Last month, Jews all over the world celebrated the holiday of Passover. According to tradition, this holiday commemorates our people’s emancipation from Ancient Egypt, where we had been enslaved for generations. On this day, we tell the story of how we were led out of Egypt, the Divine parting the waters of the Red Sea to allow us to cross over from bondage to liberation. It is known to be a time of endless miracles.
The notion of slavery is one that I have used not infrequently in my work. I wrote a book about addiction a few years ago; though I initially called it Love and Kisses from My Padded Cell, I was advised to change the title to Enslaved prior to publication. If you go look it up, you’ll find that the book jacket shows a glass of wine with a shackle for a base.
The idea here is perhaps obvious. Addiction is a form of bondage. It creates the illusion that you are without choice, under the rule of some idea, person, activity, or substance. I’m not necessarily referring here to hardcore addictions; it can even be a habit that dominates your thinking and leaves you feeling as if you have no choice but to ruminate or behave according to its dictates.
I find it striking, however, to compare this slavery to that which we remember annually on Passover. The years of bondage were inescapable; there was no negotiating out of them, and the ancient Hebrews couldn’t just walk away and decide to become their own masters. It took a Divine intervention to achieve our emancipation as a people.
Addiction, on the other hand, is something different. To all appearances, it’s true that you are enslaved. But the thing enslaving you is you. You have given permission to your own thoughts to have dominion over you.
I’m not talking here about physical dependencies, the complicated medical situations that can arise in relation to some addictions.
I’m talking about the mental and emotional compulsion, the reasons that many of us cling to things that harm us. On some level, they serve a purpose, something that varies for each individual. (I’ve explained before how your addiction might “serve” you, and you can read about it here.)
In other words, you are both slave and master. And therefore, it stands to reason, you have the power to liberate yourself. As painful as it can be to face whatever it is inside you that is hurting you, it should also be a relief to know that there is no outside source oppressing you, and no outside source necessary to save you. Ultimately, your healing is within your own control. (For those who believe, your healing can also come with the help of the Good Lord.)
If this discussion of slavery is pertinent to you, there is another component to the way in which Jews honor the Passover that may further inspire you. It’s a form of spring cleaning in which we divest our environs of any leavened grain, or even any food item related to bread, for the duration of the holiday.
What is the source of this custom? As the story goes, when the Hebrews were rushing to make a hasty retreat out of Egypt, the dough for their bread had no time to rise, and they were left with what’s called matzah, a completely flat, unattractive piece of baked flour and water. This is the only form of bread allowed for the seven days of Passover. The forbidden foods, on the other hand, are referred to as chametz.
The paradox of this obligatory custom is that our celebration takes places in a gastronomic wasteland. We are forbidden to eat foods we normally enjoy and are limited to the bland, the dry, and the unappealing.
Why would we honor such constraints while we celebrate freedom? It’s highly ironic.
There are various symbolic meanings associated with chametz in order to explain this mystery. One famous reason given is that the flat bread represents flour and water in their most humble state, while the forbidden chametz represents extravagance and pleasure. This means that chametz versus matza is about humility versus hedonism.
On Passover, we celebrate the pure, simple form of ourselves, not necessarily the indulgence of our every urge. We honor the bare bones of our essential being, our best selves and their divine aspects.
The freedom of Passover is not the freedom to rise out of control and mess yourself up; it’s the freedom to hoist yourself up and be the best you can be.
Ultimately, your choices have to support your greater good. You innately know when that is happening or when it is clearly not in play. Good luck to all of us on this journey.