Monday, April 18, 2011

Exiles: A Passover Meditation

Passover has always been a favorite holiday of mine, filled with gratitude and awareness, a review of a tragic history and a hope for an idyllic future. When it begins tonight, Passover will have for me an additional layer of meaning, a deeper level of personal connection with the themes of the seder and the meaning of redemption. We are taught to feel empathy with our ancestors, and we say “For we were slaves in the land of Egypt” to express our oneness with them. But this year, I understand more clearly about banishment, about constraints, restrictions, wanderings. About exodus, the search for a home and, finding it, the relief and gratitude and joy of freedom. I feel I have been redeemed. I believe, in this season of renewal, that I am starting over, and in the words of a spiritual that was popular in the Civil Rights movement (which also had great empathy with the Passover story), I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.

One of the themes of the Passover story is that of exile. Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons, was sold to passing Arab traders by his jealous brothers, and ended up in servitude in the house of the Pharaoh. That his dreams ended up making him a valuable advisor to the Pharaoh is no lasting reprieve for the Israelites, for when famine spread to Canaan the brothers came to Egypt to beg for mercy and corn. Joseph commanded that the brothers and their father move to Egypt and from that time the Israelites grew and multiplied until some generations hence the new Pharaoh grew suspicious of the large Israelite population and so enslaved them.

By treachery, Joseph was exiled to Egypt. By hunger, his brothers and father came to Egypt was well. For centuries, the Israelites were trapped as slaves there. Once freed, they endured forty years of wandering in the desert, a nomadic people trying desperately to reach a Promised Land they were long deemed unworthy to inhabit.

Last July, with the embers of my failing marriage still hot and glowing red, I was forced to leave my home and my children. For the next five months, I lived out of a plastic storage container, finding shelter through the kindness and generosity of friends who let me stay on their couches and spare rooms. I had no permanent forwarding address, no groceries to call my own (or a place to put them), and I despaired of ever knowing normalcy again.

With no money to set off on my own (I was still responsible for the mortgage and other expenses of the home I was no longer welcome to inhabit), I was at the mercy of others and in their debt. Finally, in late December a crisis took the floor out from under me and my already unstable existence began going into a free fall. It was at that point that I knew I could no longer live as a wandering Jew.

Thanks to more generosity from those around me, I got an apartment of my own as of January 1. An unspectacular two-bedroom studio in the attic of a house in a lousy part of town – but only three miles from my children – my Promised Land was, at first, barely promising. I had, after all, no furniture of my own. But again, more friends pitched in, colleagues too, and with some resourcefulness on my part (I grabbed a bureau, bookcase, and other items from curbs where they were awaiting the garbage truck, and got many other items for free or very little money from craigslist and dollar stores), my dingy apartment suddenly became a comforting and comforting place filled with my stuff, a true sanctuary I was happy to wake up in and come home to.

Best of all, my kids like it here and have had sleepovers. My oldest just returned from Israel with a gift for me of a mezuzah, which Jews place on the doorposts of their homes in fulfillment of a Biblical commandment. That she would not only acknowledge this place as my home but also want to consecrate it as such was the most extraordinary gift of all, better even than the mezuzah itself.

In two days, my wife and I will appear before a judge and our marriage will finally be put out of its misery. Which doesn’t mean that my troubles are over, not by a long shot. But when the strings are cut, I will not fall helplessly into an endless pit of despair. I have already come out the other end of exile. I have reached the far distant shore. I am home. I am free. The other day I was on the phone with a friend I last spoke to just after getting the apartment. She was impressed by the difference in my voice, how it had so much more energy and optimism. Next year in Jerusalem? A nice thought, but to be still here in Linden Square, Malden, next year will be blessing enough.

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