Passover Freedom Amidst Uncertainty
Alyssa Coffey is a third-year student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts concentrating in religion and American studies. She is a member of IFYC’s 2020 Coach Program cohort.
Maybe it sounds silly, but I thought about the Exodus story last month as I hurried to toss my clothing and most essential schoolbooks in a suitcase. It was twelve hours before a flight home to Chicago, several days before the true gravity of the unfolding Covid-19 situation settled within me and a few weeks before the Passover holiday began.
Passover is a holiday of freedom and liberation as much as it is one of uncertainty. In remembering the departure from the confines of Egypt, we also remember the sprawling unknown that waited on the other shore of the Red Sea. The Exodus narrative is amongst the central points of Jewish narrative and has long been integral to my understanding of what it means to be a Jew: to know that God is always in this place, to act in a manner that acknowledges sacred obligation, responsibility to bring a better world into being and to have my hopes for the future firmly rooted in the past.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, literally connotates narrowness. Egypt is a small space of bondage and slavery. But Egypt is also known as expected and comfortable. Rashi, a well-known medieval commentator, writes an elucidating note on Exodus 6:1 that I’ve circled back to repeatedly in recent weeks. In the text, we read that Pharaoh will “drive the Israelites from his land.” Rashi explains that the Israelites were forced to leave Egypt against their wills and inclinations. It’s a provocative commentary: What if the Israelites, whose new freedom we are instructed to celebrate as our own, did not want to leave Egypt? What if their anxiety over innumerable unknowns was simply too much to tolerate? It’s possible. Yet this much we do know: the Israelites still packed up their lives hastily, wasted no time waiting for bread dough to rise and left the familiar world they knew behind.
Fear is just one variety of anticipation; it does not automatically counteract positive wishes. It doesn’t serve us well to leave our anxieties at the door when we talk about freedom. When I left campus eight weeks earlier than anticipated, I didn’t feel like an Israelite leaving Egypt, about to embark on an epic journey towards previously unknown independence. I wonder how long it will still be March in my little campus bedroom where my calendar with prints of birds remains on the wall.
Passover never felt so relevant and so distant, an unsettling combination. Never have I yearned to remember the Exodus yet found those memories beyond my reach. It’s a physical distance from extended family, friends and my Jewish community on campus. It’s an emotional and religious distance from my awareness of the holiday, from a genuine reliving of the story, from my ability to empathize with the piece of myself that had just been delivered from the narrow place of Egypt.
In past years, away at school, I go to lengths to secure appropriate food and seek out time and space for the holiday. This year, if I was hungry, I could walk to a kitchen stocked with Passover-friendly meals. I had more time to consider the holiday than ever before, but I couldn’t focus my attention. There was too much to worry about. The first nights of the holiday were absurdly different from all others, at the Seder table with my immediate family (one sister had to call in) and the weight of many layers in time. The holiday would not wait—maybe I was better prepared to observe and experience it than I first thought. Freedom can be a frightening prospect, pain and uncertainty bring no guarantee of liberation, but our most basic story has not changed. We don’t know where we are headed, so we take small steps forward.
Passover has ended this year, but we had a few boxes of matzah left in the pantry. I’ve been eating it regularly, as a reminder of a world that recently was and another that soon again will be. It helps.