Community d'var by Danielle Smith

Each year on Pesach, we say, “In every generation, every person is obligated to see themselves as if they (themselves) had come out of Egypt. בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם--b'chol dor vador, chayav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim.” We know, “Egypt” in this case, is a stand in for slavery, or a place and time in which we were not truly free. We are not only supposed to “remember” our times of bondage, but see ourselves in it. Why is it so important for us to reflect on the times when we were not free, and what can we learn from these moments?

The theme of fourth grade, in the Jewish school where I teach, is freedom, and we talk all year about freedom, slavery, privilege and oppression with my class of 9 and 10 year olds. One of the big understandings that my fourth graders took away from their intensive studies of the civil rights movement in the US and the exodus of the Jewish people from Mizrayim, is a developing definition of the concept of freedom. Many times throughout this past year, I listened in on my students discussing the definition of freedom as being a state in which one is able to make personal choices and ask questions. My students insights helped me to reflect on my own life and teaching.

One thing that I have come to love about Judaism is the reflective nature of our traditions and the cycle of the calendar and holidays. Passover is another one of those times throughout the year where we pause and reflect on our past. In this past year, when was I not fully free? What are the chains that hold me back? When did I not ask questions or follow through on my personal choices, and what stopped me?

As a first year teacher, I have ventured through this school year going in and out of feeling “free.” At the beginning of this year, a mentor of mine sent me a graph of “attitudes of first year teaching.” On this graph, the first three months are survival mode: a feeling of being way in over your head and trying to get through the day one hour at a time. At the beginning of the year, my expectations for myself as a teacher were high, and I felt free to do anything I wanted with my curriculum. However, this sense of freedom was quickly crushed by the immense feelings of being overwhelmed and in over my head. The graph then turns into 3-4 months of disillusionment. Is all this work worth it? Nothing I do is right…

When I think about my journey as a new teacher this year, I think a lot about this graph and also how my own sense of personal freedom has overlapped with this chart. In the beginning of the year, I was trying to make it through each day with minimal tears, both my own and my students, I did not ask many questions because of how overwhelmed I felt everyday. I was so trapped in my own mind, cycling through thoughts of fears, inadequacies, and self-judgements, that I did not feel free to act on my intuitions. I also did not trust myself as a teacher, feeling like everything I did was wrong in some way. What happens when I doubt myself to a point of not trusting my choices and staying silent for fear of asking the wrong questions? Am I no longer free because of these shackles that I put onto myself?

During this Passover, when we are obligated to reflect on the moments in which we were not free or did not feel a sense of freedom, I have also reflected on the incredible growth that came out of this school year. I make the choice everyday to show up at school for my students. More importantly, I make the choice to show up for myself. What this year has taught me is how to learn in public. For me, learning in public means leaning into the unknown and taking risks. It also means celebrating my mistakes and trusting the process.

As I reflect on my own process of learning, I think about the Hebrew phrase I quoted in the beginning. The words “hu yatza mimitzrayim” are referring directly to the process that the Israelites went through to escape mitzrayim. So, really, we are commanded to remember the moment that we were transitioning from slavery into freedom. In this sense, freedom is a process. As we are coming to the end of Pesach, may we all continue to reflect on our own personal journeys toward freedom.

Thank you and shabbat shalom!