The Secret Meaning Of Passover

Happy Holidays Everyone!

This Spring holiday season is so obviously the season of rebirth, of transmutation and transformation on so many levels.

I’m completely engaged in cooking and preparing for the first night of my family’s Passover Seder.

I confess that I am over tired while writing this so many of the thoughts I had to share with you about this holiday are out of focus and a little fuzzy right now. Hopefully when I write again I’ll be able to add more depth and breadth to this subject.

This is my second favorite Jewish holiday.. the first is Chanukah which celebrates the miracle of Light.

The seder is the commemoration of the liberation of the Jewish people from enslavement by the Pharoah in ancient Egypt. The service is conducted while we are seated at the table and it is a ritual retelling of the details and events that occurred just before the 40 year Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt into the desert.

We use the 1970 edition of the Haggadah that we used at my mother’s table. The Haggadah is a book containing the order of service of the traditional Passover meal. What touches me most is the message in the service that states that all men are children of God and therefore “ ….we do not rejoice over their downfall and defeat.. We can not be glad when any man needlessly suffers. So we mourn the loss of the Egyptians and express sorrow over their destruction”  (from Pathways Through The Haggadah, Ktav Publishing House, Inc., NY 1970 arranged by Rabbi Arthur Gilbert).

Also implicit in the service is the idea that as long as one person on Earth is enslaved by another, we are each of us in slavery.

I found a great article on the subject to augment this small offering.

I hope that you enjoy it.

The Secret Meaning of Passover

David Ian Miller

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jews around the world are once again stocking up on boxes of matzah, dusting off their family haggadahs and preparing to gather with friends and loved ones around the seder table.

The Passover holiday, which begins on Wednesday night and lasts for eight days, commemorates the biblical story of Exodus, in which Jewish slaves overthrow a tyrannical Egyptian pharaoh and, led by Moses, make their way through the desert in a 40-year pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

It’s an epic saga central to Jewish identity, one that raises complex themes about the nature of freedom and one’s relationship with God. It’s also a story that many Jews, after years of telling and retelling, find difficult to penetrate. They go through the motions, dutifully participating in the seder rituals, but the inner meaning of the ceremony remains inaccessible to them.

Estelle Frankel, a Berkeley psychotherapist and teacher of Jewish mysticism who is ordained as a rabbinic pastor, tries to, as she puts it, “hydrate the freeze-dried tidbits of the Passover tale.” She views the holiday as a vital tool for self-transformation as well as for healing the world. It’s a topic she writes about eloquently in her book, “Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness.”

I spoke with Frankel last week about the “secret meaning” of the Exodus story, her favorite Passover food and why Passover reminds her of Barack Obama.

What does Passover mean to you?

Passover for me is the great Jewish myth, and I don’t mean myth in the sense that it didn’t happen, that it’s not true. I mean it in the sense that it’s a great story that is always true, whether it happened or not exactly as the Bible describes. Jews find meaning in their own existence through the Rorschach of projecting themselves into this story.

The story of Exodus is undeniably a powerful metaphor — the idea of moving from slavery to freedom, from exile to redemption — that’s been applied to religious, historical and political contexts. You have described it as a journey of personal transformation. How do you see it that way?

As a therapist, I use the symbols and the allegories of the Exodus as a map of the process of transformation — how people develop and evolve their identity over time. Every single symbol in the story corresponds to stages in this process. For example, it shows both our desire for change and our resistance to it; it also shows how life forces us to change, and how if we don’t continually change and grow, we die.

How do those themes arise in the story itself?

In the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we have a family of 70 people going to Egypt because of a famine, and they settle in Goshen — the land of Goshen is at first this very fertile, nurturing environment where the [Jewish] people can grow into a nation. But over time it changes, and what was once a nurturing womb for growth becomes this oppressive society where they are enslaved. It’s clear that they have to get out of there, and eventually Moses leads them to freedom. We can see that as a symbol of how we often develop life structures, relationships or even careers where we thrive for some period of time, and there is room for a lot of growth, just like the fetus in its mother’s womb can grow and be nourished, but then eventually it gets to be a tight space — the Hebrew word for Egypt, in fact, is Mitzrayim, which literally means a tight place, a place of constriction.

You write that the Jewish mystics saw Egypt in this way, not only as a geographical place but as a symbol of constrictive consciousness. So what did they see as a way out of that state? Or did they?

