As a Jew, it often feels as if we live from Sabbath to Sabbath, holiday to holiday. Every time I go grocery shopping, it’s with Shabbat in mind; never mind if it’s Sunday or Friday, I must make sure that there’s chicken and celery for the soup and wine for making Kiddush. With Passover nipping at our heals, it’s time to purge our homes and souls of chametz (leaven, or food mixed with leaven, prohibited during Passover). Dust, dirt, and clutter are NOT chametz, yet I still find myself digging up and examining my inner dirt. My inner dust is cancer. It’s always there floating around. It’s been like that for two years and nine months. My formerly wilted and drained leaves and petals are outstretched now, yearning to receive Spring and sun after a long winter. I’m finally shaking off the last of the determined dregs of chemotherapy.
It’s that-time-of-the-month for me (it’s actually bimonthly). Every 8 weeks I’m required to have a full body PET CT scan for the clinical drug trial I’m participating in. The worst side effect is that PET CT time invites an abyss of panic and hypersensitivity to every ache, pain, and irregularity. This time, it’s compounded by Pesach (Passover) preparations and purging the house of every last crumb, and I find myself yearning for natural human denial. The days after the scan feel like living in a vacuum of open space sucking me through a loop. Every hour, minute, and second I wait for news. Good news or bad? Will it be continued freedom or back to treatment, will hope persevere or will disaster strike?
One marvelous difference between other animals and humans is our ability to deny. Our denial allows us to live, breathe, and function as forever-creatures in this temporary life. Life is short so we mustn’t internalize or dwell on that reality or else we would live in a constant state of paralysis and mourning. From birth, we know that the worst will eventually occur: The End. As we grow up we learn to deny and ignore. We focus on frivolities like birthdays and parties, celebrities, sports, sales at the mall, and politics. If we’re spiritual, we find meaning in faith and the Divine. If we are intellectual, we study, learn, and teach. Every project or focus is a distraction. Every breathing minute we spend on earth takes us that many minutes closer to the inevitable end. We are born with the gift of ignoring that fact because it’s the only way possible to survive the pain and anxiety that would accompany the truth of human transience. Tick. Tock.
Life’s fragile reality gets broken by near death experiences and survival beyond expectations, for example tragedies, accidents, traumas, losses. For me, it’s surviving cancer. Being forced to stare death in the face grants freedom from the imaginary infinity of life. Ever since I came out on the other end of cancer, for the second time, the boundaries of my existence are clearer. I rise in the morning with the finiteness of my life (in this world) and it feels like normal. I’ve changed and the world still goes on around me but I’ve lost my ability to care about the frosting, the little accents, and the casual. I just can’t seem to maintain focus on any of it. I can’t sit through movies or read novels. I don’t get excited about parties and I don’t look forward to holidays or celebrations. I don’t care what he-said, she-said. I am happy, yet numb to expectations and indifferent to anticipation.
I’m numb until the slavery of illness threatens to take away my freedom again. The impeding PET CT pushes me to the edge and over the cliff. Suddenly I feel phantom pains in my amputated denial-limbs. I tell myself that there’s nothing to worry about. I can run, stay awake, shop, cook, and drive, everyone says I look better than ever so I must be fine… right? Right? RIGHT?!! I must ignore the pain and the nausea, or is it just anxiety? And right now there are the Pesach preparations, and the shopping, and the cooking, and the kids are all home from school on Pesach vacation, so what is a mother, who cannot get excited about chametz, to do? It’s PET CT week. Tick. Tock.
This is my third Passover holiday since cancer. Ever since my cancer diagnosis, I count off milestones and holidays accordingly, and inevitably I reflect on my metamorphosis from the slavery of illness into the freedom of health. Every year, we tell the story of our ancestors’ slavery and delivery from Egypt. We celebrate the transition from slavery to freedom. I am constantly moved by the contrast of feelings. I was sick and then healthy. I was dying and then revived. We were slaves in Egypt; now we’re free.
