It takes courage to face unknown, but the Jews do it time and again

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Bible stories are like Tin Pan Alley standards, offering jazz masters the possibility of improvising their way to musical immortality.

That is, these ancient stories of gardens, floods and redemption from bondage provide the basic melody, the essential notes, which we absorb and around which we compose our own songs. What is midrash, after all, but a compendium of theological riffs?

And so when I think of Passover this year I focus on a different part of the story from the one I chose last year or the year before. For though the story is the same, what I bring to it varies according to my own personal journey.

Now, I find myself thinking about the moment the Jews left Egypt. What incomparable courage, to leave everything they knew as familiar to begin a journey with no end in sight.

I can't help but compare their Exodus to a more recent one — the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany before the Second World War. Many of those who survive today left as children — as 6-, 10-, 12-year-olds — sent away by their desperate families toward the promise of a safe harbor.

I try to imagine Jake, my 13-year-old son, left on his own to navigate his way through war-ravaged Europe and I find that I literally have to flee from the image. I can't stay with it. It's too awful.

Yet the courage to embrace the new differs from the courage required to flee the old. It requires a different set of skills, a different slant on life. Our ancestors knew this. That's why it was decreed that those Jews born into bondage were not allowed to enter the Promised Land. They intuited that the shadow chains of bondage remain, like a phantom limb, long after the actual chains are loosened.

To appreciate the wisdom of this, I think in microscopic terms; I think of my own family. My sons, one at each end of adolescence, are caught up in their own personal exodus, away from the family, out of their childhood, and they move with the swift determination of a people forced to flee.

But they're not sure toward what goal they are moving. In fact, precisely because the future seems so hazy, they often focus on where they've been.

Just the other morning, as I was driving Jake to middle school, he said, "When I have kids I'm going to make sure they appreciate it when they're in elementary school."

He was referring, I knew, to the increased pressure and stress he was feeling now that he had to pass Regents examinations and be responsible for science labs. He longed for the days when all he had to do at school was show up, draw a picture, watch some seeds grow.

"We all want to be younger again," I tried to reassure him. "But think of it this way: When you were in elementary school, it's true that you had fewer responsibilities, but you also had fewer privileges. And fewer choices."

"I don't care about choices so much," he said.

His emotional honesty caught me short. It reminded me of a psychological study I'd just read, indicating that we become stressed when faced with too many choices. Presented with 20 different types of soap or breakfast cereal, we first panic, however subtly, and then rebel against the array of choices by feeling less than satisfied with what we ultimately choose.

This was news to me. We've long acknowledged our need for some degree of autonomy: Without any choice, we become depressed and helpless. But apparently, having too much autonomy can result in the same feelings. That's why, when my older son complained that he was too old to have a curfew, and we agreed, he was startled. Though he stayed out till 3 in the morning for a couple of nights, soon he was returning home around midnight — which was, of course, the time of his old curfew.

When we read the Haggadah this, year, I'll thank our ancestral mothers and fathers for helping me discern between two kinds of courage, and for reminding me that one of life's daily challenges is divining how much choice is right for us. Freedom, it turns out, isn't instantly bestowed but painstakingly accommodated, claimed and reclaimed.