30 Days of Liberation 2015

The Talmud teaches that 30 days before Passover, we should start learning about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I humbly offer, as in past years, “30 Days of Liberation.” For each of the next 30 days, I will offer a brief message, drawn from the well of wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring. If you like any or all of them, feel free to share far and wide.

Day 1: Own Your Past

George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the Exodus story, Pharaoh begins a journey to tyranny, brutality, and, ultimately, demise by forgetting about Joseph. What’s true of kings and history is true in our lives, too. Memory forms identity. Without self-knowledge, growth is impossible; we remain in perpetual stasis, ruled by our habits, realizing the same results over and again. Change in our lives requires owning our past, not running from it.

Day 2: Pain and Gain

“The more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out” (Exodus 1:12). The Jewish mystical tradition reads the Exodus as a spiritual allegory: our souls, the most godly part of us, are in exile, forced from a world of bliss into a broken world filled with suffering. Our task is to liberate and elevate those Divine sparks buried deep in the darkness of our world. Seen this way, suffering is a material reaction to a spiritual problem; pain points to where the soul yearns to be free. The goal is not to avoid suffering, but to use it as a catalyst for growth.

Day 3: Compassion Without Borders

The great 20th century sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself…” The Exodus story hinges of this truth: Pharaoh and the Egyptian people exhibit no concern for the suffering of others. By contrast, the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses, each in sequence, demonstrate a level of moral responsibility that transcends the boundaries of gender, class, and ethnicity, actively risking their lives to aid others in need, regardless of who they are. Redemption depends on intuiting and responding to the cries of the oppressed, and is thwarted when those cries are ignored.

Day 4: A Day for Freedom

By definition, slavery is the condition of being totally subservient. When Pharaoh sets taskmasters over the Israelites, he strips them of control over their lives. That’s why, after the Exodus, God commands the Israelites to observe Shabbat – a day on which work is totally prohibited – in order to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 5:15). Shabbat is an expression of true freedom. Slaves cannot choose to abandon their labors. Only a free person has that power. And the choice between slavery and freedom continues to be held out for us today, just as it was then.

Day 5 – Moral Courage

The Exodus begins before God even enters the story, when several key characters determine that they would not let their fear deter them from acting on their moral conviction. The midwives, Moses’ family, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses himself all bravely defy the unjust dictates and behavior of authorities in order to save lives. Freedom requires courage, the ability to refuse to let our fears dictate our direction.

Day 6: If You See Something, Say Something

When I lived in New York, there were signs in the Subway that read, “If you see something, say something.” Seeing something suspicious – or witnessing an outright crime – imposed a responsibility to help. These signs reinforced a very Jewish notion, that from a moral perspective, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. In Exodus, Moses, and then God, set the example. When Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew with impunity, he strikes down the Egyptian. When God finally hears the Israelites “groaning under the bondage” and crying out, God launches the liberation. As for us, we learn that whenever we see injustice, or others’ suffering, we are obligated to respond: “You must not look away” (Deut. 22:3).

Day 7 – “Looking Deeper”

Why did God appear to Moses in a bush that was aflame but not consumed? Because brush fires are common in the desert. Most people familiar with the setting would have seen the bush and promptly ignored it as nothing unusual. Moses, however, says, “I must turn aside to look!” Only then, only when God sees Moses turn to look, does God call to him. Revelation requires the openness to seeing the extraordinary in the mundane and the discipline to look deeper.

Day 8: Here I Am

God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush. Moses responds “Here I am” (Ex. 3:4). The sensitive reader knows that this response echoes those of Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, and others to God’s call. “Here I am” suggests fullness of presence and acceptance of mission. And yet, Moses and others say “Here I am” before they know what the call is for. Sometimes, looking gets in the way of leaping at precisely the moment when we must jump. With self-awareness and a sense of purpose, we can answer the unknown invitation to destiny with “Here I am.”

Day 9: Give It Away Now

It is not enough for God to liberate the Israelites. It is not even enough for God to punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians in the process of freeing the slaves. Rather, God also promises to “dispose the Egyptians favorably” toward the Israelites, “so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed.” Freedom and justice are worthy goals, but those gifts are incomplete without empathy. As we build toward our Feast of Freedom, we learn our celebration is incomplete without becoming disposed favorably to the disadvantaged in our society, and working to ensure they not remain empty-handed.

Day 10: Does Prayer Save Us?

God brings plagues upon Egypt to demonstrate God’s supremacy (Ex. 7:5). Oppression thrives when people see themselves as paramount and omnipotent; and sooner or later, such people are devastated when they are dislodged of those illusions. Judaism demands we internalize this wisdom. That’s why the Israelites are not just freed, but freed “in order to worship Me” (Ex. 7:16). And that’s why Judaism continues to demand daily prayer, in order to remind ourselves we are “not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel” (Heschel).

