The Hey-Presto of Transforming Suffering into Compassion

Over the years, my family has had big sprawling Passover seders (the ritual meal) that have required folding tables and folding chairs and food prep that my mom would start weeks ahead of time. I recall one year that we were stretched across the backyard of my childhood home in one long, packed table.

Though Passover technically starts tonight, my mom and I celebrated early this year, over the weekend, and in an entirely unique way: just the two of us.

She set a beautiful table with the good china and silver, and a stuffed frog which could be seen as symbolizing one of the ten plagues that was inflicted upon those holding the Jewish people captive in the story of the holiday, though my mom put it there in honor of my grandmother, who passed last year.

This intimate dinner wasn’t exactly intentional; for one reason or another, others just couldn’t make it this year. We made the most of it, though, preparing our favorite foods and singing our favorite songs with plenty of gusto, even as we struggled through the Hebrew at times.

We also took the time to ask ourselves: What does this holiday really mean?

A little background, just in case: Passover (or Pesach) is the story of the exodus from Egypt. Moses and the burning bush led to the 10 plagues on the pharaoh and Egyptians which led to the Jewish slaves skedaddling on out of that joint, through the parted Red Sea. In a very abbreviated nutshell.

As we read through the haggadah, which is a combo story and prayer book specifically for Passover, my mom and I really attended to a few themes, the kinds of things we always noticed but never looked all that closely at:

  1. Telling the story of the Exodus is a commandment in the Jewish bible. We tell the stories of other holidays but somehow, the emphasis is more profound on this one. You will tell this story, it seems to say.
  2. There’s a lot of emphasis on telling the story in the present tense. That is, this didn’t happen to some long-ago collection of ancestors; this happened to you and me and us. We were the ones freed from Egypt.
  3. Remembering this history as a personal truth is a touchstone for widespread compassion. The service says repeatedly: You went through this terrible thing. Remember that when you witness, and have a chance to ease, others’ suffering.

Sitting at the breakfast table the morning after our wee seder, my mom and I followed these thoughts down a number of rabbit holes, winding up on a path that parallels the Buddhist practice of tonglen. In this form of meditation, the practitioner starts with her own suffering and uses it as a lens through which to develop compassion for the suffering of others. If I feel pain like this, surely others have, do, and will feel pain like this, the practice says.

Then the practitioner envisions breathing in that suffering and transforming it, through intention and imagination, into love that she breathes back out into the world. Try it and I’m betting you’ll be as surprised as I was what a visceral experience that form of meditation can be.

So often, it seems we humans want to either wallow in our misery, imagining it to be more profound than anyone else’s, feeling it as a defining feature of our personhood, or we want to deny it for fear of seeming pathetic, or because of downward social comparison in which we imagine others’ suffering to be more profound than ours.

In these practices – this retelling, personalization, and generalization of the Exodus story, and the breathing in of suffering and breathing out of love – we instead acknowledge our suffering and use it as a catalyst for action. Because I have known pain, because I have suffered, I am motivated to do what I can to ease the suffering of others, and I will start by easing my own suffering.

I will enjoy the meal and company at the seder; I will transform my own suffering into love. And I will work outwardly from there.