March 24, 2010
The inner dimensions of Passover and spiritual liberation
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Fascinating. When the answer to the questions is slavery, time opens up, as if to say: Life has more options than you think. Ask yourself some hard questions, and watch how the horizon widens and paths out become apparent.
When the answer is, “We were idolaters,” however, time narrows down. If we think of idolatry as, metaphorically, a wrongheaded idea, the narrowing of time seems to say: Not every idea is a good one. Find truth, and you will find freedom. When you find truth, your options narrow. Once you find the freedom of a life of truth, you are not free to do anything else. You are not free to return to slavery.
Let me give you a very mundane, and perhaps familiar, example of the slavery of a wrongheaded idea, my metaphoric interpretation of “idolatry”:
I have counseled couples whose relationships are soured by bickering, contempt and nitpicking. Good, smart, successful people. People who are perfectly likable as individuals, but who get mired in clay that locks them in perpetual conflict with one another. Likable, except when they are together.
They sometimes come to me, as clergy, to settle things. Who is right and who is wrong? Sometimes I can, in a given example, discern which person was more at fault in a given instance, but that usually doesn’t help. It takes awhile, but we usually try to teach that the real issue with bickering couples is not who is right (because next time that person will be wrong); the issue is often foolishness. The ancient rabbis say, “A person sins because a ruach shtut [a spirit of foolishness] enters into them.”
Under what foolish idea do many couples operate that creates a sordid and unsortable kind of misery? “Talking helps when we are angry,” is one very wrongheaded idea. “Talking with the person at whom I am angry helps me get in touch with my feelings.” But angry people are usually abundantly in touch with their feelings. What they are usually trying to do is find the words to match their volatile feelings, and so they often say things entirely regrettable and perhaps unredeemable. What they need to do is get in touch with the part of themselves that is not in the grip of misery-inducing foolishness and just be quiet until they are morally centered. They need to find the part of themselves that is not crazy. Sometimes one person really has been wronged, but anger typically only obfuscates.
Feeling anger at times is unavoidable. Allowing oneself to get mired in it, or wounding another person with it, is a choice. When we are angry, we suffer from a narcissistic self-righteousness. Angry people define what is right and what is wrong — and only they are right. Angry people, when they are in the grip of it, think they are God. This is another idolatry.
I have shared with you one little part of the seder, the two sets of four questions, and the kind of inner-life reflection it can generate. When we raise our hidden questions to the foreground, when we ask ourselves what our foolish ideas have been, we can begin to undergo a contemplative spiritual liberation, the moving toward a conscious life of virtue.
Every holiday, every tradition, can be put into the service of “spiritual liberation.” This is especially true of Passover, the holiday of national liberation. Once we start the work, our greatest tool outside our inner lives can be the Jewish tradition, the Holy Days, the sacred texts, the contemplative and reflective dimensions of our tradition.
“Spiritual liberation” is a mighty little phrase. With the help of our texts and traditions, we can put it to work.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Los Angeles. He also teaches various classes at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California campus, and classes for adult learners in the continuing education department of American Jewish University.