Day 11: You Are Not Alone

At the Burning Bush, Moses questions his ability to free the Israelites. God replies not by giving Moses new powers, nor even by assuring Moses of his talents or skills. Rather, God simply says, “I will be with you.” The primary function of faith is the assurance that wherever we walk, we do not walk alone. Knowing we are lovingly accompanied on all our journeys empowers us to be more creative and courageous, and orients us to purpose and meaning.

Day 12: Choose Your Views

In modern life, we are trained to value facts, but unfortunately we often confuse facts for values. Pharaoh looks at a fact (an Israelite population boom), ascribes it a value (“in the event of war they may join our enemies”) and responds accordingly (“oppress them with forced labor”). His analysis is plausible. But it is equally plausible that this growing group could be a source of strength for Egypt. Pharaoh looks at the data through a prism of fear and responds with hostility, bringing about the very outcome he dreads. How might the story read if he instead looked with confident eyes and responded with kindness? We in our lives almost always face the same choice.

Day 13: About that Work/Life “Balance”

In the Torah’s telling of the Exodus, God’s instructions to Moses are interrupted by a genealogy of Moses’ family (Ex. 6:14). This isn’t sloppy writing: our rabbis taught that there are no coincidences in the Torah; there is intention behind each letter. Here, God subtly reminds Moses – and us all – that the pursuit of purpose is profoundly important, but must not be undertaken at the expense of family. To God, there is no such thing as striking a work/life “balance.” Those closest to us must be our highest priority.

Day 14: With a Little Help From My Friends

God says to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (7:1). A prophet is one who relentlessly advocates for God’s agenda and, sometimes at least, defends others to God. A true friend is also kind of like that: One who helps us make our case to others and tell us when we’re not being our best selves. God tells Moses that liberation can’t happen without a little help from just such a true friend.

Day 15: To Forgive, Divine

Given the fact that the Egyptians enslaved and oppressed the Israelites for hundreds of years – even murdering their children – one would think that Judaism would demand, or at least permit, regarding them as eternal enemies. And yet, the Torah teaches, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:7). Liberation means nothing if we become as cold and unforgiving as our enemies. True freedom demands embracing forgiveness.

Day 16: Why Change is Hard

Much has been written about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, how can Pharaoh have free will? And if Pharaoh isn’t free, how can he be punished for not letting Israel go? One commentator argues that, initially, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Eventually, his heart is so accustomed to being hardened, his choice becomes habitual. That’s the meaning of God hardening his heart. With each choice we make, we habituate ourselves to choose similarly in the future. That doesn’t mean a change of heart isn’t possible, but it does mean it will be harder. Choose wisely today.

Day 17: Are You Listening?

God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites, “I will free you…” (Ex. 6:6). When Moses relays the message, “they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit and out of hard work” (6:9). It’s not that the Israelites refused to hear God’s redemptive call. According to the Hasidic master known as S’fat Emet, they were unable, distracted by all their other business: “This is the essence of exile, even now, that one cannot clear oneself of distractions and forget the vanities of the world, so that one’s heart is clear to hear the word of God.” God is calling us to liberation, even now; but are we too busy to listen?

Day 18: Darkness Falls

A Hasidic master known as Or ha-Me’ir creatively interprets the 9th plague, “a great darkness in all the land of Egypt” (Ex. 10:22). In that pitch black, “people did not see their brothers.” They refused to acknowledge that they could learn from others, and thus “no person could rise from where he was seated.” Without true learning, there was no progress. We face today a similar plague. Our unparalleled access to information should encourage shared understanding, yet we are more polarized than ever. Liberation requires learning, even from people with whom we disagree.

Day 19: A Shabbat of the Self

Many commentators suggest that hametz – leaven – symbolizes the ego. So on Passover, when we are commanded to “remove leaven from your houses” (Ex. 12:15), we are being metaphorically adjured to jettison our arrogance. But what does ego-deflation have to do with liberation? Our sense of self-importance often leads to suffering, as it alienates us from others and from God. If you are devoted to the perception that you are the center of your world, that your work uniquely matters, and that you must strive for lasting greatness, you might still be in Egypt.

Day 20: Arrogance or Confidence?

Over and over, Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites. He is unwavering in his certainty that holding on to his slaves is right, despite all of the consequences of that decision. We vilify Pharaoh for his stubbornness, but is he arrogant, or simply confident? And what’s the difference between the two? Both confidence and arrogance involve acting without doubt, but true confidence requires honest self-knowledge. With confidence, we trust our ability to make the best possible decision based on our awareness of our motivations, context, and the available facts. Arrogance ignores all the above. The arrogant make strong decisions, but merely as projections of power that mask a deeper insecurity. Pharaoh’s cruelty was arrogance. Only self-awareness prevents us from becoming Pharaohs ourselves.

