Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility — a fairer House than Prose — More numerous for Windows — Superior — for Doors.” Dwelling in possibility is an expression of hope and redemption. But dwelling in possibility seems impossible when someone else controls every aspect of your life.
The Haggadah — the slim book recited on Passover — demands those who celebrate the holiday to relive the biblical story of the exodus and occupy the mentality of a slave, using the Passover Seder as a chance to relive the trajectory to freedom. A slave’s sense of possibility narrows to the point of virtual non-existence. Your dreams are cut short until you stop dreaming altogether.
Passover is named after a curious moment in the Exodus story. In the Bible, each Israelite was told to take a lamb for his family (or share with a neighbor), slaughter them all together at twilight on the fourteenth day of the month, and place some of the blood on the lintel of the doorpost. This act would signal to God to pass over (get it?) those homes when the last of the ten plagues swept through ancient Egypt. In Exodus 12:13, God says, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
Of all the experiences and moments of destiny and possibility that the holiday could have been named after, why this one?
Perhaps if we can visualize the biblical moment, we can put ourselves within it.
In a remarkable rendition of Exodus 12, the German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld captures the tensions of possibility in his depiction of the paschal lamb preparation in a slave home. Von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), who designed some of the stained-glass windows for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, created a series of 200 woodcuts of the Bible. As a Lutheran who trained as a draughtsman within a spiritual framework, von Carolsfeld was a careful and close reader of the biblical text.
In a von Carolsfeld woodcut depicting the Passover, eight slaves occupy a room in a small and cramped residence. One man sits near a tray upon which lies an emaciated sheep with its insides sliced open. The artist spares us the gore but also directs us to the man holding up the sheep’s innards dripping blood to the angel that passes across the window, fulfilling the promise of the text.
Von Carolsfeld captures the range of emotions of this moment beautifully in his composition. An angel — the sign of God’s passage through Egypt — looks forward with eyes that signal redemption. Only three of the eight slaves in his depiction look at the angel with longing and anticipation. The others look distraught. A man with a staff sits on the floor with his ankles crossed, his chin resting on the staff in resignation. A frightened woman with her empty water jug lying on the floor has no intention of picking it up and fleeing. Two young children look despondent as one holds a round bread, perhaps a matza. A woman’s arm hovers over a plate of matza. The light of a lamp shines brightly over her right shoulder and makes her whole head glow with an almost halo effect. Her eyes stare at the angel outside the window. She awaits this moment of possibility. She sees in it what the others could not, reflecting the Talmudic statement that only 20 percent of the Jews left Egypt when given the chance.
We miss so many defining moments thanks to disbelief, despair, or our own negativity. The blood of the lamb upon Israelite houses signified that the occupants were ready to leave. Once a person slaughtered a lamb, a sacred and worshipped animal in Egyptian culture, there was no going back. The Israelites who prepared the paschal lamb were essentially terminating any long-term relationship with the Egyptians. Decimating an object of worship was a powerful and irreversible way of rejecting the culture of the Egyptians. It was a display of ultimate disrespect.
If one looks carefully at the biblical command to sacrifice the lamb in Exodus 12, very specific language is used regarding its preparation. The meat had to be eaten one per household with enough so that every single person could partake. If a household was small, it could join with another, creating small communities around this commandment. Eating this sacrifice was an entrance into a special kind of covenant: one of personal and communal commitment.
The medieval philosopher Maimonides, in his masterwork Guide for the Perplexed, writes: “This is also the reason why we were commanded to kill a lamb on Passover, and to sprinkle the blood thereof outside on the gates. We had to free ourselves of evil doctrines and to proclaim the opposite, that the very act which was then considered as being the cause of death would be the cause of deliverance from death.” An act that was punishable by death in Egypt was the cornerstone to freedom and new life for the Israelites. The Israelites needed a fast-acting method that would also signal to their host country that their presence in Egypt was soon to be obliterated.
Perhaps now we can better understand why the holiday was named after this relatively small but significant act. Each family needed to make a commitment to freedom to create a national revolution. To be the underdog and fight a battle of social justice requires a reinforcement of one’s own faith and trust in the future, coupled with a total rejection of the surrounding forces of extortion and limitation.
The Bible offered a blueprint for a master narrative of freedom from oppression that has been mimicked and re-enacted throughout history, from the American Revolution to other liberation theologies. It is one that we relive every time we fight social injustice through our personal commitments. It reminds us, even at our darkest moments, to dwell in sacred possibility.