Passover: The Wilderness of Self and Our Search For Shleimut

"Seder Plate by slgckgc, on Flickr"

Passover brings with it so many feelings and traditions. It remains the most observed of all our festivals. That call from the Haggadah to welcome the stranger this year will take on extra added dimensions. No doubt your seder will include or reference the on-going challenges of diversity and inclusion, inequality, strife and a call for civility. We will invoke memories of people who join us in spirit but are no longer present in body and we will, of course, eat. The traditions of each family are as unique as each family. The multiplicity of Haggadot give testimony to that diversity of experience. Yet, through it all, no matter what the form the seder takes, there remains a core element, the single most powerful image, I suggest, that we have as a tradition: the wilderness.

This was a main subject of discussion at a recent Torah study class I teach at the local JCC. What does that symbol mean? If we look, as many do, at the Wilderness experience as symbolic language, as metaphor, we can get a glimpse as to the personal implications of this symbol. In a way, we are all in a wilderness. We, each of us our own way, are at a stage of life that we come to understand the fragility and temporal aspect of life and time. We search for a sense of our own “Canaan”, trying to find that “promised land” that will yield our own sense of meaning and purpose. In a real fashion, we arrive at this stage of life seeking a hope of completeness, or, as the Hebrew value calls it: shleimut. Yes, this is from the root for peace. But is more than peace in the sense of absence of strife. This shleimut is the sense that our life has evolved into a feeling of complete harmony. It is not that our life has been completed, as in, our time is over. Rather, it is a sense of harmony, that things in life have fallen into place and that in that realization, we have found meaning. This struggle to find this sense of harmony, or meaning is very representative of the Israelites struggles in the Wilderness. They followed Moses, and then did not. They praised God and then found ways to rebel. They struggled to find their way, their sense of shleimut.

We all, each in our own way, struggle in the wilderness of existence to find our way. We do so, alone, and that is why relationships become so important to us. It is those human relationships that, as we have said before, give our lives texture, definition and, for many, meaning. The choices we make along our own path help us to find our own sense of “wholeness” (shleimut). As the Israelites did, we seek meaning, giving validation to Heschel’s concept that human beings are “creatures in search of meaning”. In many ways, our meaning is defined by the choices we make and Passover celebrates the fact that we are free to make those choices. Viktor Frankl captured this when he wrote in “Man’s Search For Meaning”” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In this festive season of Passover, let us renew our faith in the choices that we make and celebrate the freedom that we have to choose our own path so that we may, one day, reach that moment of sheleimut, and know, at that moment, why we are here, at this moment in time.

Have a healthy and joyous Passover.

Rabbi Richard F Address

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