30 Days of Liberation 2018

The Talmud teaches that, during the 30 days before Passover, we should learn about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I composed a brief message for each of the previous 30 days, drawing from the wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring, and if you do, feel free to share any or all of them far and wide.

Day 1 – According to the Talmud, Purim and Passover must always be connected, perhaps because the two stories underscore the difference between salvation and redemption. Purim represents salvation. The Jews of Persia are saved. But their situation at story’s end is fundamentally the same as at the beginning. They are still subjects of the King. On the other hand, the Passover story is about redemption. In the Exodus, the Israelites’ situation is radically transformed, from serving Pharaoh to serving God alone. Purim reminds us of the intermittently violent, intermittently safe, but ultimately unredeemed world we inhabit. As the ancient sage Rava said, “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” Passover, on the other hand, reminds us of the redeemed world that might yet be. The two are connected to teach us that we have redemptive work yet to do.

Day 2 – Why must Purim and Passover always be connected? Perhaps because Purim is a story of patriarchy: Ahasuerus marries, Vashti, a powerful royal woman. After consolidating power by ingratiating himself to the Persian noblemen, he demands Vashti obey him or face banishment. After capturing and forcing hundreds of women into a life of sexual servitude, Ahasuerus marries a smart, strong Jewish woman, Esther. Queen Esther is the story’s hero, but she never challenges the fundamental power structure. The story has a happy ending for the Jews, but the stage is still set the same as it was at story’s beginning. The Passover story, on the other hand, holds up a different model: courageous women undermine and dismantle the brutal existing order. In the end, the stage is radically reset. Pharaoh’s dominion, with its male-dominated hierarchy, ends and God’s begins. And under Divine rule, full equality is finally possible. Purim represents the reality and brutality of the existing patriarchal order. Passover represents the possibility of its being resisted, dismantled, and replaced with true equality. We connect the two holidays to remind us where we are, and where we are called to be.

Day 3 – Harder than taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt was taking Egypt out of the Children of Israel. The episode of the Golden Calf is a great, if tragic, example. The people had come to ascribe divinity to a man, Moses, whom they credited, rather than God, for taking them out of Egypt. Coming from a society where a man, Pharaoh, was God, this must have made sense. But when Moses disappeared on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people panicked. The idea of not having a tangible supreme authority was too much to bear, so they made a calf out of gold. The idolatry of worshipping a statue is no different than that of bending the knee to a human being. Both entrench hierarchies, reinforcing the oppression of the weak by the powerful. Little wonder that when Moses returns, the Torah indicates that the Israelites were acting like participants of a Pharaonic regime, demeaning and possibly even subjugating each other. We who today venerate the tangible are similarly at risk for serving gods of metal or flesh. We may be out of Egypt, but we can only know if Egypt is truly out of us if we treat all others as our equals, and fashion societies that affirm the dignity of all.

Day 4 – One of the world’s great myths is that of the “self-made man,” the person who, through nothing but hard work and determination, has become a success. The implication of this myth is that if one is not a success, it must be because he has not fixed hard enough on his goals or worked dilligently enough to achieve them. The Exodus story comes like a sledgehammer to shatter the “self-made man” myth: The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for centuries. Did they remain in bondage because they didn’t work hard enough to get ahead or because they didn’t desire fiercely enough to be free? Of course not. They remained slaves because factors well beyond their control conspired to keep them that way, regardless of how much they yearned for freedom or how hard they worked. The only way for their poverty to end was to dismantle the system that kept them impoverished. The same is true today: While by-your-own-bootstraps gumption is important, and may work for some people sometimes, systems of oppression must be eradicated and replaced by systems of uplift, for people to have a chance to succeed.

Day 5 – When Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite baby boys be cast into the Nile, Moses’ mother hides him in a reed basket and sends him downriver in an effort to spare his life. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, opens it, sees a baby crying, and declares, “This must be a Hebrew child!” How did she know baby Moses was a Hebrew just by looking at him? In his recent book, “Here I Am,” Jonathan Shafran Foer suggests that she recognizes Moses as a Hebrew because “he was crying in Jewish.” How would one cry in Jewish? Maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was laughing. Perhaps laughter is how one cries in Jewish. It’s not so much that our tradition forbids sadness, or that pain is taboo. It’s just that we prefer to turn grief into giggling, sadness into song. Maybe that’s what saved Moses. And maybe that’s what will save us.

