Each year at the Passover seder, we recount the Exodus of the Israelites from Mitzrayim (the narrow place) to freedom in the Land of Milk and Honey. And, every year, I ask myself if it really happened, and I decide it doesn’t matter. What matters instead is the retelling of the story, year after year, generation after generation. With the act of retelling we remember, we reimagine, and we try to empathize and feel in our bodies and hearts what might have happened.
Since the story might not be true, the deep structure of the Passover seder emphasizes a paradox between myth and questioning. On Passover, we are not meant to prioritize fact or outcome but, rather, to consider the importance of the process and the journey. Each year, we contemplate the significance of the effort it takes to resist oppression and the hard realization that not everyone is free.
Perhaps what matters most, then, is consciously recognizing the privilege of our freedom and also asking ourselves tough questions about who doesn’t enjoy that same freedom. To put it another way, what if questioning is as important to Passover as the action of retelling? Many of us can remember being obligated, as the youngest person at the Passover table, to ask or sing the “Four Questions.” The “Four Questions” highlight what makes Passover distinct. Possibly, as a nod to the tradition of good Jewish humour, the Haggadah implies that there are, in fact, five questions, not four. The fifth question, or rather the overall question, is the chorus itself: “Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot (Why is this night different from all other nights)?”
The ritual of “mah nishtanah” thus seems to be about questioning even the questions. Maybe the ritual is actually a microcosm for the entire seder. It draws our attention to what makes the Passover seder so distinctive, namely because that night we recount the story of slavery, the resistance and the journey to freedom, and it urges seder participants to ask questions in order to understand, and imagine for themselves, what it might have been like to be slaves in Egypt.
I recently returned from a four-week dance residency in Guinea, West Africa, where I lived with local people who struggled just to survive from day to day and who dreamed of a new life in Europe or North America. While Guinea is not war-torn, life there is fragile and difficult. After having lived there for a month, I can attest to the precariousness of my friends’ futures.
Since my return, I have been reading article after article about the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe; the perils facing mostly Muslim asylum-seekers as they try to cross into Canada from the U.S., traversing isolated prairie and forest in life-threatening winter conditions; and the human traffickers who prey on youth trying to flee the gang-ridden cities of El Salvador and Mexico. The unsettling goals of the Trump administration in the U.S. and the rise of populist and xenophobic political leaders in Europe and elsewhere are motivating many of these perilous journeys.
My heart is full of worry. We are approaching Passover and, whether or not the story we recount at the seder is myth or truth, we retell it in order to try to imagine what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. This year, can we also try to imagine what the perilous journey was like?
I asked Patti Lenard, professor of political philosophy at the University of Ottawa, what concerned Canadian citizens can do about the worldwide refugee crisis. She said ordinary Canadians can put pressure on our federal government to raise the cap on privately sponsored refugees. Lenard is adamant that Canadian Immigration Services has the infrastructure to support raising the cap, especially since much of the burden of helping the new arrivals falls on whatever private group has sponsored their application. She said the second action we can take is to join or found a group that is actively engaged in privately sponsoring an individual or family. Visit www.refugee613.ca/pages/sponsor for more information.
At this time of the year, when the wisdom of our Jewish calendar reminds us to think deeply of struggle, servitude, resistance and liberty, I hope we can ask ourselves difficult questions about what we can do, as individuals, to help repair our troubled world.