Missing Egypt

17 04 2009

Okay, I’ll admit it, although it is difficult, at first, to admit to such a perverse idea: Sometimes I miss Egypt.

There, I said it. At times I find myself wistfully wishing for slavery. I am apparently not the first to feel this way (Numbers 11:4-6):

ד וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ, הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה; וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ, גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. 4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat!
ה זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים. 5 We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;
ו וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ. 6 but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’

For years, I did not understand the complaining of the Israelites in the desert after Moses and God miraculously took them out of the iron furnace of Egypt. (This was not a solitary occurrence: see Exodus 16:1-3 and Numbers 14:1-4 in addition to the verses cited above.) These verses (Deuteronomy 4:32-34) pretty well sum up the uniquely miraculous feat of the Exodus from Egypt (you may think you recognize verse 34 from the haggadah but you are probably thinking of Deuteronomy 26:8):

לב כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:  הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ. 32 For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
לג הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה–וַיֶּחִי. 33 Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
לד אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים:  כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֶיךָ. 34 Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?

It was a miraculous, amazing, earth-shatteringly impossible feat! Why weren’t they grateful? How could anyone want to be a slave? It’s almost criminal to wish for such a thing, when all the enslaved peoples of the world must hungrily yearn for freedom. What is going on here? Why do I miss Egypt and what do I mean by “Egypt”?

We are each supposed to remember and feel the suffering we experienced in Egypt. As this one line states very succinctly (from the Haggadah and Mishna Pesachim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

In each generation, a person must look upon himself as if he had personally left Egypt.

Egypt means many things to many people. Some think of the actual experience of being an ancient Israelite in the land of Egypt. Others think of more modern versions of slavery or suffering, or of the Holocaust. For me, the first time I connected to the seder on a visceral level was after I had experienced both depression and redemption from depression.

One year, sitting at the seder, the salt water suddenly tasted just like the tears that I remembered shedding continuously for months, while in the deepest pit of despair. The dense, sticky charoset reminded me of the laborious process of emerging from bed every dusky morning and getting through the day. The tasteless cardboard-like matzah, caught in my throat, reminded me of countless meals eaten without tasting a thing, of numerous lectures plodded through uncomprehendingly. And then, finally, the sweet taste of freedom, redemption, and rebirth, first in the egg in salt water, which tastes scrumptious after the rounds of matzah and marror, and then–the chicken soup! Nothing says freedom quite like a rich bowl of my mother’s chicken soup. (The matzah kugel tastes a little bit less like freedom.) The freedom that I experienced that year, the first year that I connected the ancient Israelites’ Egypt with my Egpyt, was remarkable. I emerged transformed and with a new understanding of both slavery and freedom.

So why my newfound sympathy for the Israelites who complained in the desert, who took their freedom for granted and wished to revert to slavery?

Freedom is trickier than we usually admit at Passover time, when everyone is busy extoling its virtues. Freedom is not without its complications. That first spoonful of chicken soup is incomparably wonderful, but freedom wears thin after awhile. Freedom is scary. Depression is horrible, but it’s safe. I am only now beginning to understand that.  Depression, like slavery, limits one’s horizons. All you need to do is get through the day. Expectations of onself, and from others, are minimized. If you want to kill yourself, and you don’t, that’s enough to make the day a smashing success. If you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, and you do, that’s enough to make that day worthwhile, almost regardless of what you do once you get out of bed. A slave has to meet his quota of bricks, and while he may suffer tremendously under his taskmasters, he knows what they expect of him and it is in their best interest to keep him fed and sheltered from the harsh noonday sun. There is safety and security in that. Depression is not fun. It’s miserable to want to die, or to have your singular goal for the day to get out of bed (shower and tooth-brushing optional). It was incredibly frightening to put myself into a hospital when I was afraid that I would hurt myself, but also incredibly wonderful to have my basic needs met by someone else while I was there (“the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic”!). To be looked after, to feel cared for, even in misery, had something over this freedom that wearies my soul.

Freedom demands choices. Choices every day. All the time. One after another. Big choices and small, significant and entirely insignificant.

Freedom means expectations. Freedom means that getting up and making bricks every day isn’t enough–not nearly enough. And that is very scary.

I thought that once I left Egypt, which pretty much happened several years ago, things would be easy. The Promised Land glimmered hopefully in the not-too-distant distance. The Promised Land of being able to go to sleep at night, get up in the morning, and do something useful, fulfilling, and interesting with my day in between. The Promised Land of a husband, children, and a full professional and communal life. But it turns out that there is a vast desert between slavery and the Promised Land. I am traversing that desert right now.

Sometimes, I get a burst of energy and run a mile, quickly, towards the Promised Land. I see things–wonderful, exciting, gratifying things–that I could not have imagined while enslaved in Egypt. I picture a book-lined room and myself, sitting in a comfortable chair, writing eloquently and movingly about things that matter. I picture conversations with close friends and utter strangers about this crazy world we live in, and how we can make it more bearable for all of us. But then I get closer, and I see a lifetime of choices, including many difficult ones, before me. I see all of the responsibility of freedom, and I get scared. I run–literally run!–back towards Egypt. I crawl into bed for a few days. I yearn for confinement, for a world small enough to take in with a single sweeping glance. I yearn for reduced expectations, for a kindly nurse to take my temperature and bring me three square meals and give me something in the form of a small pill to help me sleep at night. I’ll make bricks, I think. I’ll curl up and sleep at odd hours of the day and night. I’ll contemplate death and feel worthless and small and insignificant. Just don’t make go out there and live my life as a free woman! Please! Anything but that!

