Big Tent

Sarjevo haggadah

Story #41b

Just before Passover that year, the holiday changed character for me. I visited with a group of prisoners in an institution about an hour and a half drive from my home. I had been writing to this group for about three years. That’s how it started: I sent teachings to prison.

Who are these people? I had to find out. The prison system is often difficult to penetrate. I made a contact. Can I come visit?

“Oh yes,” the chaplain said, “We have a Jewish group that studies together once a week. They are waiting for you. They’ve been reading your materials.”

There was a load of equipment in the chapel for services and such -–
 amplifiers, microphones, six or seven decent guitars, a banjo — I grabbed a guitar and waited for my students.

At 1 PM they started coming in from the yard. There were 13 or 14 men, this was the group that studied together every week. They were currently learning a midrash on the book of Proverbs, one of their leaders had a yeshivah background.

Not all of them were Jewish but all were serious and well informed. “It’s prison,” one of them said to me, “we have time.”

We sat around a folding institution type table from 1 to 3:30. Nobody got up, not once, no one went to the bathroom, no one left the table to get a drink of water. Occasionally I added to the groove by picking up the guitar and singing a song, but mostly we sat and learned. We discussed a group of texts that I brought with me. I was allowed to bring papers but not books.

I brought teachings that presented the images of Passover in an almost entirely inward way, as if the freedom celebration was a ceremony of inner liberation, as if the story of Egypt and the Exodus was the story of escape from inner bondage, as if all the freedom lore of Pesach was a story ultimately of inner liberation. It began with Mitzrayim as narrows (Lam.1:3) and as a dual form, embodied, like ears like eyes like lips like hands like ourselves. I played a little Misirlou (Dick Dale version) for spice.

“It pertains to me,” one of the men said wistfully. All the heads wagged in agreement.

When we were done, I realized where we had been the last 2 1/2 hours. We had left our inner limitations, a place too small for us now. Nothing we studied was theoretical and I never felt the words before quite like this: in every generation, each person should feel as if he or she personally were released from Egypt.

We were talking freedom non-theoretical; what obstructs it, how we carry our narrows around with us, how we might go about becoming free in the real sense we can. All of us are prisoners of something. How we become free is an inside job.


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