Day 5 (edited) When Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite baby boys be cast into the Nile, Moses’ mother hides him in a reed basket and sends him downriver to spare his life. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, opens it, sees a baby crying, and declares, “This must be a Hebrew child!” How did she know baby Moses was a Hebrew just by looking at him? In his recent book, “Here I Am,” Jonathan Shafran Foer suggests that she recognizes Moses as a Hebrew because “he was crying in Jewish.” How would one cry in Jewish? Maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was laughing. Perhaps laughter is how one cries in Jewish. It’s not so much that our tradition forbids sadness, or that pain is taboo. It’s just that we prefer to turn grief into giggling, sadness into song. Maybe that’s what saved Moses. And maybe that’s what will save us.

Day 6 According to the Torah, after years of oppression, “the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” God hears their cries, and is moved to come to their aid. But God is not the first character in the narrative to leap into action after hearing the cries of the oppressed. Pharaoh’s daughter sees baby Moses crying and saves him. Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and intervenes. Then, Moses chases away a group of shepherds he sees harassing some Midianite girls. Maybe God refrained from rescuing the Israelites until people began taking action themselves. Or perhaps God’s intervention is a metaphor for the process of liberation that had already begun with these heroic human deeds. Or maybe, just maybe, God follows our example, and not the other way around. Divine action in the world corresponds with our own. When we lift up, God joins to bolster our efforts.

Day 6 (edited) According to the Torah, after years of oppression, “the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help rose up to God.” God hears their cries, and is moved to come to their aid. But God is not the first character in the narrative to leap into action. Pharaoh’s daughter sees baby Moses crying and saves him. Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and intervenes. Then, Moses chases away a group of shepherds he sees harassing some Midianite girls. Maybe God refrained from rescuing the Israelites until people began taking action themselves. Or perhaps God’s intervention is a metaphor for the process of liberation that had already begun with these heroic human deeds. Or maybe, just maybe, God follows our example, and not the other way around. Divine action in the world corresponds with our own. When we lift up, God joins to bolster our efforts.

Day 7 The moment the Children of Israel settled in Egypt, they concentrated themselves in the Goshen region, fertile land in the Nile delta suitable for grazing and farming. This meant that from the beginning, the average Egyptian probably never met an Israelite. No wonder Pharaoh had such an easy time convincing his people that the Israelites were enemies to be controlled or destroyed. No wonder the Egyptians were unsympathetic to the enslaved Israelites’ suffering. Today, most of us live in socially, economically, and often ethnically homogenous areas. But when we are isolated from people of different backgrounds, experiences, and situations, we become more likely to fear or vilify them, and risk becoming indifferent to their needs. We don’t need to necessarily get up and move to more diverse neighborhoods. But unless we deliberately encounter and engage with diverse people, we might end up just like those ancient Egyptians.

Day 8 After God asks Moses to lead the people out of bondage, Moses begins the journey from his home in Midian back to Egypt. Something strange happens on the way: God tries to kill Moses! God was angry that Moses had left without circumcising his newborn son. The story underscores the “paramount importance of the institution of circumcision and the surpassing seriousness of its neglect” (JPS). Indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, “the survival and redemption of Israel was assured because of the two mitzvot,” Passover and circumcision. Why these two things? Because they represent our body and soul. Without the soul, the body is just a machine. But without a body, a soul is but a ghost. Without Jewish wisdom and tradition, embodied by Passover, there can be no living Jewish people. But without flesh-and-blood Jewish people, symbolized by circumcision, there can be no container for Jewish values. We cannot sacrifice people for values any more than we can trade values for people. Our redemption requires both. For what it’s worth, the one who ultimately intuits this truth is not Moses, it’s Zipporah, making women once again our greatest teachers and redeemers.

Day 9 – When Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush, God says that the Divine name is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” or, “I will be what I will be.” According to a rabbinic tradition, God is alluding to God’s one-ness. In our world – a place of division, strife, and oppression – God’s unity, while theoretically a reality, is not fully realized. The purpose of the Jewish people is to help build a world more aligned with the unity that in truth, even if not in experience, pervades reality. Thus God’s message to Moses: I am freeing the Israelites from Egypt because redeeming the oppressed advances an agenda of one-ness. Their responsibility, once liberated, is to continue the work of building a world that reflects God’s unity, a world where all creations are one with each other and with their Creator.

