Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Very Meisner Pesach, or How To Live The Exodus

B’chol dor va-dor, chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim. “In every generation, a person is obligated to view themselves as if they personally went forth out of Egypt.”

We recite this every Pesach, of course. And with every passing year, this seems to resound more strongly for me. Pesach is our most performative holiday: we don’t just say a tefillah (prayer) about what happened, we re-create what happened. We get rid of our chametz (leavened stuff), both practically by cleaning and ritually by mechirat chametz (legally selling our chametz). We kasher everything. We sit at the seder table. We eat matzah. We eat maror. We drink the wine. We lean, we recline on cushions. We have the items on the seder plate in front of us. We open the door for Eliyahu ha-Navi. We go through the telling of the story, asking as many questions as we can about it, analyzing what it means to have once been enslaved and now to be free. In some communities, to fulfill (as best they can) the original commandment in Exodus, “You shall eat it in haste, with your loins girded up, with your sandals on your feet and your staves in your hands,” they actually bust out a walking stick and a sack of matzah, folks wear their sandals, and people take turns carrying the sack of matzah over their shoulders, around the table, staff in hand and sandalled up (presumably everyone’s loins are already girded these days) -- that’s serious ritual action.

This is not a holiday of abstractions. This is a very tachlis (real, pragmatic) holiday, grounded in concrete actions, rituals, deeds, as well as words.

And yet, even with all of this, can we really fulfill the demand that this verse in the Haggadah makes upon us? Can we actually view ourselves as formerly enslaved, newly tasting freedom?

The halachic answer, of course, is yes. Did you read the Pesach story and discuss it? Did you eat the matzah and the maror, drink the wine, stop at the afikoman? Yeah? Boom: you’re yotzei (fulfilled), you’ve successfully recreated the Exodus.

The midrashic answer is also generally yes. By playing games with the text of the Exodus story, and extending the ideas within it to other stories in Tanach, other stories in Rabbinic text, other stories in Jewish history, we can re-create the Exodus.

Homiletically, I might say that the answer lies in all our lives, past and future. As I mentioned in my very first post to this blog, the Exodus is dependant upon God’s command to Pharaoh, shlach et ‘ami ve-ya’avduni “Let My people go, so they can serve Me.” By reflecting upon what ways we have fulfilled that condition of our freedom, and what ways we can commit ourselves to better fulfilling it in the future, we make ourselves yotzei for this mitzvah.

But is that enough? Is there more?

I think there can be. Way before I became a rabbi, my initial training was as an actor. I got trained in a variation on Meisner Method (one of the offspring systems of the Stanislavski school of “method” acting), at UC Santa Cruz, by a truly astonishing master director named Greg Fritsch. He was (and, God willing, remains) an incredibly intense little guy, five foot bupkiss, with presence around fourteen foot nine. And he taught us that the seed of every experience and feeling that we would ever need as actors lay within us. The trick was knowing yourself and trusting yourself enough to find them and bring them out, even when they were scary or painful. That last clause is no joke: a good acting studio (and Greg’s was the epitome of such) is a little like group therapy. You get together with a small group of other people, and together, you bring out your inner demons, your inhibitions, your fears, your childhood traumas, your ego, your self-criticism, and you alternately bludgeon them into submission and force them to serve at your pleasure.

What does this have to do with Pesach? Everything. Just like the Haggadah says, you have to live it, not just read it. Who knew the Rabbis were all about Meisner Method, right? But the Haggadah tells us, B’chol dor va-dor, chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim, she-ne’emar: “ve-higadeta l’vinecha ba-yom ha-hu leimor ba-avur zeh asah Hashem li b’tzeti mi-Mitzrayim.” Lo et avotenu bil’vad ga’al Hakadosh Baruch Hu, ele af otanu ga’al imahem, she-ne’emar: “v’otanu hotzi mi-sham, l’ma’an havi otanu, la-tet lanu et ha-aretz asher nishba l’avotenu.”
“In every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt, as it says, ‘And you shall tell your children on that day, saying “This is because of what Hashem did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”’ For not only our ancestors did the Holy One Blessed Be He redeem, but rather even we ourselves were redeemed with them, as it says, ‘And He took us out from there, so as to take us and give to us the land which He swore to our ancestors.’”

You have to be able, as Greg taught us, to get to “that place:” the emotional and sensory moment of living that experience, of knowing it, being inside the truth of it; and you have to be able to “find your way back to it,” whenever you need to get there. That’s not just Meisner, that’s Pesach.

Within every Jew is the seed of this experience. When you are preparing for the seder this year, take a few moments to really prepare: not just the food, the dishes, the house, and so forth. Prepare yourself.

Think back, look within yourself-- deeply, unflinchingly within yourself. When were you a slave? When were you bound to something terrible: a secret, a trauma or neurosis, an addiction, a bad relationship, a horrible situation you found yourself mired in, family dysfunctionality...anything that brought you low, that made you feel less than worthwhile and valuable, that made you desperate and miserable? For a long time or a short time-- months or weeks or just one really messed-up day? Really remember that experience. How did it make you feel? Not just in the abstract, but physically? Butterflies in your stomach? Sinking feeling? Wretched? Self-loathing? Angry? Hateful toward someone else? So bitter you could taste it in your mouth?

Let yourself re-live that experience. Spoiler alert: this will probably be unpleasant, and it will definitely be difficult. But take it in. Keep it fresh in your mind.

Now think back, just as deeply. When did you get freedom? From the situation or thing you remembered before, or from some other bad situation. What’s the moment you remember most clearly feeling freed? The relief you felt when you were just sure you were never going to get out of a bad mess, and suddenly things started clearing up? When you got over the worst break-up ever? Began to live with a terrible loss? Came to terms with a health crisis? Managed to fix something in your life you thought might be unfixable? What was that moment when you suddenly got hope back into your life after feeling hopeless? What did it feel like? Did you feel lighter? Did you want to laugh or cry or both? What did your body feel like when you regained hope and resolve? Calmer? More excited?

Re-live that moment. It should be a lot more pleasant than the last time, but it might not be any easier. Memories and feelings are freaky that way. But take it in, too. Keep that joy, that excitement, that sudden sense of doors opening and horizons expanding, fresh in your mind.

When you read about how we were slaves-- avadim hayinu l’Faro b’Mitzrayim, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt!”-- bring up that first memory. Let that awful experience spill into those words: when you say it, link it up in your head-- this is what it feels like to be a slave. When you read about how God freed us-- v’yotzi’anu Hashem elohenu mi-sham b’yad chazakah u’vi’z’roa netuyah, “But Hashem our God took us out of there with a strong hand, an outstretched arm!”-- bring up that second memory. Let that wonder and delight and painfully happy return of hope where hopelessness was flood out of you, into those words: when you say it, link it up in your head-- this is what it feels like to be free!

Take the sum of those two feelings-- the joy after the pain-- shmoosh them up, and try to cram it into every brachah (blessing) you say at the seder.

Take the acknowledgement, the reality, the truthfulness of those sensations, and fire them right out and up to Hashem.

Because we were slaves, and He made us free.


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