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.