March 29, 2018
13 Nisan 5778
Tomorrow evening, all around the world, Jews and their families and friends will gather together to participate in a ritual that goes back thousands of years. As we dip parsley into salt water, we will think not only of the tears that our ancestors shed during their years of enslavement and oppression, but also of the promise of hope that springtime brings. We will eat matzah that represents not only the bread of affliction, but also the bread of freedom; it too, in it’s own way, is also a symbol of hope.
Passover is often thought of as a holiday about hope. It occurs in spring as the buds on the trees are blossoming and all forms of life are beginning to emerge from the cold and dark months of winter.
This year, as I’ve been preparing for Passover, physically and spiritually, I’ve been thinking not about hope, but about other themes that are also a part of this universal story of transformation and redemption: grief, persistence, determination, and resilience.
If you read the story of our ancestors sojourn in Egypt, you will notice that God is noticeably absent (except in relationship to the midwives). Commentators throughout the generations noticed this, and-believing that everything in the text is there for a reason–wondered if the text was trying to communicate something to the reader. Perhaps it indicated that God had abandoned the people and was oblivious to their circumstances; perhaps it indicated that God was not in any way a part of the people’s consciousness, so deep was their misery and sense of hopelessness. Some noticed that God suddenly reappeared in the story immediately after the people cried out in their suffering:
Years passed and the King of Egypt died. The children of Israel groaned by reason of the servitude. They cried out and their cry went out to God from the servitude. Then God heard their moan, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the children of Israel and took heed. (Ex. 2:22-25).
The moment that they cried out, say some commentators, was the beginning of their redemption, the beginning of their transformation: from being enslaved and oppressed to being redeemed: free to be masters over their own lives, in service only to God (Studies in Shemot, Nechama Leibowitz, p. 19).
Around the country, around the world, we heard people cry out this past weekend, when hundreds of thousands of students and their families and allies took to the streets to protest the all-too-readily availability of guns and assault rifles to those who want to obtain them for nefarious purposes. Many of us marched and cried out with them, shouting, “Enough is enough; students should not have to sit in their classrooms and be filled with fear.” Over these last many months, we’ve heard people cry out in response to attempts to close our nation’s borders to those who’ve been forced to make their own treacherous journeys away from persecution and violence in their home countries, particularly countries which are predominately Muslim. We’ve heard the cry rise up in response to hate-filled acts perpetrated against Jews and Muslims and other minorities. We’ve heard the cry rise up in response to the racism that is still present in so many institutions and facets of our society and culture.
“When will redemption come?” we read in one of the beautiful interpretations found in our Shabbat Siddur (prayer book). “When we grant everyone what we claim for ourselves,” it answers; or, as stated elsewhere in Jewish teachings, when we “love our neighbor as we love our self,” (Lev. 19:18); when we do not do unto others what we would not want done unto us (Rabbi Hillel, in explaining the essence of the Torah, Shabbat 31a).
As was true for our ancestors in their own day, is also true for us in ours: redemption does not happen overnight. It requires crying out in grief that things are not right; it requires a tremendous amount of persistence, determination, and resilience on the part of human beings who are, in reality, “God’s outstretched arms,” working for justice and redemption in our world.
Friends, as we sit down to recall our ancestors’ journeys, may we truly enjoy our blessings of freedom. May we be inspired to continue doing the important work of being “God’s outstretched arms” in the world, working for justice and redemption for all who are not yet free.
Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach, a Happy and meaningful holiday.