Sun, April 20, 2014 /       View Shabbat / Jewish Calendar

JewishBoston.com

Leaving Egypt Behind - Embracing Sacred Metaphor at Passover

by Rabbi Lev / March 15, 2012

Egypt, photo by Henk Goossens from Fotopedia, used by CC

When my grandfather retired from his congregation, he became a “cruise ship” rabbi and he traveled the world with my grandmother. My first year of rabbinic school, in Israel, their ship was heading from Israel to Egypt on Passover. Every year on the ships, my grandfather created a new hagaddah for that specific voyage. I talked with him about how it seemed that a “return to Egypt” for Passover seemed like a difficult challenge when celebrating the Exodus. He reminded me that “Egypt” of the bible was a metaphor for “struggle” and “oppression” and did not have to be linked with the country. We talked about how important a sacred story can be if it, in fact, is not set in a real place or time. He explained that Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim which literally means “narrow place,” and we talked about all the “narrow places” we have in our lives like habits and prejudices, weaknesses and struggles. 

As I grew in my rabbinate, I came to realize that the sacred metaphor of our Hebrew bible is sometimes lost in translation. I realized that the western world, including the Jewish community, continues its anti-Arab prejudice when biblical stories like Passover are connected with real places and times rather than the deep meaningful metaphors they were intended to engender. Historical events are held at arm’s length in our world and we use bits and pieces of them to learn from, so as to not repeat mistakes. But sacred stories are reinterpreted for every time and place and can live in their fullness.

Since that conversation with my grandfather I began a journey of reinterpreting the Passover story, and the rest of biblical lore, to continue the tradition of making it relevant in our time and place. When I learned that “wilderness,” the place we end up in the biblical story, comes from the Hebrew midbar, which literally translates “place of conversation or action,” I realized that the story had a kind of relevance that belies its earthly place names.

Instead of traveling from Egypt to wilderness, we travel from “narrowness” to “open communication and action.” Then the gift of sacred story is to there to remind us that, in community, telling stories with the memory-laden smells of foods from our past journeys can open up a future, free from the oppressions we impose on ourselves and others.  Passover then becomes an opportunity to have healing conversations and to do the work of repairing the world, as our ancestors had envisioned.

This year at Passover, you too can remove the context-heavy English translations of "Egypt" and "wilderness" and replace them with Mitzrayim and midbar.  Go back to the roots of the story and bring it to life with renewed energy to make it a transformative event rather than a historical retelling of a story that often is used only as a reason for eating matzah ball soup, and the only challenge it conjures up is who can eat the most horseradish on their gefilte fish. Passover holds much more potential for change in our lives and in the life of the world. And, at the end of the Passover meal, when we say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” let’s remember that “Jerusalem” is more than a place too. It is a vision of a world at peace, made so by the work of our voices and our hands, and guided by the sacred stories we use to remind us of our work.

 

Image of the Siwa Oasis in Egypt by Henk Goossens, used under Creative Commons license from Fotopedia.

Tags for this Post

Egypt Jerusalem holidays liturgy passover ritual

Events

Women Working Together Job Search Strategy Group & Individual Career Coaching
Thursday, April 24, 2014

Women Working Together Job Search Strategy Group & Individual Career Coaching

Career Moves -- a division of JVS | Get Your Career Moving
Riverway Cafe
Thursday, April 24, 2014

Riverway Cafe

Riverway Project
Vilna Shul, Boston's Center for Jewish Culture
Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Bissel Schlissel Challah Baking Workshop

Vilna Shul, Boston's Center for Jewish Culture
Auschwitz or Sinai: Israel and the Culture of Memory
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Auschwitz or Sinai: Israel and the Culture of Memory

Hebrew College
Beauty & The Beast: The Battle of Identity
Sunday, May 04, 2014

Beauty & The Beast: The Battle of Identity

Eim Chai
Lunch & Learn: Finding Your Leadership Style
Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Lunch & Learn: Finding Your Leadership Style

Career Moves -- a division of JVS | Get Your Career Moving
Interfaith Conversations
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Interfaith Conversations

Reform Jewish Outreach Boston