By: Leila Shooshani
As we approach the Passover holiday I’ve begun to wonder about the experience of wandering through the desert. You know the story: we were once slaves in Egypt, but before we reached the land of milk and honey we first had to traverse a barren landscape for forty years. Many chose not to leave, many Jews stayed in Egypt where suffering had become acceptable, familiarity comfortable. That’s one of the most amazing and tragic aspects of being human I suppose, our adaptability. Even the tiniest cage can seem like a home. Rabbi Hanoch of Alexandria said, “The real exile of Egypt was that the Israelites learned to endure it.” Yet, what counteracts this tragic aspect of humanity is a desire for escape – to abandon what is known in favor of… in favor of what? Hope in ourselves and one another?
During the Passover seder each year we recite “we were once strangers in Egypt.” Our prison was such that we could not see the other, we could not find ourselves liberated through her. The desert is symbolic for deprivation because even outside the confines of slavery, one is still not quite free; for instance, by being dependent on allowance of resources allocated by heavenly control (manna). Vast and unyielding, the desert seemed to have no end, and for those who died without reaching its borders, it didn’t.
In the nothingness of the desert, all you have are stories of hope. The Torah is the ultimate story because you not only interact with it, but it interacts right back. We treat the Torah as if it were another person. Yes we clothe it, kiss it, and provide it with a home; but we only do these things because we’re able to speak with the Torah as if it were another person. Moses, the mute liberator, delivered us to the nothingness where in order to survive, we require to be amongst interlocutors that would provide us with hope enough to make it out of the desert. In Judaism we transcend the brutality of the world through others and through our texts or stories, which we treat as other and in that way my existence is indebted to your very being.
I can’t help but notice the similarities between the Hebrew words for desert “Meedbar/מדבר”and for speech “Medabear/מדבר”. It seems that in its typically poetic and deeply profound fashion, the language is telling us that yes, when you have nothing in the world the only thing you have is each other. Storytelling, dialogue, sharing, aren’t these the foundations of the Passover Seder anyway? Scratch that, aren’t these the foundations of the entire Jewish tradition?
Our liberation story as a Jewish people is not one with a happy ending. During the seder we sing “Ha Lachma” about the bread of affliction and pronounce that “now we are slaves” and that next year we hope to be free. Yes, in the Torah we did eventually make it into Israel, but our history is far from over and we are still making it today. I believe that we are all “still in the desert.” We live in a world that sees an unimaginable degradation of human dignity; whether it is through poverty, war, or sheer inability to love or even recognize my neighbor as myself. Our journey is far from over. It is not enough to cease being strangers in Egypt, although we see the other and thus understand the ethical obligations we have to them, we have not reached freedom. This Passover let’s recite together “We are still in the desert,” because our only way of actualizing a just world is through each other.
Leila Shooshani is from Boca Raton, FL and attended New College of Florida. She is a Congregational Outreach Worker at Faith in Place, which helps people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy-of care for Creation-are at the forefront of social justice.