I used to treat Pesach prep like final exams—best to keep my head down and do my own thing. And while this strategy worked in some ways, it also kept me from the essential work of getting ready for Pesach.
Let me explain. You know the scene in high school before an exam: students sit in clusters, comparing notes and cramming in the last few bits of information. No matter how much I had studied or how confident I felt, this hallway scene would inevitably send me into a tailspin of worry. Had I studied as much? What was that girl looking over? Did someone say we needed to know a chapter I hadn’t reviewed? The flurry of self-doubt and anxiety just wasn’t worth it. So, I learned to time my arrival right before the exam started. I’d keep to myself, find my seat and do my thing.
Staying in my own lane meant that my self-doubt and anxiety were running the show. I was essentially a slave to my insecurity; too busy protecting myself to connect with others and their struggles.
While high school exams are (thankfully) long behind me, as I entered the world of Pesach preparations, I found a similar dynamic. I’d be doing my best, cleaning and organizing according to my plans, and then I’d bump into someone at the grocery store or be on the phone with a friend and compare notes. No matter how calm and collected I was feeling before our conversation, I was sure to walk away feeling a little wobbly. Am I doing enough? Should I be further ahead? How many soups has she frozen?? Given that there seemed little benefit to these interactions, I made a choice: I’d stay in my own lane, avoid chitchat and keep to myself when it came to Pesach prep.
Now, this strategy worked for a while. It kept my anxiety down and my cleaning on schedule. But it also kept me separate. Staying in my own lane meant that my self-doubt and anxiety were running the show. I was essentially a slave to my insecurity; too busy protecting myself to connect with others and their struggles. I began to wonder if there was another way. Maybe the Pesach season with all of its work—and yes, potential to compare notes—holds the key to our liberation. You see, that woman who looks like she has it all together? She’s also carrying a secret burden. That friend who asked about your cleaning? She wants you to ask about hers—and then ask again—so she can tell you about her kid who’s struggling or how overwhelmed she is.
I believe the key to finding real freedom lies in those conversations. The Almighty is giving us a training period for freedom, a time to get ourselves ready to be liberated from the bondage of self, and it all starts with looking around us and maybe even striking up a conversation. The questions we ask may need to change, but keeping our head down and in our own work will rob us of the most important part of Pesach prep.
Still a little skeptical? We need only look to the Torah and a turning point in Moshe’s life to show us how to do this work.
Moshe, having grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, is decidedly separate from his people. The Torah describes how he makes a conscious choice to move beyond himself, telling us, “It happened that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens…” (Shemos 2:11). Here is a man who could have easily avoided this scene, yet he goes out of his way to look outside himself. What is the significance in his “seeing their burdens”? Rashi explains: “He focused his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them.” The Midrash elaborates further, suggesting that Moshe “saw into their burdens”, implying that he looked closely into their plight (Sefer Zikaron).
The Torah is telling us something about the power of our gaze. Notice the order in which Rashi explains Moshe’s actions: first he focuses his eyes, andonly then his heart. This is more than a mere descriptive statement letting us know what happened. It is instructive. The Torah is providing us with an empathy framework. What we look at, where we focus our eyes, will have a direct influence on our heart. If we want to awaken an empathetic response, it begins with paying attention, looking up and out beyond ourselves. When Moshe sees what is happening to his people, his heart is stirred. This is both a key turning point in our liberation as a people and a pivotal moment in Moshe’s development. To be a leader, he will need to cultivate an empathetic heart, the ability to really feel another’s struggle and connect to their plight. But how can a boy who has grown up in Pharaoh’s palace really relate to what slavery is like? He simply needs to look, and his heart will follow. This was true for Moshe, and it’s true for us. In fact, we are neurobiologically programmed to connect this way. Rashi was describing what centuries later neuroscientists have confirmed: we are wired for connection, and the key lies in where we look.
Let me explain with some neuroscience 101. We each have a set of motor neurons in our brain responsible for movement. When I move my arm, these neurons fire, sending my body the message to lift my arm or pick up an object, as the case may be. Scientists have known this for a long time. However, what was recently discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues are a subset of these neurons dubbed “mirror neurons”. What they discovered was that if I am completely still, and I watch you move your arm, a subset of my motor neurons will also fire. There is a neuron that fires when I reach for something, but it also fires when I watch someone else reaching for something. It is as if the neuron is taking on the other person’s perspective. And it gets better. There are also a set of sensory mirror neurons. What does this mean? When I am touched, there are a set of sensory neurons that fire, sending my brain the message to feel the touch. Likewise, by simply watching another person being touched, those same neurons fire—empathizing with the person being touched. Scientist Vilayanur Ramachandran calls these “empathy neurons”.
My brain mirrors watching someone experiencing physical touch, but what about when I see someone suffering? Worried? Overwhelmed? By simply paying attention, just as Moshe took the time to look at his brethren, we likewise awaken empathy. We are wired to connect to what we see. As Ramachandran describes, “You are connected not just via Facebook and the internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there [are] whole chains of neurons around this room talking to each other.” When Moshe looked out beyond the palace, he was providing a roadmap for us. He was showing us that an essential aspect of liberation is moving beyond self-involvement and becoming part of a people.
If Pesach is full of work, it’s also bursting with opportunities to see beyond ourselves and awaken our ability to connect with one another. Therein lies our freedom—to leave the bondage of self and become part of a people; to carry our burdens together.
This is not some far-off theoretical exercise. In fact, you don’t need to take any extra time away from all the crazy-busy to-do list. Opportunities are lurking everywhere. Standing in line at the grocery store, look up from your phone and ask the woman behind you how she’s doing, and pause to really listen and make eye contact. When you bump into a friend, take a breath and ask what her Pesach plans are, then watch and listen to what she is telling you—there is an entire world she is carrying.
Like Moshe, we can begin by focusing our eyes on those around us, and our hearts will follow. If Pesach is full of work, it’s also bursting with opportunities to see beyond ourselves and awaken our ability to connect with one another. Therein lies our freedom—to leave the bondage of self and become part of a people; to carry our burdens together.
These days, while I’m getting ready, I’m also doing my best to look up and really see the people around me. Maybe you’ll do the same. I’ll see you out there.