How Purim and Pesach Can Save Us

March 13, 2014Rabbi Rex Perlmeter

Most of us are probably all too well familiar with the old canard regarding Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” Though the popularity of the formula may have sad implications regarding how people regard these sacred observances, we have to acknowledge that it contains a large measure of truth. What I think we don’t need to acknowledge is any necessity of apologizing for that truth. In fact, as we prepare for the imminent arrival of these two calendar highlights, I suggest that their pattern is hugely relevant and crucial to understanding, not only the journey of our people in history, but the journey of the soul in our personal histories. At any given time, especially in years of crisis like the Great Recession, many of us experience life-altering changes and transitions from which I think it would be well to aspire to be able to say something along the lines of, “Life tried to kill me, I survived, let’s feast!” And the common narrative of Purim and Pesach is not only a model, but  can also be a crucial component to building such a narrative in our own lives and being able to move from loss to renewal.

And what have our two observances to do with such loss and dislocation? To begin with, each of them begins in a place of dislocation – Persia and Egypt respectively. Something of identity has already been taken from the stories’ protagonists even before the narratives begin. Further, each story speaks to a loss of agency in life; the Jews of Shushan, live apart and separate and are subject to the whim of a king under the influence of a genocidal vizier. And Jacob’s descendants in Egypt are subject to the will of Pharaoh and the lashes of the taskmasters in their enslavement. Each of these two stories moves from these places of pain to a pinnacle of redemption and hope, not easily or without challenge – but ultimately, a passage through the time of trouble is found. Proximity in calendar invites us to probe more deeply in comparing the two, and we note that in the text for Purim – the Biblical book of Esther – there is no mention of God. In the text for Passover – the Haggadah – there is no mention of Moses. Such omissions are hardly accidental. Rather, the first tale affirms the power of the human individual(s) to work toward redemption; the second affirms the power of a caring Divinity, whose desire is our salvation.

These stories invite us to consider the ingredients that make a redemptive path possible after great loss or suffering in mid-life and older adulthood. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson came to understand the mid-life period as one in which the individual is invited to orienting him/herself toward a life of generativity – creating a life legacy which leaves a mark upon the world, through children, lessons passed on and contributions to work and community. Alternatively, one who is unable to orient life in this way experiences stagnation – a figurative drying on the vine, leaving an emptiness and depressive life landscape. In Erikson’s schema, there are six similar crossroads at earlier life stages. Successfully navigating these better prepares one to navigate this challenge. This would certainly make some of our subjects more resilient to the blows of their middle years and beyond.

These are also the years when losses begin to increase. In the expected flow of life, this is likely to come in the form of the deterioration and, ultimately, death of parents and eventually spouses, siblings and friends. Children growing up and establishing their independent lives add to the toll. And, more frequently than we wish to believe, tragedy plays a role as well. For many, the anchors of stability are a life partner, a career and the living that career provides. How is one to resolve the loss of purpose which is stripped away with the termination of a career or the sudden crumbling of expected long-term financial security? So much of our sense of self can be tied up with these elements of our lives.

Yet, with the kinds of blows discussed above, even one who has experienced success in the developmental path may be challenged by the depth of despair experienced in the face of disorienting loss. Psychologists Dan P. McAdams and Keith S. Cox offer a powerful lesson in response to this reality with the concept of “midlife reviews”. They suggest that these may be the result of regret for goals not pursued and cites research about women who have made such changes and enjoy higher life satisfaction (McAdams and Cox, 2010). In studies involving interviews with people considered to have achieved high generativity and others who were low on the scale of generativity, they found a common thread. Those with high generativity had been taught – mostly from their childhood caregivers (usually mothers) – life narratives which included moments of suffering, but around these tales of human kindness and paths toward redemption. They internalized the idea that suffering can be surmounted and meaning derived from the journey from pain back to life. And they were able to construct their life narratives along similar lines.

These tales, which we may or may not take as literal truth, nonetheless have the power of communicating a belief – that God and humanity as agents together can move through darkness to light; from despair to salvation. They tell us that we have the power to pull back the lens from suffering to a larger picture of life as a flow through that suffering to new understandings and new possibilities. They invite us to inculcate such narrative in the lives and psyches of our children, even as they are renewed for us. And we are invited to bring full presence – full mindfulness – to the retelling and reliving of the stories, making them deeply our own. And for those still in the dark place, the stories invite us to compassion for their pain and the responsibility for gently carrying for and – hopefully – with them, narratives of kindness and potential.

The most important text in the Haggadah states, “In every generation, each person should see him/herself as if he/she had gone forth from Egypt.” In 1983, artist David Moss was commissioned by a collector to create for him a personal, artistic Haggadah. At the point in the story at which this text is placed, Moss painted portraits of people of all races and appearances. Interspersed among the portraits were little mirrors, inviting us, literally, to see ourselves among those who went from degradation to redemption. This year, may we tell both stories with just that intention and just that integration of message, that the stories may become our stories and the outcomes our hope.

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