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Retracing the Road to Freedom

Once a year we return, to the degree that we can, to the event that started it all. We don't so much celebrate Passover or mark Passover or remember Passover as we experience it, relive it, retell it.

That is where the seder comes in, the ritual meal at which we tell the story of Exodus. It is, somewhat paradoxically, a celebration of freedom guided by a set order. For that is what seder means, "order." We may hold it where we want to, gather at the time we set, pace the telling as fits our needs, sit in the fashion we desire, use the language that we are most familiar with. But we are to touch 15 landmarks. We are our own ritual experts this evening, but we are gathered in a cause that transcends our personal desires. We are in the pursuit of the true voice. We seek it in the company of one another, claiming as witnesses and as guides those who came before us. So we use a book called the Haggadah, the collective memory of the generations.

The Haggadah is more than a book, really. It is a script suggesting what we may say, showing us how we may sit, recommending what we might eat. It serves as a series of cues to the various parts of the seder. When we feel uncertain, we anchor ourselves in the text, and the story unfolds through the age-old words. But the Haggadah also bids us to free ourselves from the limits of the written word: "Whoever expands upon the telling of the story is to be praised."

So it is today that families and friends often supplement the tradition with their novel ways of telling the story and their own Haggadot (plural of Haggadah). Based on the trials of our ancestors, these Haggadot expand on the lessons and the readings and the hope found in the original tale. The plagues might be embellished with a roll call of contemporary environmental calamities; the Israelites' struggle for freedom might presage modern social inequities. Some communities sponsor feminist seders a week or two before Passover, attracting many women as well as some men, young and old, seder veterans and newcomers to the ritual. Those seders blend song and story to recapture the memories and values of Jewish women of the past and offer a celebration of Jewish women of the future. Songs and readings from those seders are then sometimes added to home seders.

Telling and retelling the story in our own way frees our imaginations to enter into the mystery and the marvels of the Exodus from Egypt. To simply read the Haggadah is to tell the story from the outside, to focus on getting it right. The story is then something we hold in our hands, when it needs to be something we hold in our hearts. To speak the story in our own words, however, is to enter into the tale and have the tale enter us. We become the Israelites; we feel the Egypt in our lives. We recall what it is like to feel trapped, oppressed, forgotten. The Haggadah tells us that is what is supposed to happen: "Each of us should imaging that we personally went out from the Land of Egypt."

And in many ways, the story is our own. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, meaning "narrow place." Each of us is constricted by our own fears of change. We know that the pull of freedom is threatened by the tug of laziness or the lure of the familiar. Each of us can use the help of valiant men and women who call us to be free. We can pass through the narrow canal of the parted waters and emerge new on the other side if we have the help and the encouragement of others. Passover is the beginning of such encouragement.

But for the Jews, freedom is just the beginning. It is the prerequisite, not the goal. The goal leads through the ethical to the spiritual: to serve God willingly instead of Pharaoh forcibly, to be part of the sacred instead of the mundane, to be joined to the ultimate instead of to the finite. When Moses first appeared before Pharaoh to ask for the freedom of the Israelites, he said, "Thus said Adonai: 'Let My people go so that they may worship Me in the desert" (Exodus 5:1). Freedom with purpose. Journey with destination.

Excerpted from The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events ( Behrman House, 2000 by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin. Rabbi Cardin is Director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.

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