Day 10 At the Seder, when the youngest child asks “Why is this night different from all other nights?” we are prompted to respond with technical answers: on other nights we eat leavened bread, while tonight we eat matzah, for instance. But what if we heard the imperceptible incredulity in our children’s voices when they ask that question? On this night, we see ourselves as personally enslaved so that we can know the heart of the oppressed. On this night, we deride bondage and celebrate liberation. On this night, we see injustice set right and sing songs of praise. Why not other nights, too? Why, our children are asking, IS this night different? Why, they demand, is EVERY night not like this night?! How will we answer them? How can we even look them in the eye?

Day 11 Pharaoh’s illusion of control – or, perhaps more accurately, his desire to be perceived as in control – entrenches his behavior and culminates in his and his country’s ruin. If only he had acknowledged, if only he had been willing to reveal, his limitations! If only he had been willing to be human, to show others his humanity, then the whole story might have changed. Similarly, our desire to mask our own imperfections, our own brokenness, our own shortcomings – from others, yes, but also from ourselves (perhaps especially from ourselves) – can entrench us in destructive patterns of behavior. If we permit ourselves to be honest with ourselves and others about who we truly are, if we allow ourselves to be imperfect, if we humble ourselves to seek the help we need, then there’s no telling how our stories, too, might change.

Day 12 Moses stands up for justice, but it costs him. The Prince of Egypt sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave and intervenes. This act of protest against the legal order makes him liable for execution, or at least exile. Moses chooses the latter, renouncing all his Egyptian wealth and honor. Sometimes, this is the choice we all must face when confronted with social injustice: do we care enough about righting wrongs for others that we are willing to risk our privilege and our position for the cause? The 19th century Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, reflecting upon this dilemma, said: “If I used my talents and my position in a politic way, I would soon become rich, and nothing could prevent me from entering upon pursuing successfully a brilliant career. But if I remained true to my convictions, the bent of my nature, then I must be ready to renounce wealth, honors, recognition, and love.” Ultimately, like Moses, he reached the following decision: “Come what may and how it may, I will not swerve a hair’s-breadth from my convictions.” The Passover story invites us, today, to muster a similar kind of courage.

Day 13 – The Israelites are enslaved for a long time. They groan under their bondage and cry out. God hears their moaning and sees their suffering. Then, the Torah teaches, “God knew.” What did God know? And why did God only know then? Recall that, centuries before the Exodus story begins, God had told the patriarch Abraham that his descendants would suffer in a foreign land for 400 years before the time was right for their ultimate redemption and restoration to the Promised Land. Many biblical commentators observe that the biblical chronology suggests the actual period of enslavement falls far short of that lengthy period, maybe by as much as two centuries. Perhaps “God knew” that it was time for the people’s suffering to end, even if prematurely. Perhaps God discovers that God’s plan was perfect in theory but brutal in reality. And perhaps even God could only know this after hearing the Israelites’ cries and seeing their degradation. As my wise, dear friend Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, an Episcopalian priest, reflected to me recently, “Some things you can only know once you experience them.” If this can be true of God, how much the more so of us?

Day 13 (edited) The Israelites are enslaved for a long time. They groan under their bondage and cry out. God hears their moaning and sees their suffering. Then, the Torah teaches, “God knew.” What did God know? And why did God only know then? Recall that, centuries before the Exodus story begins, God had told the patriarch Abraham that his descendants would suffer in a foreign land for 400 years before their ultimate redemption and restoration to the Promised Land. Many biblical commentators observe that the actual period of enslavement falls far short of that lengthy period, maybe by as much as two centuries. Perhaps “God knew” that it was time for the people’s suffering to end, even if prematurely. Perhaps God discovers that God’s plan was perfect in theory but brutal in reality. And perhaps even God could only knew this after hearing the Israelites’ cries and seeing their degradation. As my wise, dear friend Episcopal Reverend Wallace Adams-Riley reflected to me recently, “Some things you can only know once you experience them.” If this can be true of God, how much the more so of us?