Day 21: Waste Not, Want Not

On the eve of the Exodus, each Israelite household is told to slaughter, roast, and eat a whole lamb; none of it may be left over to the next day. But even a family of good eaters would be hard-pressed to eat a whole lamb in one sitting. So the Torah says, “If the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby” (Ex. 12:4). In our time of abundance, rampant consumption, and unfathomable waste, this message calls out to us, too, as it did then: take what you need, and what you don’t need, share with others.

Day 22: Shaped by our Story

While it is of course true that we humans like to make up stories, on a deep level our stories make us. We are shaped and formed by our memories and by the narratives we form to understand and contextualize them. That’s why, before they even leave Egypt, the Israelites are commanded to remember the Exodus by telling the story on Passover  “for all time.” (Ex. 12:14). It’s not because they (or we) might forget or because we like to tell stories. It’s because the story itself shapes our identity, and directs how we encounter our world.

Day 23: Seize the Moment

Maimonides argued that God does not directly intervene in history or overturn the laws of nature. He explains biblical miracles as having been built into the laws of nature from the beginning of creation. They merely kick-in at just the right time. Seen this way, the Reed Sea, which miraculously split to allow the Israelites to cross but not the Egyptians, had been waiting for millennia, just for the moment of the Exodus. Each of us is also created with a divinely-ordained purpose, a way only we can better the world. The task is not only to discover that purpose, but to be aware and ready when the time arrives to act upon it. As Mordecai asks Esther in the Purim story, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

Day 24: To Bend or be Bent

What at first seems like a pragmatic military tactic turns out to be a powerful relational lesson. God, we are told, makes a fateful decision to take the “scenic route” to the Promised Land, thinking, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt” (Ex. 13:17). In leading them, God takes peoples’ hearts into account, honoring their feelings rather than dismissing or striving to change them. We often seek to bend others to our will. God, on the other hand, models the capacity for bending our will to others’ needs.

Day 25: The Essence of Prayer

The central issue at the heart of the Passover story is not the Israelites’ freedom. Quite the contrary, it is about their loyalty, giving themselves over to God rather than continuing to serve Pharaoh. That’s why God repeatedly demands, “Let My people go that they may serve Me” (Ex. 7:26). Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “serve me” (‘va-ya’avduni’) also means “worship Me.” The essence of prayer, then, is to jettison the pretense of our egos, the incessant demands of our vanities and petty desires, and give ourselves fully over to God.

Day 26: Does Faith Matter?

Are there forces at work in our universe that can never be fully known or understood? In Exodus, there is no persuading Pharaoh of a reality beyond the limits of his knowledge. And the more he entrenches himself in that view, the more callous he becomes. Human certainty so often leads to cruelty and oppression. That’s why faith matters. Perhaps counterintuitively, faith demands the presence of doubt, the capacity to affirm the limits of what we know. And only through such intellectual humility can we be free to honor others’ truths and to be compassionate in the application of our own.

Day 27: One Little Kid

Though it’s not directly connected to the Passover story, my favorite part of the Seder is the song “Had Gadya,” which outlines how even a small deed like the purchase of a goat can have cosmic reverberations. Of course, the Passover story is like that, too. Small acts of kindness propel a grand, divine drama: the midwives save Hebrew babies, Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses, and Moses defends several strangers against injustice. There is no insignificant act, and even one small, kind deed can snowball to redeem the world.

Day 28: Explain it to Your Children

The Torah singles out Passover as a moment that uniquely requires transmission from one generation to the next: “And you shall explain to your child…'” (Ex. 13:8). The Exodus is central to Jewish identity: it was our birth-moment as a people and the foundation of our relationship with God; it is the essence of our moral responsibilities. Such critical learning cannot be trusted to proxies. Like it or not, home is where we come from; hearing what parents say and watching what they do form how we relate to the world. If we want our children to embrace our values, there is only one way. But remember: our children also learn from what we don’t teach them.

Day 29: None but the Brave

A tradition holds that only 1/5 of the Israelites actually left Egypt. The other 80% chose to remain in Egypt as slaves. Even though their lives were full of misery and oppression, they feared the unknown future that lay before them were they to follow Moses into the wilderness. To paraphrase Faulkner, they were more afraid of the trouble they might have than they were of the trouble they already had. Most people opt to cling to the trouble they are used to rather than risk a change. But only the minority who are brave enough to envision and work toward a future that does not yet exist can make it to the Promised Land.

Day 30: Music and God’s Voice

When the Israelites had crossed the Reed Sea, and the waters crashed on the Egyptians, Moses and the people sang, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and has become my deliverance.” Strength makes sense. After all, God did just wipe out one of the world’s great armies to deliver the Israelites. But song? It turns out that our entire universe was created and is nurtured through music; not audible to the human ear, but music nonetheless. Nothing exists that is not constantly pulsing with song, and music directs the development of all that is, from subatomic particles to genes to cells to living beings. To know and to channel God’s power, then, is to attune to song; the only path to true freedom is through music. “I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously!” (Ex. 15:1). This Passover, discover God’s song; discover God’s deliverance.

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