The man knows that his neighbor is not at home. Brown towel draped over his shoulder, he enters the backyard through the gate and eyes the pristine swimming pool before him. Casting aside the towel, he jumps into the refreshingly cool water and starts swimming laps. After a while, the man reaches the edge of the pool, only to find his neighbor standing at the steps, looking at him perplexedly.
“Again?” the neighbor wonders. “That’s the third time this week. I thought we already had this conversation.”
An embarrassed look passes across the man’s face. “You keep your pool so clean though. The temperature is just right. The water feels great.”
Looking over the fence, into the man’s backyard, the neighbor points to the man’s yard, “I don’t get it. You have a swimming pool of your own. It looks nice and clean to me, perfectly maintained.”
The neighbor turns and pauses, looks at their own pool, and sighs heavily, for in their eyes, the pool before them looks greenish in color and there are lots of insects swimming on the surface. The neighbor doesn’t understand why the man would want to go swimming in this pool, when his own pool appears so enticing.
“But I’d rather swim here,” the man admits, shrugging his shoulders. He glances over the fence at his own pool and he doesn’t see what his neighbor sees. There is algae growing on the walls of his swimming pool and he knows he hasn’t checked the chlorine levels or vacuumed in quite some time. The pH balance of the water is probably off. The man murmurs something under his breath, shakes his head shamefully from side to side, and tries to avoid eye contact with his neighbor.
“Look,” the neighbor says firmly. “I hate to do this, but I have my pool and you have yours, and that’s that.” The neighbor very gently motions for the man to leave by the gate, and then takes a piece of paper, and a permanent black marker, writes the words, “NO TRESPASSING,” and posts the sign on the fence.
No matter how beautiful his neighbor’s swimming pool seems, or how “perfectly maintained” his swimming pool appears to his neighbor, the man must go swimming in his own backyard, the neighbor in theirs. In Pirkei Avot, we are taught, “There are four character traits among people. Some say, “Mine is mine and yours is yours; this is the average trait…[Some say] yours is mine and mine is mine; this is the trait of a scoundrel’” (5:12). Both people need to clean their own pool and learn to swim in it, that is, unless our neighbors welcome us into their lives and into their backyards, which is their choice, not ours, and then, even then, there are still boundaries which must be maintained. Facebook and other social media platforms provide us with a notoriously false sense of entrance, a distorted perspective on the lives of others, and a way of manipulating our appearance to the wider world.
But no one else truly understands what we see behind our own eyes. We alone know what is swimming inside our own pools — whether they are pristine, a cesspool, or most likely, somewhere in-between. In the twelfth chapter of Exodus, the Torah portion for the first day of Pesach, we read, “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children,” which The Torah: A Women’s Commentary enhances by offering, “If taken literally, the estimates for the total number of people leaving Egypt range between two and three million, assuming each man as accompanied by a wife and between two and three children” (p. 368). If there were between two and three million people leaving Egypt, imagine the depth of stories, the profoundly striking nature of the individual witnessing of the experience. The journey itself would be remarkably different from person to person; no two stories would be the same. Some on the journey would be looking forward to the Promised Land, some would wish to go back to Egypt, and some would just be in the moment, putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe someone has a small child in tow behind her or someone is complaining about the heat or an aching back. Maybe someone is singing, and others are joining in and another person just needs to bask in the silence of the moment.
Yet the only story we know is our own. We can imagine. We can wonder. We can think we have a right to go swimming in our neighbor’s backyard. But we don’t. Pesach, our season of freedom, is a time to remain present with ourselves, with our own narrative, and to find freedom from our own Egypt, to find liberation from whatever enslaves us. As Rabban Gamliel taught in the Mishnah, “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they themselves went forth from Egypt” (Pesachim 10:5).
Amidst family and communal gatherings for Pesach, may you also find the time to swim in your own backyard. Chag Sameach.