Looking Back: Denial or Integration?

Posted by Aryeh Ben David on April 20, 2005
Topics: Pesach

If someone never changes, s/he never has to face the challenge of how to integrate the past with the present. There is no tension, no challenge, no struggle. A life bereft of growth progresses along a simple continuum, never needing to grapple with the integrating of dissonant moments.

But is life meant to be static? How does one who leads a dynamic life, replete with change and growth, regard his/her past? When one has outgrown former passionately avowed beliefs, discarded well-entrenched habits; when one has “moved on”, how can one look back without feeling the agony that perhaps time and energies have been wasted, precious life squandered?

Pesach asks us to address this question. When in our history did the Jewish people ever undergo such cataclysmic changes: from Egypt to the desert, from slavery to freedom, from pointless acts of toil to those imbued with meaning and holiness. The fabric of their lives was forever and essentially altered. How should they look back?

One possibility is denial. They can simply refuse to deal with their past. Shut the door and erase their previous lives. Clearly, their previous lives as slaves cannot compare in majesty or depth to their present state of closeness to God. Its mention may even be the cause of discomfort or embarrassment. Perhaps the easiest solution is simply not to look back. To disregard it entirely and to focus on the present, to throw themselves fully into their lives and futures. Unfortunately, while this approach may be abundantly enticing, it entails a great measure of self-deception and repression. At least on a subconscious level, a human being is aware of his/her past; its delegitimization and denial will inevitably yield an unresolved tension, a latent anxiety. Reminders of this expunged past may often lead to reactions of aggression or anger.

A second possibility is recognition and acceptance. Looking back on the previous stages of one’s life brings with it a smile and a sigh, “Ah, yes, that was a phase that I went through.” Phases. Chapters in a life. Here there is no denial or repression, though also no integration. One’s life remains a series of unconnected moments.

The Pesach Hagadah presents a third possibility of contending with one’s past. The past, that which has been discarded and remains distasteful, is symbolically represented by the bitter herb, the maror. Rabban Gamliel states that whoever does not mention three things during the seder – Pesach, Matzah and Maror – has not fulfilled his/her obligation in the retelling of the story of the exodus. The Hagadah offers no alternative of denial. We must taste and talk about the bitterness.

But then the Hagadah instructs us to understand this bitterness of the past, the maror, on a deeper level. The Hagadah tells of Hillel who would make a sandwich of the matzah and the maror. Now the taste of freedom – matzah, and the taste of bitterness – maror, have become united. Now the joy of the present and the trials of the past have blended into one experience. In Egypt, the bitterness of their travail induced the Jewish people to call out to God, ultimately catalyzing their redemption. The pain of this bitterness was the first step toward their freedom. God’s bringing them out, their freedom, was the response to their distress. The bitterness was not simply a phase of their lives, rather the precipitating force behind their ultimate freedom.

What is Hillel trying to convey through this joining of the matzah and the maror? The truest integration of the past and the present is not when one recognizes that there were many stages in one’s life, but when one understands that all of these stages ultimately enabled me to become whom I am today. That my being is not just the product of the “good moments” and the “good decisions”, but rather that I am the composite whole of all of my previous moments and decisions. I could not have become who I am today without all of my previous experiences, since they all ultimately yielded this personality.

The deepest level of integration of one’s past together with one’s present occurs when one can look back and say, “The powers and qualities that I am blessed with today are the composite result of my entire life. These qualities would not exist as they are if not for all of my previous experiences.” Hillel wanted to teach that the sweet taste of the present is inseparable from the bitter taste of the past. The sweetness would not exist if not for those times of bitterness. Looking back, even the maror becomes part of the taste of freedom.

No denial. Not merely a phase. Rather a whole life. That was the process necessary for the true freedom of the Jewish people. That is the process necessary for each individual Jew.

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