Day 14 – The dominant theme of the Seder is that everyone has a place at the table. For instance, we make space for the four widely different types of children and the diverse group of Rabbis of Bnai Brak. We even lament the absence of the Egyptians who died during the Exodus, and welcome the spirit of Elijah the Prophet. As we are instructed to say at the Seder, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Indeed, this is perhaps the Seder’s most poignant lesson: hunger is something we all share. It is a reminder of our common humanity, the fact that, despite our differences, we are all of us fundamentally the same, all of us members of a common human family, all of us equal and worthy of a place at the table. The Egyptians wouldn’t even dine with the Israelites, considering them abominable, subhuman. We respond by saying that everyone with an appetite—that is to say, everyone period—is as deserving of a seat as are we.

Day 14​​​​​​​ (edited) The dominant theme of the Seder is that everyone has a place at the table. For instance, we make space for the four widely different types of children and the diverse group of Rabbis of Bnai Brak. We even lament the absence of the Egyptians who died during the Exodus, and welcome the spirit of Elijah the Prophet. We say at the Seder, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Indeed, this is perhaps the Seder’s most poignant lesson: hunger is something we all share. It is a reminder of our common humanity, the fact that, despite our differences, we are fundamentally the same, all of us members of a common human family, all of us equal and worthy of a place at the table. The Egyptians wouldn’t even dine with the Israelites, considering them abominable, subhuman. We respond by saying that everyone with an appetite—that is to say, everyone period—is as deserving of a seat as are we.

Day 15 – When Moses begins his campaign to free the Israelites, the Israelites themselves rail against him: They said, “May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” See, the Israelites may have been slaves, but even in their oppressed state they enjoyed a fairly comfortable status quo. As soon as Moses starts to agitate for change, their situation worsens. So they demand he stop speaking out. His political agenda was making them profoundly uncomfortable. Fortunately for them, and for us, neither God nor Moses recognize the people’s comfort as a primary value. Justice is a primary value. Liberation is a primary value. God’s truth is a primary value. But not making anyone uncomfortable? Not so much. The question is not whether the prophet’s message makes us uncomfortable, or even whether the oppressor responds with deeper injustice. The question is whether the message is true and the cause is just. If so, even through discomfort, we are duty-bound to listen and act.

Day 15​​ (edited) When Moses begins his campaign to free the Israelites, the Israelites themselves rail against him: They said, “May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” The Israelites may have been slaves, but even in their oppressed state they enjoyed a fairly comfortable status quo. As soon as Moses starts to agitate for change, their situation worsens. They demand he stop speaking out. His political agenda was making them profoundly uncomfortable. Fortunately for them, and for us, neither God nor Moses recognizes the people’s comfort as a primary value. Justice, liberation, and God’s truth: all primary values. But not making anyone uncomfortable? Not so much. The question is not whether the prophet’s message makes us uncomfortable, or even whether the oppressor responds with deeper injustice. The question is whether the message is true and the cause is just. If so, even through discomfort, we are duty-bound to listen and act.

Day 16 – Pharaoh rises to power under the pretext of the falsehood of not knowing Joseph. He enslaves the Israelites through a distortion of facts, claiming that their sheer numbers proved their menace; he then uses the same lie to justify murdering their babies. The way the Bible tells it, scarcely a word Pharaoh speaks throughout the entire narrative can be considered wholly true. This ought not be surprising. Untruth is the currency of the despot. After all, “if nothing is true, then no one can criticize power,” as Timothy Snyder puts it in his recent book, “On Tyranny.” Rejecting despotism, Snyder argues, requires steadfastly venerating fact, insisting on veracity, and refusing to retreat an inch from demanding truth, especially from those in power, even if the fiction is more pleasant or personally beneficial. The liberation of the Israelites depends, first and foremost, on exposing Pharaoh’s lies. But true redemption will arrive only when the Children of Israel fully devote themselves to a God of truth, a God whose very seal is truth.

Day 17 – In her commentary on Exodus, Aviva Zornberg points out that Moses is a man with neither nationality nor language. The point, perhaps, is that Moses could be anyone, and that anyone could be Moses. How might you treat the beggar on the street, or that difficult person at work, if you recognized that he or she might one day become a great liberator? And what if the redemption of an oppressed people depended, ultimately, on you? If anyone – of any background, of any ability – could be Moses, then perhaps we ought to walk through the world with the assumption that everyone we encounter is a potential Moses. And, maybe most importantly, we ought to regard ourselves as potential Moseses, and fulfill our destinies.

