When the time comes for liberation, said the Hasidic master Reb Nachman (as written down by his amanuensis Reb Nosson), one must leap without delay: not worrying about how one will make a living, but rather trusting that God will provide.I first learned this text in rabbinical school, and I’ve read it many times since. This year, though, it lands painfully on my heart.
In the story of the Exodus, the Jewish people’s paradigmatic story of moving from constriction to liberation and from degradation to covenant, the time to leap is obvious. God tells Moses to tell the people that on the tenth of the lunar month of Nissan they are to take a lamb and watch over it for four days. Then they are to slaughter it and mark their doorposts with blood. On that night, God will strike down every firstborn among the enslavers, and then Pharaoh will at last let our people go.
How wonderful it would be if God gave us such clear instructions and signals now. In every generation, teaches the haggadah, it’s incumbent on us to see ourselves as if we ourselves had been redeemed from slavery. But it’s not so obvious in every human life when the time has come to leap — or how leaping is even possible.
Imagine someone who is caring for a small child, or for several small children, in a toxic marriage. Imagine someone who is caring for aging parents who are cruel or abusive. Imagine the aging parents who are mistreated by their caregiver. In all of these circumstances (and in others) the one who is in the constricted situation is likely to have no resources, fiscal or psycho-spiritual, with which to break free.
And in all of these circumstances, the one who is in the constricted situation might not be able to imagine freedom at all. Or they might not see that their familiar circumstance is constriction: as the haggadah also teaches, the real slavery of Egypt was that the children of Israel learned to endure it. They became habituated to enslavement.
We’re not so different from our mythic ancestors. Take a step back and look at your life as it has unfolded: odds are good you’ll notice something painful to which you have become habituated. A relationship that hurts, but you can’t imagine how it could be better, so it stays what it is. A job you loathe, but it pays the bills, so you keep on keeping on. We tell ourselves that this is part of adulthood: accepting what’s “good enough,” even if it isn’t the thing for which we most yearn. And sometimes that’s true. But sometimes it’s the lie we tell ourselves so we don’t have to face the terrifying prospect of change.
Reb Nachman teaches that when the time has come to leap, we have to leap. No dilly-dallying, no tarrying, no anxiously writing scripts about what might go wrong. But how can we tell when the time has come? What if we don’t have the resources (inner or outer) to enable us to even imagine change? And what if we’re so habituated to the brokenness that we don’t even feel it anymore?
Each year Pesach offers us an opportunity to discern where and how we are in Mitzrayim, in a “narrow place” or a place of suffering or a place of enslavement. As Reb Nachman teaches, this kind of constriction is a fundamental human experience that arises in every life and in every era. The first step is feeling what is: not hiding from it, not ignoring it, not pretending it away, but inhabiting our feelings and our experience with authenticity.
And every year Pesach calls us to leap… but the leap doesn’t have to be literal. If you’re in a damaging relationship and can’t see your way out of it in a practical sense, maybe the leap you need is the internal leap of faith that life can be better than this. If you’re in a job you hate, maybe the leap you need is the internal leap of trust that something better can be found. If you’re trapped in dire fiscal straits, maybe the leap you need is the internal leap of hope that life can become better than you now know it to be.
Faith and trust and hope aren’t just prerequisites for leaping: they are themselves a leap into the unknown. They ask us to affirm, even when circumstances seem most bleak, that life can be better than it is now. That though we are (in the language of the psalms) “in narrow straits,” God — or the universe, or life, or possibility — will answer us with expansiveness.
This Pesach, even if the only “leap” you can take is the internal leap into hope for better than what you know now, may that leap be a blessing for you… and may it shift your internal experience, so that even if the outlines of your life look the same, your inner reality becomes one of hope and new beginnings.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).