My Two Egypts

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, April 2011]

Our tradition ties the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, to the word metzar - a narrow place. Over the millenia we've come to think of Egypt as representing not only a spot on the map but also our own personal narrow places, our struggles and limitations.

But there are famously two Egypts: Upper and Lower. Upper Egypt is, counterintuitively, in the south. It is the higher ground that impels the Nile northward toward its delta. In Arabic, Egypt is called simply Misr. But Hebrew remembers Egypt's twofold nature and gives it the "dual" suffix -ayim.

Mitzrayim - the pair of Egypts.

So looking inward, do I see not only a single narrow place, but a pair of them?

I already know about one narrow place. My collection of hard stuff that I've struggled with, complained about or apologized for for years: my shortcomings, bad habits, self-sabotaging patterns. Alas, I know these places well because I'm stuck in them still.

But what is that other Egypt? Every once in a while I discover a narrow place I had not been aware of before. It usually comes in conversation with someone else. Their story causes a light to go on for me suddenly, bright as the lighthouse of Alexandria. Some narrow-minded spot; a prejudice that I'd never noticed or or assumption I'd never questioned before. There it is: my other Egypt. The narrow place I hadn't yet recognized but which constrains me invisibly nonetheless. And in noticing that heretofore unseen personal enslavement, it shifts.

This is one reason community is important to me and why, I think, seder is important. Without discourse, without dialogue, without the test of human engagement, there are parts of ourselves we might never discover. Other people's realities surprise and challenge us. Hearing their personal stories of enslavement and liberation inevitably triggers our compassion and self-recognition, and it breaks the dam that holds so much of our selves back.

It feels like magic sometimes. And rightly so. Isn't freedom always accompanied by otot umoftim - signs and wonders?

So it's that time again, to widen the narrow places and let our waters flow free to the sea. Not just the places you always think need widening, but the narrow places you're about to discover. Clear a passage through both your Egypts. Undam it all.

Have a good, deep seder this year. With family, friends, shul, whatever. Go traditional or try something altogether new (check out my cousins' elegant and tasty Sipping Seder or Storahtelling's Four-Question Seder that will go live any day).

And may we all, between sips of wine or maror martinis or chicken soup or borscht, grab the chance to liberate all of our Egypts - two each.