Day 18 – When Israel left Egypt, they did not leave empty-handed. On the contrary, the Israelites “asked the Egyptians for objects of silver and gold, and clothing” (Exodus 12:35). The Egyptians, for their part, “let them have their request.” (12:36). According to the classical commentators, the biblical narrative was being modest. In reality, the Egyptians gave approximately 600,000 Israelites the equivalent of 400 years worth of backpay. Call it whatever you want, these are reparations for centuries of enslavement. Without them, the Israelites never would have survived the sojourn in the wilderness, conquered the Promised Land, or built a strong sovereign nation. Freedom from bondage was not enough. The Egyptians had a responsibility to ensure that the Israelites could actually flourish as a free people, that Israel’s opportunity to thrive would be equal to Egypt’s. Recalling this very experience, God later commands Israelite slaveowners that they must eventually free their slaves, and when they do, they must furnish them handsomely with food, clothing, and property. We have a responsibility not only to redeem victims of injustice from oppression, but also to ensure that those victims and their posterity, once redeemed, will play on a level field with their oppressors and their oppressors’ descendants, and enjoy the same opportunities.

Day 19 – At the Seder, are we supposed to be experiencing the bitterness of slavery or the sweetness of freedom? We eat matzah, nibble on bitter herbs, and dip in salt water. But we also recline on pillows and drink copious wine. So on this night, are we paupers or princes? The answer of course is both. When we are brought low, we recall that we are actually the children of royalty. And when we are riding high, we recall that we, too, were once marginalized and oppressed. We remember not to exalt those with privilege and power, because on a fundamental level they are no different and therefore no better than the lowest serf. And we remember too that the beggar is as much a divine being as the billionaire.

Day 19 – (edited) At the Seder, are we supposed to experience the bitterness of slavery or the sweetness of freedom? We eat matzah, nibble on bitter herbs, and dip in salt water. But we also recline on pillows and drink copious wine. Are we paupers or princes? The answer of course is both. When we are brought low, we recall that we are actually the children of royalty. When we are riding high, we recall that we, too, were once marginalized and oppressed. We remember not to exalt those with privilege and power, because on a fundamental level they are no different, therefore no better than the lowest serf. The beggar is as much a divine being as the billionaire.

Day 20 – In his new book, “The Exodus,” biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman argues, among other things, that Moses may have actually been a Midianite and not a Hebrew. While Friedman’s argument is pretty compelling, this assertion may undoubtedly be shocking to some. But if it’s true, consider what the Bible would be teaching: If he’s actually Midianite, Moses would have been neither victim nor culprit in the drama of Israelite enslavement. He would have been a bystander. Perhaps God deliberately asks a bystander to become a liberator in order to teach us, in the words of later biblical passages, “You must not stand idly by” and “You must not remain indifferent” when others are suffering. And, if he’s actually Midianite, it helps explain why Moses has to first partner with Aaron the Levite and make allies of the Israelite elders. Because privileged ones who are neither victims nor perpetrators of an injustice are critical in the pursuit of justice, but only if they become allies of the oppressed, rather than trying to play the role of savior. The oppressed always must play a role in their own redemption, buoyed by the support of privileged and powerful allies. Moses the Midianite would model both the responsibility of the bystander and the strategy of sacred partnership.

Day 20 (edited) In his new book “The Exodus,” biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman argues, among other things, that Moses may have actually been a Midianite and not a Hebrew. While Friedman’s argument is compelling, this assertion may be shocking to some. If it’s true, consider what the Bible would be teaching. If he was Midianite, Moses would have been neither victim nor culprit in the drama of Israelite enslavement. He would have been a bystander. Perhaps God deliberately asked a bystander to become a liberator in order to teach us, in the words of later biblical passages, “You must not stand idly by” and “You must not remain indifferent” when others are suffering. And, if he was actually Midianite, it helps explain why Moses has to first partner with Aaron the Levite and make allies of the Israelite elders. Because privileged ones who are neither victims nor perpetrators of an injustice are critical in the pursuit of justice, but only if they become allies of the oppressed, rather than trying to play the role of savior. The oppressed always must play a role in their own redemption, buoyed by the support of privileged and powerful allies. Moses the Midianite would model both the responsibility of the bystander and the strategy of sacred partnership.