These thoughts make me sad, and they don’t last forever. At first, I misunderstood the situation, and thought that those thoughts meant that I was back in Egypt. But I am not. I am out. I have been liberated. I walked out of Egypt years ago under the power of my own two feet and with the help of God’s mighty, outstretched hand and his perceptive psychotherapists, and I have not gone back since. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally look back, from my vantage point atop a hill in the desert, halfway between Egypt and the Promised Land, and wish to be back there.

One of the many things that I love about Judaism is that it allows me to say, “I don’t want to be free!” and even to throw a small temper-tantrum against the very freedom that I know saved me and makes my life worth living. Rather than being mortified at this thought, as I was when I began writing this post, I can open up the Tanakh and see that the Israelites had these ostensibly terrible thoughts as well. They weren’t saved by skilled psychotherapists and 20 mg/day of pharmaceuticals. They were saved by the almighty hand of God, by signs, wonders, and miracles galore. And if they could complain to cover up their fear, then I can be scared, too.

It is also no small comfort to know that it took the Israelites forty years to traverse the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. One popular interpretation of this lengthy punishment for the sin of the spies (see Numbers 13 and 14) is that the Israelites needed the time to transition from slavery to freedom. They could not have entered the Promised Land immediately after redemption from Egypt. I feel that I, too, would be ill-suited to transition immediately from slavery to freedom. It’s just too hard. So I am trying to let myself take this time–not that I have much of a choice, apparently–and let myself look forward with anticipation and then balance that with a wistful look back at the misery that I leave behind me, without being too harsh with myself for this journey.

Leaving Egypt was merely the first step. Becoming free is a process and a journey, not a week-long holiday.

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Birkat Kohanim: In Search of Light and Peace

31 12 2008

birkatcohanimThese three short verses, taken from the blessings that the kohanim, or priests, are supposed to give to the Israelites (see Numbers 6:24), contain many requests. They ask for blessings, protection, light, kindness, attention, and peace, and I say them every day after the Torah blessings in the morning prayers.

Significantly, I think, these verses of blessing make no mention of happiness. I am opposed to praying for happiness, since I don’t think it’s a realistic request and I don’t believe in praying for the impossible. I believe, of course, in individual moments of happiness, but to ask to be happy overall? Not realistic. Life contains too many tragedies to seek constant happiness. This may go against current trends in positive psychology as exemplified by popular books with titles like Stumbling on Happiness and Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, and maybe this outlook accounts for, or is due to, my sometimes depressed state, but it’s how I feel.

In any case, volumes could be written about each of these, and I yearn with all my being for all of them, but I want to focus on light and peace in this post. When I think of what I pray for the most, it is peace and a sense of fulfillment or purpose in life. Light is a necessary prerequisite for all of those things.

I spend a lot of time in darkness when I am depressed. It can be difficult to explain how pervasive and invasive this darkness seems, and how real it feels on even the sunniest of days. It’s not just that I feel dark and despondent when I am in a depressed period; the entire world around me seems dull, dim, and cloudy. It doesn’t feel like it’s dark here and now, but somewhere else or at some other time, there is light. The darkness that envelopes me with a chilly hug when I am depressed precludes the existence of any light, anywhere.

My all-time favorite verse about light is from Isaiah 58. It refers to light as a kind of justice breaking forth through the injustice and corruption of the world we live in. I can’t equate depression with injustice and corruption by any means, but the kind of light I seek breaks forth as the morning, and includes a strong dose of healing, much like the light of Isaiah 58:8.

ח אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ. 8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward.

The first half of the verse that follows, verse 9, is also stunningly beautiful and, in many ways, it sums up my deepest, unexpressed hopes for what prayer can be and do. When will God say, “Here I am”? In some ways, I wonder if my failure to call out in a regular manner, alone, accounts for God’s failure to respond. I have certainly cried enough… In general, I find many of the words of the prophets to either reflect my depressed state or to provide a sense of hope, uplifting, or healing from them.

ט אָז תִּקְרָא וַיהוָה יַעֲנֶה, תְּשַׁוַּע וְיֹאמַר הִנֵּנִי:. 9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD will answer; thou shalt cry, and He will say: ‘Here I am.’

And what of peace?

When I think of seeking and hoping for peace in my life, I think of stability and normality. I think of waking up in the morning, expressing gratitude for my life, getting up, and going about my day. I think of the absence of the too-oft expressed “Please God, just give me one good reason to keep on living!” thoughts. I think of being able to fully take care of myself the way I deserve to taken care of. I think of being an integral part of a warm, loving, and accepting community. I think of being fully at peace with my family and, more than that, with all the many parts of myself–my reality, my limitations, and the many, great, unrealized possibilities of my life.