like the moon
you are changeable,
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;”
opening of “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana
This 13th century Latin poem was put to music by Carl Orff in 1935-6. It describes fate as an ever “whirling wheel” in which a person goes through life with ups and downs. The pace of the rise and fall is unclear, but presumably happens over time as the wheel slowly rotates.
There are, however, moments in time when two competing realities exist side-by-side. A woman may be pregnant one second and a mother the next. The transition lasts for a moment.
There are also situations when a transition is not only defined by time but by space. A person can be inside a house and then outside. A simple threshold is crossed to change not only location but situation.
In rare situations, alternative realities are neither separated nor juxtaposed, but twist and fold upon each other. Such is the Night of the Exodus and the first night of Passover.
The Night of the Exodus
On the night of last plague on Egypt, the killing of the first born, the Jews were commanded to take a lamb, slaughter it, paint its blood on the doorposts of the home, then roast the lamb and devour every morsel.
The lamb was considered a deity in ancient Egypt. Killing it, roasting it and displaying its blood on the outside of the homes was designed as a clear affront to Egyptian sensibilities. They could smell the roasting of the meat and see how the Jews enjoyed sticking their faces in it.
Remarkably, the Jews did this while still slaves. They were still in Egypt and not yet free as they feasted and killed the Gods of their masters. They took liberties associated with free folk, pulling their future freedom into the moment of slavery. These choreographed actions helped transform their mental state from one of servants to masters. When God said “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you,” (Exodus 12: 13) it was truly designed as a way for the slaves to break the orientation of servitude.
Every generation afterwards was also commanded to remember that remarkable night – to place themselves as if they were there thousands of years ago – making that transformation at the Seder, holding the matzah, the bread of slavery, together with the pascal lamb, the symbol of salvation. Holding both items together serves as a vehicle to transform time, space and mental state, just as Jewish ancestor did long ago.
The Passover Hagaddah captures the essence of these curious juxtapositions and transformations at the beginning of the Magid section with a short paragraph called Ha Lachma Anya.
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Taken literally, each person at the Seder is facing a fossil, a 3,300-year old object. Perhaps more incredible, this item from antiquities is actually connected to relatives who lived far way (time AND place) in Egypt. On this special night we display a family heirloom.
All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat.
Based on the juxtaposition of the sentences it would appear that we are going to eat this precious piece of history. While we may be a tad hungry, it seems inappropriate to eat something irreplaceable.
All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover.
This sentence seemingly addresses the whole world. As food is the cure for hunger, Passover must be the remedy for “need.” It is unclear whether the needs are physical – like food for hunger – mental, spiritual or emotional. Perhaps celebrating Passover helps them all.
Now we are here, next year in the land of Israel.
The paragraph pivots again. After two invitations for people to participate in the meal and holiday, there is a declaration that we will celebrate next Passover in Israel. Presumably, this is for all of the people who we just invited to sit down with us, to celebrate together in Israel.
This year we are enslaved, next year we will be free.
Another interesting juxtaposition of sentences of here versus next year. Does this suggest that we are here now and enslaved and next year we will be free and in Israel? Or, should we rethink the entire discussion: are we reciting words that are thousands of years old, just as we point to matzahs of our ancestors? This entire scene is a reenactment of the last night in Egypt, when Jews were on the threshold of freedom, on their journey to the land of Israel.
The first night of Passover we do not simply imagine lives as slaves in Egypt nor our freedom that we have today. We reenact that pivotal moment of transforming ourselves in time, place and mental health which happened on the last night in Egypt, when we jumped forward and feasted and imagined life in the promised land, even while anchored in the reality of slavery.
Like no other year in over 3,000 years, with a pandemic upon us with many mourning departed loved ones and spending Seders in solitude, let us all say Ha Lachma Anya and pull forward that future of freedom to live full lives in the complete Jerusalem.
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