First seder, Passover 5778. Esther recalls climbing Mt. Pisgah in the early ’80s. She was in her fifties. Visiting her daughter and son-in-law at the time and first grandchild. What did I know about climbing a mountain? she says. I was from Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn. We were walking behind some other hikers, women older than me in heels. In heels! I thought to myself, when they turn back, I’m turning back. But they didn’t turn back.
I’m turning back.
I’m writing this on the 7th of Nissan, 5778; April 7, 2018. (Yep, I’m breaking the commandment, creating on the day of resting from creation.) Esther told her story on the 14th of Nissan, March 30. Esther turned back to the 1980s to bring her story of climbing Western North Carolina’s Mt. Pisgah back from the past.
The Haggadah, the text that guides us on our journey through the seder, demands that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself (lirot et atzmo) as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” How far back do we have to go, those of us living in this pharaonic epoch, to experience the suffering in and coming forth from that Egypt?
Biblical scholars and archeologists, who generally agree that some version of the Exodus actually happened, place the date at either 15th century B.C.E. or 13th century B.C.E. How do we transport ourselves all that way back through time, place, and circumstance?
I’m turning back—history, personal and collective—to come forth. Torah, story, myth: free me to see who, where, how I am, how we are, and how we are. Turning back: a path to freedom?
A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites (EX 1:8-12).
O cruel king of these Divided States of America: is Torah looking at you? O undocumented: is Torah looking at you? O fortified borders: is Torah looking at you? O dread, O fear of others. O heart that dares not soften, heart-mind that refuses to open to admit that those who you refuse to know are none other than humans whose origins are the same as yours, whose destinations are the same as yours, and whose journeys from their beginnings to their ends are lit by the same hopes and fears, setbacks and triumphs, angers and gratitudes as yours: is Torah looking at you?
Who does not know? I do not know: will any guests at our seder find their way, by following the map of the haggadah, to freedom. Kadesh (first cup of wine), Urhatz (washing of the hands), Karpas (parsley dipped in saltwater), Yachatz (breaking the middle of three matzos and hiding half of it), Maggid (telling the story)—we’re in the thick of it.
And what do my ancestors say, those nearer descendants of Jacob and Joseph in Exodus (14: 11-12)?
Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, “Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?”
The climb is too steep, my legs too weak, the seder too long, and can I trust the vision of freedom, justice, equality, and love they say can be realized in this world, on this earth, the prophets and poets, the activists and rabbis and vocal throngs?
The minute those who have come forth before me turn back, I’m turning back.
But they’re not turning back.
They are free and they are walking toward freedom.
Though they may not have known it as they trudged behind their leader, the freedom they headed toward, those distant ancestors, was not merely freedom from slavery, freedom from brutal, punishing, unremitting work, freedom from a system in which they, proliferating outsiders, were perceived as a threat to Pharaoh and his people.
That was only Freedom.1. Freedom.2, or, better, call it Freedom.∞ [infinity] lay ahead. Because they did not turn back, they eventually arrived at the time and place of revelation. In their bones, in their blood, they knew what it had been like to belong to Pharaoh. And then, for an eternal moment, all two million refugees (liberated Hebrew slaves) experienced the freedom of belonging in God. They were God’s work, too, God’s creations.
Of course, that peak experience, like all experiences, extraordinary and mundane, was impermanent. So, God gave the Hebrews a system, that, when implemented, would create the conditions in with the descendants of those who stood at Sinai would experience the ultimate liberation of knowing themselves and all beings as part of the Divine again, and again, and again.
That’s why we enact the seder, year after year after year. That’s why we tell our stories. That’s why we admit that I’d turn back now if only you would, and you’d turn back now if only I would. But because you keep walking toward freedom, I keep walking toward freedom, and because I keep walking toward freedom, you keep walking toward freedom.
Esther made it to the peak of Mt. Pisgah that day four decades ago. Because the strangers in heels before her didn’t turn back.
Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com