Inviting Our Inner Stranger

A Pesach Teaching 2010 / 5770 by Sarah Yehudit Schneider

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הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוֹל. כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַׁתָּא עַבְדֵּי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are needy, let them come and join this Passover Sedar. Now we are here; next year in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

The fifth stage of the Seder, called Magid (literally, Telling the Story) begins with the proclamation presented above, that is formulated in the colloquial Aramaic (instead of scholarly Hebrew) so that its invitation to the needy should be understood by all.

And yet, it has been observed that if we were really serious about this invitation we would stand in our doorways and shout it to the streets, or print it as a poster and tack it to our gates. Instead we speak it behind closed doors to the honored guests who are already seated.

One explanation is that we are speaking to the hungry and needy layers of our own soul, the parts of us that don’t completely buy this faith-thing. The dark corners of our psyche burdened by fundamental questions, doubts, lacks, fears or complaints. They are starving for truths that will resolve their disbelief and finally set them free. Our habit is to pretend they don’t exist—we shush their questions and stuff their cynical comments under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind, we start to imagine ourselves as immaculate and persecuted Guardians of the Faith.

One sure sign that it’s not so simple is when we feel intolerant toward other people’s questions and irritated when they don’t accept the answers we propose. That’s proof we haven’t resolved those issues to the full satisfaction of our own soul. If we were addressing the questioner with fully integrated faith, the encounter would not produce agitation on our part. Anxiety points to something unsettled beneath the surface. And further proof of our limited faith is the persistent presence of unrectified desires (aka, the yetzer). They show that our faith has not penetrated the corners of soul where those wayward impulses derive.

But tonight these inner skeptics and malcontents are honored guests. They get pulled from their dungeon, welcomed to the table…and really, the entire evening’s ritual is directed toward them. These straggling layers of soul are the limiting factor in our personal and spiritual development. They are the reason we are not free. As long as there are (disowned) parts of ourselves still not infused with faith, the Hagada’s declaration applies, “Now we are slaves, [but hopefully, and partially, as a result of our Passover Seder] next year we will be free.” Now we are coerced to behave properly, but next year our free choice will absolutely, reliably, lead us to the high road. Now there are parts ourselves still in the dungeon, yet the seeds of faith and experiential encounter with HaShem planted at this Seder assure that by next year they, too, will walk more free.

The mechanism is as follows. Life, among other things, is a spiritual path that courses upward with milestones along its way. At any given moment we are somewhere along its route, and that is our spiritual level. Yet, in truth, this level is not a line but an interval—a whole range of experience. At its upper end is our most exalted encounter with Hashem—the highest we can reach in study, prayer or purity of action. The lower end marks our more constricted states—how far do I fall before catching myself these days, and how frequently do these lapses occur. It is possible to change one’s level by raising the lower edge even though the upper does not budge. And similarly, vice verse.

The lower boundary is our personal Mitzrayim (Egypt) and it is good to be aware of its details. And so it is advised, in preparation for the Seder, to spend some time exploring the questions: “Where are the edges of my faith? What are the situations where my faith collapses into anger, fear, lust or doubt? What causes me to constrict and squeeze G-d out of the moment? What is blocking my next step in personal and spiritual development? What is my most self-defeating personality trait? The idea is to identify the inhabitants of our personal Mitzrayim. They are the hungry and needy ones that we invite to the table and hope to liberate through our Seder.

This accords with the Baal Shem Tov’s instruction to pray for personal deliverance before soliciting universal redemption.1 And the most powerful prayers, says he, are when we actually contact the enslaved parts of our soul, suffer with them, and pray from there.2

And even more, says the Baal Shem Tov, we should formulate our prayer from that fallen place as a class action appeal. We should join ourselves with all the souls throughout the world that are also holding at that level, and when we raise ourselves we should hope and pray to raise them too.3 And that effects a very powerful tikun, for it is possible that our lowest edge is someone else’s highest stretch. And that little bit of overlap enables the contact required to boost them up through our teshuva (for sparks can only be raised through contact). And in that way, our little prayer has global repercussions, way beyond itself.

And so it goes for the Seder. We invite the hungry and needy layers of ourselves. And we extend that invitation to the hungry and needy souls throughout the world who are trapped in the same Mitzrayim as we—who are struggling with comparable issues, hungry for similar truths, chewing the same “bread of affliction.” And the wonder is, that between the slew of us observing Pesach, all bases are covered. Every soul in the universe is connected to a Seder and gets lifted by the transformative ritual that occurs this eve.

Blessings for a truly liberating Pesach for one and for us all. Let our holy Sedarim (Seders) send healing light to the dark corners of the world (including our very own souls). May all who are “invited” attend, and may they (and we) be changed, enlightened, cleansed and raised by its potent ritual of redemption.

1 Sefer Baal Shem Tov (SBST), Shmot 5.

2 SBST Bereshit 189.

3 SBST, Parshat Ve’ara, 3; Parshat Acharei, 2, 3.

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