The first Passover since cancer, I experienced a spiritual personal Exodus because I’d just finished chemotherapy and was hoping to be cancer-free. My denial magic still ticked and there was a chance I was cured. Last year, at this time, the cancer had recurred and the prognosis was terrible, so we decided to take the family on a vacation. The week before Pesach we deserted the cleaning and the stress for fun and making memories together. During our famously fun family vacation, I lived with the possibility that treatment wasn’t going work. This year, purging for the holiday has been boring, thankfully. The anticipation and excitement that I used to feel before our mass celebration of the Exodus from Egypt is absent and it is not because I’m cured or dying, or coming out of a family vacation. It’s PET CT week. I’m waiting for answers and I’m back in Egypt. It’s not just Egypt, but the 9th Plague of Darkness; a darkness, well-known for it’s absence of light and tangible thickness, and for me it has the capacity to block my passion for spiritual or even physical movement.
I’ve been carried out of Egypt again and again. The symbolic deliverance from slavery to freedom in everyday life, whatever they might be, can inspire us to unchain ourselves from our own personal Egypt. Everybody has an Egypt. We are all slaves to something or someone. We all dream of freedom. This year I’m inspired by awareness of humanity, impermanence, and realization that the symbols of release from personal slavery and deliverance to freedom in this world might all be mere preparations for the Final Exodus: Death – into the Afterlife.
We are constantly reminded that G-d took us out of Egypt. We pray on it. We learn it. We teach it to our children. G-d delivered us from slavery in Egypt to freedom, physically and spiritually. My epiphany about existence is that life on Earth is the metaphorical Egypt. We struggle. We work. We search. We strive to grow and become better, and we seek freedom from the slavery of financial burden and worry, freedom from work, and freedom from illness. Humans are slaves to life and life’s boundaries whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or metaphysical. As long as we live and breathe on planet Earth, we are not free; that’s the point of life. We must live it to its fullest, yet within tight frontiers, which constantly remind us that we are still slaves in Egypt.
No matter which journey we choose, in the end, it will be The End. The End has to come sometime. People die and the world will keep on spinning. Those who remain mourn and hopefully they move on. We don’t have to go-there or deal with it until it happens. We can be in a healthy state of denial because we’re humans. Every person lives their own personal Testament, their own Torah. G-d put us here to live and experience the physical world and I believe that this life is not the end-game. There has to be a reason for all of this and I’m sure it’s to teach every generation the core of our existence; the Exodus. I feel compelled to publicize the miracles that G-d gives me. I’m not afraid of The End but I’m afraid of what will happen to everyone else if I’m not here to drink the wine or partake in the symbolic foods on the Seder plate. The bitter herbs and the charoset, the egg, and the bone all have dual meanings that reflect slavery and deliverance to freedom.
Heaven, Gan Eden, will bring eternal freedom from slavery. Back in Genesis, G-d told Abraham about the epitome of our existence: living for Exodus, before the Jewish People even existed. For over 400 years, generations lived and died under extreme conditions of pain and torture without ever enjoying redemption. The Exodus was anticipated by the Jewish People and G-d yet, only one-fifth of the Jews left Egypt and most died during the plague of Darkness! It was a miracle that any of us left Egypt at all and even though we were prepared for the miracle that would save us from slavery and grant freedom, most of the people were too terrified or unwilling to recognize the ultimate value of leaving. The original Exodus invented a People; a nation so special, guided by Divine guidance and intervention, and still the unknown of the Afterlife or what will be after Redemption is so inconceivable and petrifying that most of us cannot even bear to think about it. Denial. Tick. Tock.
During the Seder, we are obligated to tell the story of leaving Egypt, but why are we commanded to see and feel ourselves personally experiencing the Exodus and why the requirement of every person to tell the story of Passover every year for as long as history can account for? Through telling the story, and reviewing it over and over again with every generation, we are reminded of the heart and soul of Judaism. With eyes and soul open, I can see G-d everywhere. A chance meeting that led to marriage, a job, my best friend, or merely a parking spot. We are not just a religion or a nation. We are a people who have no chance of survival in the first place, yet again and again we experience Exodus. We’re saved from near death experiences and we survive beyond expectations. This is the ultimate message of Judaism, life, the Passover Haggadah and Exodus. Egypt symbolizes slavery; spiritual and physical, material, and psychological so eventually and ultimately, we must strive to break free from them all. From slavery to freedom, we live for the Exodus. During the black hole of PET CT week, I can take comfort in believing that life is the ultimate slavery, and death is our last Exodus to the Afterlife.