Last Sunday’s New York Times published a photo of a woman fully clad, head and face to toes, in a traditional, sky blue burqa, being handed a ballot for voting in the recent national election in Afghanistan. The author of the accompanying article quoted the woman, twenty one year old Parwash Naseri, that her first time participation in voting was “for her children and for women’s rights” because, “I believe in the right of women to take part just as men do, to get themselves educated and to work.”

I glanced at this photo, whose imagery I found so unsettling, numerous times during the past week. As a Western liberal who is religious, I view the burqa’s public use as an assault on the personhood of women, when it is a form of dress that is not freely chosen by them in countries like Afghanistan. There, the Taliban continues to find support, howbeit gradually waning, from a patriarchal culture that severely represses women’s identities and freedom, including especially in their mode of dress.

I fully support the positive value of tzeniyut, modesty in dress and behavior for men and women. However, burqas exceed reasonable dictates of modesty. They represent the perspective that women’s identities and sexuality must be severely regulated by men, and that they should only be seen in the society of men as nondescript blue or black ghost figures. Critics of my perspective will argue that it is religiously and culturally imperialist, and I again acknowledge that there may be women for whom wearing a burqa is a freely chosen form of religious expression. Critics also rightly argue that Western societies also control and manipulate women, howbeit in the opposite direction, by sexualizing them — and men – through a prurient clothing and beauty industry that deliberately confuses naked with liberated. Nonetheless, a huge gulf remains between a fully free society in which women can make personal choices and a society in which women’s personal choices, particularly about their identities and public presence, remain largely under the coercive control of men.

This is precisely what I found so unsettling about the photo. A woman wearing a burqa, quite possibly out of fear for her life, shows up at a polling station to participate publicly in a largely peaceful, democratic transition of power in her violence-worn country; she declares in word and deed that her motivation for voting is to guarantee freedom and a better future for all women and children. Rather than be an example of cheap, gawking photo-sensationalism, the picture captures what anthropologists call the experience of liminality. A person or group is liminal when going through a transition between one status and another. Liminality involves what my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman calls threshold experiences, during which we feel deeply unsettled and chaotic, because our social, emotional and spiritual places in the world are in flux.

Religious groups and other communities create rituals and liturgies which help us to deal with the terror of these transitions. A baby is born, thus ending life in the womb, but is not yet fully a member of the community; Judaism responds to this with circumcision and naming ceremonies. A couple is committed to marriage, but each partner is still single; Judaism has them literally cross the threshold between single and marred life by standing under a huppah (marriage canopy). Other transitional, liminal states – conversion, divorce, death – have their appropriate life cycle rituals that help to move people and their communities from one spiritual place to another.

Like her fellow Afghanis – the women especially – Parwash Naseri is in a profoundly liminal place. She is literally clad in the clothing of societally enforced repression while simultaneously expressing her political empowerment publicly through one-woman-one-vote. Certainly, the Jewish people’s history of persecution and perseverance is filled with similar journeys and challenges, and I have inherited that legacy. However, as a privileged, American white man, I have no personal clue as to what this liminality feels like. I have never actually walked the terrifying, tortuous path from slavery to freedom, nor have I ever been stuck in that awful place between the two.

This is why the Passover Seder is so important to me. The seder is an organized communal ritual of praise to God for liberating us from Egypt. However a closer look shows us that it is also a ritualized drama of liminality: it places us back where our ancestors were, as they stood in Egypt at that dangerous threshold between slavery and freedom. We begin the seder by emphasizing the bread of affliction, then following the Talmud, we tell the ancient story of our slavery and our liberation. Almost every seder ritual gently forces us to live in both statuses, as unsettling and uncomfortable as this may be. Matzah, the food of slaves and free people, literally becomes part of us, as do the bitter herbs, haroset – the symbol of mortar and bricks – and wine, the drink of free people.

By re-living slavery and freedom at the seder, I get a tiny taste – actually and symbolically — of what it might be like to live with each of my feet in either place. Hopefully this makes me a more sensitive to the meaning of both, and a bit more understanding of the courageous struggles of people like Parwash Naseri.

May we all enjoy the blessings of freedom this Pesach.