A Sacred Journey: The Biographical Theology of Passover
In the weeks leading up to Passover, I think about the imperative embedded in the Hagaddah: B'chol dor vador chiav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim, "In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see oneself as if he or she exited from Egypt." I share a personal story of Egypt and journey.
When I was 12, my family and I moved to Florida from Colorado. We'd lived in Florida for two years when Hurricane Andrew struck, destroying our home, neighborhood, and my school. A few months, later my parents separated. Not long after, my father took me out for dinner and disclosed that he is gay. With all of these changes, it was a tough year.
I moved back to Colorado, which had no hurricanes but did have embracing extended family members and a stable school. In many ways, Colorado was supposed to be the Promised Land of security - but it wasn't entirely so. The previous fall, voters passed Amendment 2 at the ballot, allowing local governments and businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. I vividly remember that my first family holiday back in Colorado was Passover. Over dinner, our discussion turned from the Israelite redemption from slavery to the question of gay rights. While my own extended family supported gay rights, it was clear the majority of Colorado's voters did not.
Given what was happening in my life, there was no way I was going to let anyone know my father was gay. I didn't feel safe or assured that people in Colorado would accept my truth, my father, or me. Colorado was no Promised Land.
One day, I felt particularly alone and decided to walk to my synagogue instead of home. I asked to see the rabbi, who came to talk with me. The next week, I made the trek again; the next week, I did the same. I told him my story. I explained how I was scared and felt alone in the struggles and brokenness and changes and pains in my life. He said, "You have a place here," and introduced me to the youth group advisors and leaders. They encouraged me be myself, to think what I thought, to question, and to feel safe enough to laugh and to cry. If Egypt was a period of brokenness and narrowness, Temple Emanuel became my Promised Land of safety and security.
During my final year of rabbinical school, my ordination class had a series of sessions with Dr. David Ellenson, president of our seminary, who shared with us teachings of famous rabbis, philosophers, and theologians. One thing he said really stuck with me: "All theology is biography." President Ellenson flashed a picture of a famous rabbi onto a screen. He shared their biography and showed how their theology and world-view was impacted by their life story. All theology is biography.
The theology of the Israelites came from the biography of the Exodus - to worship a compassionate, loving, and gracious God who gave us life and supported us upon our journey. Our command is to treat the stranger with compassion and love, just as we would treat ourselves - because we knew what it was like to be strangers in Egypt.
A modern example of this idea came recently when Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, announced that his gay son encouraged him to change his opinion on marriage equality. Portman voted for a federal amendment to ban gay marriage and to prohibit gay parents from adopting children, so it came as a surprise when he said his son's coming out of the closet, "allowed me to think of the issue from a new perspective, and that's of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have - to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years."
Responses to Sen. Portman's announcement have been varied. Many have applauded him; some, on the left and the right, have attacked him for not being principled and for changing positions and turning like a weathervane with the winds of his personal experience. To those who criticize I say, B'chol dor vador chiav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim, "In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see oneself as if he or she exited from Egypt."
The journey is real. Our lives change. Realities hit us. We experience Egypt and Exodus and Sinai moments. We learn and grow. Passover is about that re-birth - the budding of possibility and hope that proudly says to us that "what is" or "was" is not prescriptive of the future. Our values and ethics often change precisely because of the empathy that arrives from our lived personal experience. Our theology emerges from our personal biographies.
Toward the Promised Land
This is also the story of why I became a rabbi. This is the story of how I experience the possibility of human and Divine relationship. This is why my rabbinate has included social justice and political advocacy. This is why my rabbinate is focused on building a relational community through meaningful conversations, so that we may transform and impact the lives one another. This is why I believe we need to build congregations of enlivened Jews who connect with one another, to the practices and values of our tradition, and to a sense of the sacred presence in our lives. And this is why I believe the mirror we hold up to ourselves at Passover is so important - our personal journeys shape ever evolving and lived theology.
There is a Promised Land. As we know, it can take a while to get there. The Promised Land isn't close and it isn't far. Our first step is to see ourselves as a part of a journey that happened thousands of years ago and still continues today.
Rabbi Asher Knight serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.