As I get ready to move into the day before our family seder, I am thinking both about ways I am still enslaved and ways I am Pharaoh, and ways I am joyfully free.
The enslavements around self-image, both physical and spiritual, are huge. Someone posted on Facebook last night a photo of onesies for boys and for girls, clothing for babies. The boys’—in bright blue announced, “I’m super.” The girls’—in bright pink announced, “I hate my thighs.” I am trying to imagine buying this as the first step in putting that message into a baby, or reinforcing it for her mother. I sat at Rodef Sholom’s women’s seder last Sunday, as each woman at the table spoke about the easiness of acknowledging that body image was an enslavement. One woman noted, “That’s universal for women.” It doesn’t require much revealing of personal vulnerability: I’m sorry you’ve joined our club.
We started this discussion when I shared a practice I had read about that I am still thinking about for my seder tonight: ask each person to write on a post-it one thing they are still in slavery over. Then each person puts their post-it on their forehead, and as we look around the room, we can see how much we have in common. What the women at my table shared with me was the level of trust needed to write anything significant on their post-it. And body image—our thighs, our scars, our dress size—well, that’s almost too easy.
This week, I finally screwed up my courage to invite someone I have had issues with to have coffee to discuss said issues. I discovered as I sat listening to her that what I perceived as slights, lack of support, lack of commitment to our shared work, was her doing the best she could under very challenging circumstances. While I am relieved that I approached the conversation in a way that allowed her to share with me, and that allowed me to hear her, I knew that I had been guilty of my old judgmental stuff.
At the same time, I moved forward to mend another relationship that could help my work (not me so much as those I serve), I saw that I have an opportunity for growth, for release from this slavery this time, for the opportunity to deflate my own, chametz—yeasty self-puffery, and recognize the value of flatbread, of our matzah, not just of its symbol as the bread baked on the run with no time to rise, but of the bread that doesn’t require the puffed up arrogance of one who knows everything.
I seek to live life like a a talmid chacham, a wise student. It is the Talmudic concept of someone whose torah study is matched by her actions in the world, whose behavior reflects the deepest messages of the Torah. On Passover, this means that I strive to act in a way that remembers the empathy required of the reminders that we were slaves unto Pharaoh and strangers in a strange land. I want to remember what it feels like to be a slave and to use that to stand up against the modern Pharaohs, to help relieve the slavery of others. I want to recognize the places and times when I have been a Pharaoh—as a parent, as a co-worker, as a leader, as a person who judges others harshly… and change. And Passover reminds us that change is hard… Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of decades of habit that couldn’t be changed even as his world shattered around him. Even when we know something is bad for us, something that might have served us previously, change is very very hard.
But the seder also reminds us that even small steps make a difference, and indeed, would be dayenu—enough. Or at least a start.
May this Feast of our Freedom lead you to let go of the Pharaoh within and the Pharaoh without. May the matzah balls be delicious and the charoseth sweet.