We opened a door into a spring night. I remember, years ago now, a cup of water, a glass of wine and places waiting for whoever walked in. It would have been this time of year, when songbirds are talking again at dusk and dawn after months of quiet.
The wine was for Elijah, and the water was for Miriam. My friend Rachel Barenblat had invited me to a second night Seder with old friends. More than almost anyone I know, she has a gift and a skill for easing a group of people into a new rhythm and a new space. With questions and thoughts, a few words and movements, she could change the energy of the room, so that we calmed and opened and shared attention. In my life, that’s what ritual does.
She creates her own Haggadah for Pesach, for Passover, and it grows every year. On that night we were talking about standing in a narrow place and taking the first step into the open. We were telling a story about people enslaved, emerging into freedom.
I remember feeling the story encompass me — the sense of the cold desert night. People have picked up their children and left their houses with what they could carry. They have almost no food or water and no sense of direction. They only have a need to move to stay alive.
They don’t trust this change. They have lived in fear, they have lost children without warning, they have whip scars on their backs, and they are afraid this moment of escape is an illusion and tomorrow they’ll be shackled again. And they’re right to be afraid tonight — Pharaoh is following them.
I think this year I hear this story with a new timbre. So much of it can feel so sharply present, in ways I know I can hardly imagine. This is a story of people crossing borders, refugees displaced by violence, armies on the move without warning. It’s a story of people displaced, mothers who have lost children and sickness that becomes a weapon.
Rachel’s Haggadah invites me to make comparisons. In her hands the story and the ritual adapt every year, and she holds contemporary life and tradition together. Like many of us that night when I first heard it, I was learning through her, and she made her tradition immediate. Along with psalms and new translations of prayers, she would weave in poetry and story until I could feel that journey and imagine the weight on Miriam’s shoulders.
Re-reading Rachel’s Haggadah tonight, I find Martín Espada and think of the day I first heard him read his own poems — the first poems I ever heard in Spanish, in a tradition new to me. I can hear him reading Colibrí, talking to someone he loves as they gently guide a trapped hummingbird to a window on a Caribbean island where so many of the native Taíno people were killed years ago.
He says, ‘If only history were like your hands.’
But in the Haggadah the story goes on. The seas open. People walk out from the narrow place, one day and then another. Walking into freedom will have it’s own challenges, and this too feels immediate as we stand on the edge of the spring’s first thunderstorm, taking tentative steps into the world after two years of pandemic. The ritual invites, let us bless the source of life, and another voice answers with a glimpse of how that can feel.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings.’
— W.S. Merwin
And the world is astonishing. Even in ordinary, daily things — how often have I cracked an egg on the rim of a bowl and never thought about what it takes, just for that to happen, for the shell and the membrane and the yolk to exist, and the clay, and the kick wheel, and the glaze, and the kiln …
On a night like this, how can we help knowing it? Salamanders are walking through the woods, returning by some kind of scent and instinct to the vernal pools where they were born. The peepers will be stirring soon now, and their voices tell me that something real and substantial has changed. If I want to retell the story, here’s one place where I raise my hand — frogs here are a blessing and a sign of clean water.
‘I thank you God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirit of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes’ …
— ee cummings
Now I’m imagining how it feels to stand on the shore, wet and raw and gasping, still ragged with adrenaline and trying to realize you’re alive. And then how does it feel to walk on, and camp on the sand, and get up to feed your children with whatever you could pack when the call came, and walk on, knowing Pharaoh is far from the only threat out there …
How do we get from here to an infinite yes? There’s a midrash, a story that brings Miriam in here. She gives her people water from her well. On the river bank, she sings to them. And Rachel’s Haggadah tells me the Exodus story only remembers the beginning of her song. The midrash says ‘the song is incomplete so that further generations will finish it.’
And now I want to hear it, the song she led with her voice and the percussion of her body, when all their voices were still hoarse with salt water. What is Miriam singing in the dusk tonight … and if we open a door, who will come in?