Day 21 – The term Passover comes from the tradition that God killed only Egyptians during the 10th plague, passing over the homes of the Israelites and sparing their first born. Not an indiscriminate force within nature, the God of the Bible has will and moral discernment, deliberately distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, innocent and guilty, bending the arc of history toward justice. No one can no for sure if this understanding of God is factually true. But we can nevertheless understand the value it is trying to impart: the universe is amoral. It (unfortunately) doesn’t discern between righteous and evil. History only progresses in the trajectory of justice if acted upon by an outside force. As God’s only creation with godlike consciousness and moral judgment, we human beings can and must be that outside force. Emulating God, we can and must help bend the arc of history toward justice.

Day 21 (edited) The term Passover comes from the tradition that God killed only Egyptians during the 10th plague, passing over the homes of the Israelites and sparing their first born. Not an indiscriminate force within nature, the God of the Bible has will and moral discernment, deliberately distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, innocent and guilty, bending the arc of history toward justice. No one can know for sure if this understanding of God is factually true. We can nevertheless understand the value it imparts: the universe is amoral. It (unfortunately) doesn’t discern between righteous and evil. History only progresses in the trajectory of justice if acted upon by an outside force. As God’s only creation with godlike consciousness and moral judgment, we human beings can and must be that outside force. Emulating God, we can and must help bend the arc of history toward justice.

Day 22 – At the beginning of the Seder, we break a ceremonial piece of matzah, Yahatz. We hide the larger half (sometimes called the Afikoman) to find and eat at the end of the evening, Tzafun. As we gather at the Seder table, we acknowledge the brokenness of our world as it is. This is a world, after all, that tolerated our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt – not to mention countless other instances of unspeakable persecution and abuse – and continues to abide heinous oppression and cruelty. But as we move through the Seder’s rituals and narrative, we are reminded that subjugation can be ended, oppressors toppled, and new orders established. The broken can be made whole. That’s why we are not allowed to finish the Seder without finding and eating the Afikoman: Ultimate redemption is possible if we want it, if we seek it, if we hold fast to it, and we cannot consider our work done – at the Seder, or in our world – until we put the shattered pieces back together.

Day 23 – When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers Moses in the basket, the first thing she notices is that he’s crying. In his latest novel, “Here I Am,” Jonathan Shafran Foer asks, “What was Moses crying about? Was he crying for himself? Out of hunger or fear? Was he crying for his people? Their bondage, their suffering? Or were they tears of gratitude? Perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t hear him crying because he *wasn’t* crying until she opened the wicker basket.” Or maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was crying for all three reasons simultaneously: the pain, the sadness, and the gratitude, all at once. Right now, you are the sum total of all the experiences you’ve had up to this moment. You couldn’t be who you are without everything, the good and the bad, the pleasure and the pain, the successes and the failures. All of it was necessary to bring you to this moment. That means even pain and sadness are, in their own ways, blessings. Those experiences, when they occur, may bring us to tears. But don’tt allow your tears only to be expressions of agony. They can and should also be expressions of gratitude, for today’s pain helps you become the person you will be tomorrow.

Day 23 (edited) When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers Moses in the basket, the first thing she notices is that he’s crying. In the (previously mentioned) novel “Here I Am,” author Jonathan Shafran Foer asks, “What was Moses crying about? Was he crying for himself? Out of hunger or fear? Was he crying for his people? Their bondage, their suffering? Or were they tears of gratitude? Perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t hear him crying because he wasn’t crying until she opened the wicker basket.” Or maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was crying for all three reasons: the pain, the sadness, and the gratitude, all at once. Right now, you are the sum of all your experiences up to this moment. You couldn’t be who you are without the good and the bad, the pleasure and the pain, the successes and the failures. All of it was necessary to bring you to this moment. Even pain and sadness are, in their own ways, blessings. Those experiences, when they occur, may bring us to tears. Don’t allow your tears only to be expressions of agony. They can and should also be expressions of gratitude, for today’s pain helps you become the person you will be tomorrow.

