Skip to content



The chassidic masters mystically rephrase the word Pesach – Passover – into two words ‘peh sach-the speaking mouth’. They explain that what characterised the Egyptian exile was an exile of both speech and knowledge. Knowledge (‘daat’ in Hebrew) is the ability to make connections between different ideas or objects, and to then draw conclusions, resulting in a deeper understanding or wisdom. It is also means a relationship between two people, and is the word used to signify sexual relations, since a relationship is the connection made between two people, which is at its closest at the time of sexual intimacy.

Speech is the vehicle of connection. The world of speech is the bridge between the world of thought and the world of action, and the bridge between one person and another. Without speech, a person is trapped within his own world. Even someone who is (G-d forbid) completely paralysed is still connected to others and the rest of the world if he is able to communicate, even if only as slowly and laboriously as by spelling out words by moving his eyes over a letterboard.

The Hebrew name for Egypt – mitzrayim – comes from the word tzar-narrow, and signifies a double narrowness. When we are in Egypt (whether our personal Egypt is infertility, or bereavement, or any other suffering) our horizons are squeezed in these two ways, narrowed in, so that we cannot hope for much or reach very far; we cannot connect to others or verbalise our needs or our wishes.

We are taught that the Jewish people in exile were trapped in more than just physical slavery. The chassidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov develops the concept of ‘galut daat’ and ‘galut dibbur’ – ‘exile of knowledge’ and ‘exile of speech’ – to a great extent. He describes the experience as being trapped in a terrible situation that wears one down both physically and mentally; you feel cut off from even your nearest and dearest because of your inability to move beyond your suffering to connect to those around you; you are unable to vocalise your suffering, to the extent of not even being able to ask for it to end; and you feel isolated and helpless as a result of both these emotions. We are taught that Pharoah implemented policies to undermine the self-identity (as well as the national identity) of the Jews, and to destroy any possiblity of marital relationships, both physical and emotional. The Jews were eventually so crushed and isolated they were not even able to ask G-d to save them; all they could do was cry wordlessly. Our sages teach that only the women clung to the ideal of relationship and attempted to preserve it; and it was in this merit that we were redeemed. I understand this to mean that, had they not aspired to some small level of relationship and connection, we would not have been able to leave Egypt: we would have been beyond rehabilitation and unable to eventually recreate relationships with each other or with G-d.

So, mired as we were in our inablity to speak, it was G-d Who opened our mouths so that we could express ourselves, connect with each other and with G-d Himself. Pesach is the festival when G-d skipped – the literal meaning of the word pesach: ‘leaped over’ – the many levels of depression, isolation and suffering that had kept us in Egypt, to open our mouths. This is why the special commandments of pesach have to do with our mouths: eg. eating matzah, speaking about the exodus from Egypt, singing Hallel (songs of praise).  The exodus eventually culminated in the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, which is described as a marriage contract at a wedding and thus represents our rehabilitation to the climax of relationship.

The experience of perinatal loss is similar to that of galut daat and galut dibbur. We experience a double narrowness: the pain of bereavement, and the loss of possibilities a baby represents (and sometimes an added layer of not being able even to mention our loss because noone knew we were pregnant yet). It is sometimes downright impossible to talk about it to someone who is not with you in your Egypt, and hard even to talk about with someone who is. It can intrude as a wall between friends; it can come between a husband and a wife, enveloping each in their own grief so that they cannot connect even with their spouse’s sadness; it can isolate a woman or man in his/her own world of suffering until he/she is unable to see beyond that. Having lost a baby can very easily destroy our relationship with G-d: simply struggling to absorb what has happened can prevent us from reaching Him, quite apart from feelings of anger or disbelief.

It can, I hope, be comforting to think of this time of year as the reliving of the first and archetypal redemption from suffering. Not just a redemption from physical or even spiritual slavery (though of course it was that as well), but a redemption from mental sadness and depression. On Passover we can cry our pain and suffering without words or articulated thought, and G-d will open our mouths for us to remove us from this negative place. Passover also teaches us that the first and most important redemption is to be able to speak about our suffering and to to connect, emotionally, with those around us. Once we can speak and connect, we can move through small steps (49 of them, during the counting of the Omer) to a fully realised relationship that bears fruit.

May it be G-d’s Will that this Passover mirrors the very first one; a redemption from the isolation of depression and the mutedness of suffering.


Practical Advice:

*Especially if your loss is recent, DO keep it simple. This is not the time to try out complicated recipes or to go overboard in cleaning. Just remove the actual chametz, don’t try to spring clean this year. If you are not sure what is halachically required, or you have a tendency to go overboard in your cleaning, click here to read Rabbi Scheinberg shlita’s guidelines for Pesach cleaning, and here for some top tips for simplifying cleaning.

*DO give yourself time to rest. Passover cleaning and seder nights are very tiring. If you had had an operation you would give yourself the time and space to recover physically; and you similarly need time to heal mentally  and emotionally from your loss.

*DON’T invite lots of guests unless you definitely want to. Especially if this is the ‘first time’ since your loss, you do not know what will rise up to upset you.

*DO make sure to speak with a friend who has also lost a pregnancy or a baby, so that you can commiserate, sympathise and share all the ways that this time of year resonates with you.

*DO accept help that is offered to you. Friends want to be able to give to you somehow, and you do not need to be a superwoman (or superman).


Advice for friends and family

*Try NOT to complain about how much mess your children are making or how difficult it is to clean for Passover with them around.

*Absolutely DO NOT even hint to your friend that he/she is ‘lucky’ to not have children spreading chametz around or to be able to go away for Passover.

*If you have teenaged children (who are helpful) and/or your cleaning help has some extra time (especially if you are going away for Passover), DO send them round to help your friend clean for Passover. This applies especially if he/she has  other small children and/or if their loss was recent. Sadness can make one lethargic and lacking in energy, and can make it even harder to gather up to tackle Passover cleaning.

*DO invite them to join you for a chol hamoed outing, or offer to take their other children with on your outing (if relevant).

*DO NOT talk too much about Passover/spring as a time of birth of a nation, rebirth, etc in front of your bereaved friends. This is especially true if you are leading a seder or speaking in public where you know there will be people who have lost a baby or a pregnancy.

Posted in Coping around the year.

Tagged with , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.