My grandmother escaped from Russia hiding under a pile of hay in a horse- drawn wagon. At the border, men with pitchforks stabbed into it, attempting to thwart any stowaways. At least this once they didn’t succeed, and she and her family found their way to Minnesota, where her daring story seemed utterly incongruent with the old woman in the nursing home bed doing the telling.
Her journey from Russia was just one mere tributary in the sweeping narrative of the Jewish people — a narrative that leads back to another bold escape at another time in an ancient land. And yet the stories are connected. “All rivers run to the sea,” says Ecclesiastes. “And yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, they flow again.”
Perhaps one of the reasons we are commanded once a year to gather and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt is to encourage us to reflect on exactly how we got here and where we are going. Who were the people that came before us? What were their dreams, their values? What was their Haggadah — their story? “From where did the rivers flow?”
My parents married late and my mother died early. Like my grandmother before her, she was a living Haggadah — the keeper of the family story. She could tell me what the relatives were carrying when they crossed the Red Sea and for whom they were named. Her death was more of an ellipsis than a period. With her death and my maturity I have come to understand the significance of the echo that returns to many of the questions about the family history. Yet the black and white photos of relatives looking back at me in family albums are silent — their stories and names have been lost.
I am aware that Passover is not only an opportunity to recount the tale of the Israelites’ journey to freedom, but also to reflect on the equally immediate experience of our families’ journey. How did we get here? Who were the people whose small and large decisions brought us to this seder this year?
Mah nishtanah? Why on this night are we in Seattle and not in Russia or Argentina or Israel? Ma nishtanah? Why on this night are we sitting together and how did we contribute to our collective story this past year? Mah nishtanah? Why on this night do we speed through the story to get to the food, when we could linger, go a bit deeper and ask a bigger question? Mah nishtanah? What is written on the Haggadah of our lives this year? What was our slavery, our redemption and our freedom?
We are told to see ourselves as having escaped from Egypt. Maybe we should also see ourselves as having left every subsequent land with our ancestors, be it Syria, Rhodes or Germany, until we find ourselves where we are at the seder this year. And then we should look around at our family and our community, and we should say thank you to those people for being with us on this night. We should thank our ancestors for making our freedom possible.
And when we say the shehecheyanu. When we say, “Praised are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us and for allowing us to arrive at this time,” we will understand just what it means to arrive at this time and from where we have come. And maybe then we will reflect on all those people who helped us get here and those who are not here and we will appreciate how our lives and our destinies are absolutely bound together.
I know that when I sit down at the seder table and I begin to tell the story to my children, I will rejoice as my 2-year old son Idan recites the four questions. I will tell them of a little girl in the back of a hay wagon in Russia and her journey. I will tell them who they are named after and why. And maybe, just maybe, in this way we will feel that this story, our story, is not very old, but very, very new. That it is an ongoing narrative — a beautiful poem. That our Exodus continues. Our journey continues. And our redemption continues.
“To the place where the rivers flow, they flow again.”