here is an act of reorientation. Remember what things can be like, and that you can return. Look back to the loving moments that you had with a parent, or a friend or a lover - and know that there is a deep love in the world, that there is an Ultimate parent eagerly awaiting for you to pop in, to turn, to look back, to just turn around, and shift your perspective.
Imagining needn’t be a fluffy concept. We can confront the existential questions - where are you in your life?
Who or what do you care about, and what are you doing about it?
What does it mean to you to return? What else can we do?
Probably most us work too hard. Well not too hard, just not enough on the right things - could each of us do a little less reactive work, and instead work more on clearing our minds, gathering our thoughts, acting consciously and reflectively, working on our relationships and our quality of life?
Our capacity to imagine might be built in taking a deep breath, or wondering whether you ought to say a b’racha. We might draw closer to inklings of joy or hurt, to explore them, rather than inuring ourselves to them.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, gave a speech to Jewish educators in 1953, in which he was urgent in his plea that we address, in an increasingly technological civilization, a spiritual crisis. He said:
“we live in an age in which ultimate problems are our most pressing, urgent ones. The world is in turmoil and its crisis is not primarily political but spiritual”. He stated, in urging teachers to address questions of ultimate and intimate important: “Every Jew ought to remember that in his own existence he makes a contribution to the survival of all people. Our responsibility is great… if we fail to answer now we may fail for centuries. A generation from now, it will be too late”.
I believe it is still not too late. Heschel was concerned that ritual-performed-by-rote and complacent community was wiping out meaning - we have the task to patiently embrace both our Jewish heritage and its daily invitation to imagine and act for change - small changes. Can we each address our own spiritual shutdown, quietly and patiently insisting that it’s not too late, for each of us, for Judaism? How remarkable of Heschel, who escaped Europe, to believe in the possibility of a culture of love and care in 1953.
Today we might imagine a redeemed world, full of painstaking love. If this sounds like a quietist retreat from the world of politics and action, then I would like to return to what Vaclav Havel can teach us. He was at the heart of a revolution with a vision, a revolution carried in the wings of playwrights for more than twenty years. He spent five years in jail. No wonder, he knew the power of inner resistance. No wonder he knew, that
“the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility”.
You need to be able to imagine how you can give to be able to act in this world with meaning; you need to be able to see how the world can seep out love and healing in order to practically bring some of this.
I hope that we can each see it. See yourself leaving Egypt. I hope we can, take the time to imagine, to live in these times of redemption - for that could bring us a little closer.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.