We talk a lot about freedom at this time of year. Freedom from bondage. Freedom from our narrow places. Freedom from constriction. But what do we do with this talk of freedom if we ourselves feel stuck, if liberation seems impossible? What are the psycho-spiritual implications of that narrow place, the one that feels existential rather than circumstantial? What if we’re stuck with something: a diagnosis that isn’t curable, or financial ruin, or a sick loved one, or a grief that we know will persist?
At Passover Seder we say, “We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” We say, “it’s incumbent on each of us to see ourselves as if we ourselves had been freed from slavery.” How can we authentically say those things if we don’t feel that it’s possible to become free? The Slonimer rebbe taught that the journey to freedom began with a cry: a groan, a sigh, the expressed agony of the constricted heart. The first step toward freedom is naming what is, and sometimes “what is” is terrible… and can’t be changed. The grief, the loss, the diagnosis, the suicidal loved one, the impossible choice, the tight financial straits: all of these are real and they hurt.
It could be tempting to use Passover as an opportunity for spiritual bypassing: “let’s just pretend everything’s going to be okay even though we know deep down that it’s not!” But that won’t ultimately serve us. The first step is to name what hurts. To name what makes us feel stuck, and give voice to the agony of the constricted heart.
For me, the next step is sitting in the tension between lived reality, with all of its pain and grief and constriction, and the promise of the Passover story that tells us liberation is possible. Inhabit the both/and: this terrible reality is real, and the possibility of liberation is real, too. We don’t have to pretend away our lived reality in order to buy in to the promise of freedom, and we don’t have to sacrifice the hope of freedom on the altar of our own suffering, either.
The third step — and this is the one I truly struggle with sometimes — is to change my narrative about what “liberation” means.
For someone living with a cancer diagnosis, “liberation” may not be able to mean becoming cancer-free. For someone grieving the death of a loved one, “liberation” isn’t likely to mean “getting that loved one back.” For someone facing financial ruin, “liberation” can’t mean the winning lottery ticket that may not come. If liberation is something external, and that “something external” doesn’t come, then we face the loss of hope… and maybe also the loss of feeling that we belong to the Jewish core story. I think “liberation” has to mean something more like: finding expansiveness even within the narrow straits. As we sing in psalm 118:5, “מִן-הַמֵּצַר, קָרָאתִי יָּהּ; עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ / From the narrow straits I called to You, God; You answered me with Your expansiveness.” For someone who is chronically ill, who will not experience the “freedom” of complete healing, can liberation mean (as Toni Bernhard so beautifully writes) the freedom to find a different way to relate to illness? For someone who’s grieving a loss, can liberation mean the freedom to fully mourn? For someone who’s facing the reality that life didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, can liberation mean giving themselves permission to make space in their heart where a new hope might take root?
The danger of bypassing is always present, the risk of using spiritual language to paper over what hurts. Likewise the danger of appearing to minimize someone else’s pain. 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, “My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon” — and if your barn (or your home) (or your health) (or your sense of hope) has burned, I would never suggest, “But hey, look, you can see the moon, doesn’t that make up for having lost everything?”
Because there are some losses that nothing “makes up for.” And, I believe that hope can be kindled and nurtured even in the narrowest of straits — indeed, those places are where we need hope most. If you are trapped in a painful circumstance that can’t be changed, I’m not asking you to pretend that away. And, I also want to say: Passover is for you, too, even so.
Tradition offers a possible answer in the custom of Pesach Sheni (“Second Passover”). Torah teaches that one who can’t observe Pesach at its given time gets another chance to do so, exactly one month later. Torah is talking about someone who couldn’t make the Biblically-mandated Pesach offering because of external circumstance, such as contact with a dead body, but we can read the verses more broadly. For someone who is unable to access the liberation of Pesach for psycho-spiritual reasons — grief, or loss, or narrow straits that don’t seem “fixable” — there comes a “second Pesach,” another chance to become free.
If you’re afraid that Pesach can’t work its psycho-spiritual magic in you this year because of external circumstances you can’t control, may you be blessed with the ability to trust in second chances: the ability to feel that liberation can still come, even to your tightly-squeezed heart.