There is a tension between the part of us that wants to just stay in the known, stay in the old, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if there is no room to move or grow, and the part of us that wants to change. But there are a number of forces that can cause us to break free. One is pain itself. Feeling the discomfort is a great impetus to change. Another is believing that change is possible, finding hope. I can’t tell you how many people come in to therapy and really don’t believe that they can change; they think that how they have been is how they will always be.

It’s interesting, though, that in the Exodus story, the Jews end up wandering for 40 years in the desert after leaving Egypt, and the ones who were the former slaves never actually make it to the Promised Land. It’s only the next generation that arrives in Israel. Isn’t that kind of a depressing notion? What does it say, from a psychological perspective, about the possibility for making change in one’s life?

You know, Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander, who was a Hasidic master, said it was easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Jews. Similarly, it’s often true that people move on and leave [bad] situations, but then they go and recreate them, because the deeper dynamic that got them there in the first place hasn’t really shifted. People change their outer circumstances, but their inner landscape remains unchanged. Deeper work really has to address the images, the deep-seated images, we have of ourselves.

You also write that the Exodus in Jewish mysticism is seen not just as a one-time historical event but as the ongoing healing journey of the soul from the narrow confines of the ego to the promised land of the spirit. Does that mean we don’t actually transform ourselves?

No. I think the mystics say that we have to come out of Mitzrayim, out of this constriction, every day of our lives. And, like I said, religious Jews circle this myth. They live in relation to this story as an archetype every day of their lives. So you wake up in the morning and you look in the mirror, and you say, “Ah. Here I am! Estelle. I’ve got my whole identity with me.” But if I take the time, as I did before this interview, to just sit down, close my eyes, say a prayer, open myself to spirit, then my identity begins to expand, and I remember that I’m not just Estelle, the personality, that I’m a soul, that I’m an embodiment of the Divine, and I move from what Jewish mystics say is “small mind” to “big mind.” And in that other state, the bonds of the self, the small identity that limits us and dictates who we think we are, it frees up — it’s sort of like a zooming out that you would do with a camera, but it’s zooming out all the way to infinity, all the way to eternity, beyond time, beyond space. And in that moment of deep meditation, or prayer, anything becomes possible, because you are rising above the workings of time.

Is that just a mental shift that one makes through meditation or prayer or …

It’s the goal of all spiritual practice. That’s the secret meaning of Passover.

For those who have never been to a Passover seder, can you describe what happens briefly?

Every seder is unique — every family does it in their own way — but in general we immerse ourselves in this story of our history. We re-narrate it, and we find ourselves in the story in order to open up a vision of a possible world redeemed. That is really where the journey is meant to take us. At the end — if you don’t fall asleep before it’s over — you ceremonially open the door for [prophet] Elijah, which is opening to the future and to hope.

Food is an important part of the seder. Do you have a favorite Passover food?

I make a knockout haroset, which is a mixture of apples, dates and nuts drenched in wine. You put it on matzah, with a little horseradish, and the taste in your mouth of the bitter and the sweet says it all about life. You know, that there is a bitterness to the Passover story, remembering this history of oppression, of having been once slaves and not free, and at the same time we have this sweet taste of freedom and of love in our mouths.

You told me the other day that Passover reminds us that “all of life wants to be free.” What about the people who lack basic freedoms?

There are 27 million slaves on the planet today. As we are speaking, people are being sold into servitude, into forced labor. When you take in the reality of human suffering in the world, you either have to harden your heart, like Pharaoh, or you have to become an activist, like Moses. For me, recently, becoming aware of clothing made in sweatshops around the world has made me more conscious as a consumer: Where do I buy clothes? And can I bear to wear something was made by a child slave somewhere in Bangladesh? You want to make sure that the workers around the world who lived in dire poverty are being treated at least with a fair wage. So every year on Passover we read the story and hopefully make it relevant to the world today, and we think about where on the planet are people still not free, and what can we do about it?

Would you say there is one great lesson of Passover? If so, what is it?

I think the great lesson is that change is possible, that how things are now is not how they have to or will always be. I don’t know if you want to get political in your column, but I think Barack Obama was so effective in his campaign, because, like Moses, he awakened hope. I think that’s what the seder night is about. It’s about the idea that things can change, and each small step we take contributes to the slow working of redemption in the world.

Experience a seder with Estelle Frankel at Chochmat HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality in Berkeley, April 9, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Information: 510-704-9687.

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include, Wired News and The New York Observer.
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