Pining for Egypt -- Or, Do I have to Leave My House Post-Covid?
It's Passover, the holiday where we remember and celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago. The holiday is one of my favorites. As a writer, how could it not be? The primary mitzvah/obligation of the 8-day holiday is to tell the story of the Exodus to your children -- and anyone else stuck at the Seder table who has to listen to you.
Saturday, instead of a seder, we watched The Prince of Egypt for the quintillionth time. I was particularly struck this year by the final scene. Moses, standing on Mt Sinai, the two tablets with the 10 Commandments in his arms, overlooking the assembled masses -- blurred in the distance. THE END. Roll credits. Yay!
At our delayed, outdoor Seder last night, the story in the Haggadah ended similarly: "...the sea parted and our people passed through on dry land to freedom." DAYENU! Pass the brisket. Yay!
Orson Welles famously said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."
I'd be hard pressed to find a better example of this axiom playing out in real life than Passover. You want a happy ending? Stop after the Sea and skip the next 2.5 books of the Torah. You can come back for the very end, but it's not a happy end for everyone, not even our once triumphant hero, Moses.
End it with the euphoria of freedom gained. Stop before you get to the trials, tribulations, and tragedies of living free.
If the Prince of Egypt had continued just a few more seconds, Moses would have seen the people come into focus, their dancing bodies circling the golden calf, built in their panic when he left them for 40 days and 40 nights. We would have seen him smash the tablets, burn the golden calf, grind it into powder, scatter it in the water, and force the people to drink it.
If the Haggadah had gone on just a few more verses, we'd know that barely a month after crossing the sea, the Hebrews started mumbling and grumbling against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt. ... For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3) They BEGGED to go back to Egypt.
Those stopping points don't make for happy endings, to be sure, but maybe they make for better, more instructive endings. Especially this year, as we come closer to our liberation from Covid.
Will we look back on these times with nostalgia and yearning? Will we turn our anger on those who worked to secure our freedom because it did not come fast enough or meet up to our fantastical visions?
It seems ludicrous on its face, doesn't it?
Go back!? Are you kidding? Get me out of here as fast as you can!
We've spent a year thinking about the after-Covid life. Imagining how it will be. The plans we will make. The things we will accomplish. Oh, the places we will go!
Are we only thinking as far ahead as the next stopping place that creates a happy ending, spurred on by the endless parade of vaccine selfies and photos of vaccination cards?
When Hebrew school kids start studying Exodus beyond what we tell on Passover, they are shocked(!) to find out about the mumbling, grumbling, complaining, and rebelling.
When people are adults when they learn the unabridged Exodus for the first time, they are not surprised at all. They know where the story goes after "We're free!" The hard part is just ahead.
The kids see their own lives as lacking freedom and control. Ask them what freedom looks like: No bed times! Pizza every meal! Unlimited video games! No curfews! No homework!
They will not say: Working full-time! No 12-week summer vacation! Paying bills! Traffic! Never enough sleep! Buying those $60 video games!
Yes, when we get past this pandemic, we will be free to do a great many things we want to do now and can't. This kid in me is still anticipating the Live Music! Coffee Shops! Restaurant Meals with Friends! Shmying! Oh, I need a good shmy*.
But we will again be obligated to a great many things we never wanted to do. Commuting to work. Dressing up for work. Sitting in traffic. Running hours of errands after work before you can get home. Being overscheduled and defaulting to "I'm sooo busy!" Only seeing your busy teenage kids in passing.
After the Exodus, the Israelites wandered for 40 years before reaching the Promised land. You can see it as punishment for their rebellions, or you can reframe it to say they needed that time to learn the rules of being free. When to work, when to rest. When, where, and how to worship. How to set aside some of what they own for the widow, the orphan. How to seek justice and be ethical in your diet. How to cultivate and maintain freedom.
We are at an advantage.
We were not born into this pandemic.
We can look back into our own lives and see how we lived.
Look back to the year before the Year of Covid. When we were free, how did we enslave ourselves? When we were free, did we see ourselves as such? When we were free, did we see how others were not?
Covid took away many of our freedoms. What did it free us from? And can we maintain that newfound freedom going forward?
Can we set our expectations and intentions so we don't look back from 2022's Passover and say, "Wow, that really would have been a happy ending if we had stopped in April 2021"?
When we write our stories, picking where to stop is easy.
When we live them, not so much.
This story will not stop at "Yippie! We're vaccinated! We're free!" Though I would not be surprised if that's how we tell it to later generations.
In all likelihood, any happy ending is further down the road than we can see. Not right in front of us, but not yet behind us. We can't stop now. This is not The End, my friend.
Maybe we can rest here a bit, in the in-between space, with freedom close ahead and constriction behind. Look back and forth and see both through lens of the other.
Then we can gather our things -- carefully choosing what to bring and what to leave behind -- and get moving.