Pyramids by the light of a full moon.

A Passover Beyond Words 

The visceral cries of the enslaved Israelites, not their words, was essential to the process of liberation.

In these difficult days, freedom and liberation can feel far out of reach. And yet, we are about to welcome Passover, the holiday that celebrates both these things. How might we meet these themes in a way that feels real and authentic in this moment?

Traditionally, words are central to the observance of Passover. “And you shall tell your child on that day,” we read in Exodus. We do this in the form of maggid, the centerpiece of the Passover seder, which relates the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. There are four questions that must be asked, three items on the seder plate that must be explained, and four children who must be told the meaning and purpose of this holiday. Telling, questioning, sharing and explaining are the traditional methods by which we observe the biblical injunction. 

Beyond the ritualized words of the haggadah, the seder is meant to open us to reflect on the ways in which the themes of this holiday speak to our lives today. It is for this reason that many of us feel some amount of dread about the seder this year. Regardless of political affiliation, in this time of ongoing tragedy and violence, communal fracturing, and political and social unrest at home and abroad, observing Passover with those who hold different political views and perspectives can feel fraught at best — and scary or even unsafe at worst. 

Jewish tradition teaches that words have the power to create worlds and to destroy them. Words can be a whole-hearted attempt to articulate and communicate from the depths of our experience — a way for us to reach across the void to connect, be understood and attempt to make change. Yet in times of such raw and visceral emotion, when there is so much that has not been processed and integrated, our words are often harsh, accusatory and even vitriolic. Rather than leading to deeper understanding and connection, we shout each other down and shut each other out, recreating the patterns of violence and divisiveness we see in the world in our interactions with one another. I know I’m not alone in fearing that rather than leading us toward liberation and renewal, words shared at this year’s seder may be a source of rupture that weaken our ties to each other and our capacity for change.

Though our observance of Passover relies heavily on words, when we look closely at the biblical text, it is not words that initiate the process of liberation, but rather something much more primal and embodied: the Israelites crying out to God. The Torah uses four words to name these cries: the Israelites groan, cry out, shriek and moan. These cries were not asks or demands, but expressions of something more visceral, vulnerable and deeply felt. The 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, describes them as “inchoate groans of pain.” These cries arose from their deepest depths. And not only that, but the use of these four words suggests that rather than being of one voice, the Israelites experienced this first step of liberation in myriad ways. We can imagine that within these cries were feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, terror, grief, anger, confusion and more. Tradition teaches that these cries, this touching in on raw emotion, is what makes liberation possible. 

We live in a world that pressures us to collapse complex feelings into sound bytes and serve them to each other before we’ve even honestly felt them. It often feels like there is no container to hold, no permission to feel and no way to process the intense, often contradictory and ever-shifting emotions that arise in response to what is happening in the world. When we succumb to the demand to turn these cries into a coherent form before we’ve fully felt them, we short-circuit the transformation that can lead to true liberation. 

In The Women’s Passover Companion, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld writes, “To cry is, at some level — however inarticulate — to reach out. It is to take the risk of exposing one’s own lack, and it is to take the risk of asking for help.” Much more than sentimentality or fragility, it is the honesty and vulnerability of the Israelites’ cries that creates the movement necessary for exodus to occur. This Passover, amidst all the words that will be shared, may our seders be places for us to make space for our cries — those vulnerable feelings that swirl within us, however inarticulate. May these cries draw us closer to one another, closer to the Divine and closer to the true purpose of the holiday. And as it was for the Israelites, may these cries open the way toward the healing, connection and the liberation we seek.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on April 20, 2024. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here. 

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