This week, we mark our final days in Egypt. For generations, we have languished in slavery, served our masters from the narrow confines of our chains. We have built, heaved, sweat, and cried – bled, birthed, pushed, and died all in a land that is not our land, for a king who is not our king. Stifled, oppressed – this is our people’s story of alienation, of being the stranger.
But, this week, though our bodies are still ensnared, our eyes are set on revelatory fire. There is something new in the air. Freedom is coming. This week is the last week of our captivity. In these final days leading up to Pesach, we step into the project of our redemption – a seemingly unending march to the land of our promise.
There’s a paradox here. Every year we leave Mitzrayim, we leave Egypt, and every year we find ourselves back there again. Where was your Mitzrayim, your narrow place, last year? By what or by whom are you held captive this year? Back and forth – and forever in between.
This is the story, the very essence of our people. We live in tension, in movement. From the narrow confines of slavery, toward the land of our redemption – from the darkness of exile to the blinding light of revelation. Most of the time we are betwixt and between.
We are the the Hebrews, the Ivrim. The word Ivrim comes from the root ayin, bet, resh, which means to cross over. The very name informs us that we are in constant motion, unending transformation, and enduring transition. We are named for this tension, this unending march toward a more just, a more righteous reality.
As Ivrim, we are called to move across borders and boundaries, across time and space – called to relive a collective past and a shared memory in every act of ritual, in every reading of text, and in every moment of prayer. We are an unending past and revelatory future – a collection of movements, words, and memories transmitted from the murky depths of creation passed down to us in the accents of our great-grandparents.
When I think about crossing boundaries, about breaking free from captivity, I think about my great-grandfather, Nathan Chanin. Nathan came to America at the turn of the century after serving an eight year sentence in Siberia for his revolutionary activities. He was a leader of the Jewish Labor movement, a prominent union organizer, and well-known educator. He worked for the Workmen’s Circle for over 15 years, serving as both the organization’s Education Director and Secretary General.
Nathan’s passion for the Yiddish language, his unceasing pursuit of justice, and his love of Yiddishkeit have flowed down through the generations of my family, spilling over into our religious, political, and cultural identities. It is at this time of year, this time of exodus, of liberation, and of transition, that I am most reminded of Nathan’s legacy. Every Pesach, my family narrates, sings, and celebrates the story of our redemption in Yiddish. From the perfectly pronounced story of the four sons, each voiced by my mother and her siblings, to my broken and heavily accented four-questions — we speak a more just future into being through the language of our past.
In addition to the Yiddish of our past, my cousins and I add supplementary texts, prayers, and music to our family seder. Every year, we bring new words that have moved us, songs that have inspired us, and rituals that have transformed us. We bring in Leonard Baskin’s drawings from the CCAR’s Passover Haggadah and the ritual of Miriam’s Cup and the gender-inclusive language of The Open Door. Our Seder is two moments in time at once – multiple voices held together in perfect tension.
This blend of past and future, of Nathan’s secular Yiddishkeit with the current longings and passions of his great-grandchildren have taught me that perhaps freedom and redemption come not as the result of a long march or entering a promised land, but are cultivated and honed over time in our ability to move in and out of the boundaries and to live as Ivrim, in constant transformation.
At the end of his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin imagines a moment of unending revelation and redemption that stands in perpetual tension. He writes:
“No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where blood ran down. They wandered in the valley forever, and they smote the rock forever. And the waters sprang perpetually, in the perpetual desert. They cried unto the Lord forever and lifted up their eyes forever. They were cast down forever, and the Lord lifted them up forever.”
Revelation, Baldwin says, happens in tension – in the unending march toward freedom.
As we embark once more from the confines of Mitzrayim, our narrow places, I would like to offer you the opportunity to fully embody the identity of the Ivrim, the boundary crosser. From Egypt to revelation, from the promised land to exile — we are blessed with the ability to find redemption and freedom in moments of unending tension.
May this blessing be available to each of us.
Hilly is a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder. Hilly is also a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.