Day 24 – After centuries of brutal oppression, with a government unresponsive to outcry and with conditions only seeming to worsen over time, one could understand if the Israelites saw their situation as hopeless. Indeed, even when Moses arrives in Egypt and begins agitating for the people’s freedom, they demand he stop. Moses would never succeed, they believed. On the contrary, they insist that he would only make matters worse. And yet Moses’ strategic plan and persistence ultimately break through Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, forcing him to change course. The Exodus story is history’s most powerful argument against hopelessness. The stubborn persistence of a state of affairs and the intractability of those responsible may present the illusion of inevitability. Yet the Exodus teaches that no movement for change is futile, and that which we see as impossible is usually just a thing that has not happened yet.

Day 25 – Pharaoh’s plot to control the Israelites through enslavement fails, so he orders the systematic murder of their baby boys. According to legend, in the wake of this decree, the Israelite men were crestfallen, and pledged not to be intimate with their wives, lest they inadvertently conceive a male child. The women, however, refused to give into the fear and sense of futility. They knew that with life, there is possibility. And with possibility, there could yet be redemption. So they conspired to beautify themselves to make themselves irresistible to their husbands. The women continued to get pregnant. One of them was named Yokheved, the woman we now identify as the mother of Moses. If the men had their way, Pharaoh would have won, and the Israelites would have ceased to be. Their hopelessness would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. The women’s resilient hope facilitates redemption. Only a hopeful outlook can produce the outcomes envisioned by that hope.

Day 26 – Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman argues that the Exodus was indeed a real historical event, but it did not happen the way the Bible ultimately presents it. According to Friedman, only the Levites were freed from Egypt. The rest of the Israelite tribes never sojourned in Egypt, and during the time of the Exodus, they were already settled and living in Canaan. More striking than this is Friedman’s claim that virtually all of what we now call biblical religion – including the ineffable Divine name – was brought to Israel from Egypt. The Levites’ beliefs were evidently so powerful and convincing that the indigenous Israelites were persuaded to adopt them. This theory reflects something deep. Often, an outside perspective is required to identify and reveal truths that would otherwise have been obscured from us. We can have difficulty seeing beyond our limited perspective, understanding, and awareness. When we permit an outsider to look in, they can show us things we wouldn’t have been able to see or know on our own, insights that might change the course of our lives, even history, if we let them.

Day 27 – In Egypt, there is a clear hierarchy: there is Pharaoh, and there is everyone else. The King of Egypt has no equal. More importantly, he sees no one as his equal. So, if there’s a problem, his mentality is “I alone can fix it.” Contrast that attitude with Moses’. Moses constantly feels inadequate to the challenges he faces. He seeks and accepts advice and guidance. He relies on the support of others, partnering, collaborating, delegating, sharing. For the Israelites, redemption is a group effort, a team sport. None of us, alone, can fix it. But working together, there’s no limit to the obstacles we can overcome, the brokenness we can repair.

Day 27 (edited) In Egypt, there is a clear hierarchy: there is Pharaoh, and there is everyone else. The King of Egypt has no equal. More importantly, he sees no one as his equal. If there’s a problem, his mentality is “I alone can fix it.” Contrast this attitude with that of Moses, who constantly feels inadequate. Moses seeks and accepts advice and guidance. He relies on the support of others, partnering, collaborating, delegating, sharing. For the Israelites, redemption is a group effort, a team sport. None of us alone can fix it. But working together, there’s no limit to the obstacles we can overcome, the brokenness we can repair.

Day 28 – One might say that the Seder ritual is divided into two parts. There’s the pre-dinner portion, which focuses on the story and symbols of the Exodus from Egypt. And there’s the post-dinner portion, which, by contrast, is decidedly forward-facing. We pray for a time when none will go hungry and for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. We open the door for Elijah the Prophet, and pray for him to arrive, heralding the messianic era. We sing about God ultimately righting a messed up, dog-eat-dog world (or, rather, a dog-eat-cat-eat-goat world). And we affirm the hope that, next year, we will celebrate the Seder in Jerusalem, in a repaired and perfected world. Taken as a whole, it’s as if the Seder tells us: yes, you were redeemed from the house of bondage in Egypt. But you still live in a broken world, filled with violence, hatred, oppression, poverty, and injustice. You may no longer be a slave to Pharaoh, but your redemption is incomplete until *everyone* is liberated. The object of our Seder is to inspire us to build a world where everyone has reason to celebrate together in the year to come, a world where the hungry are fed, where wrongs are set right, and where peace and justice reign.

Day 29 – OK, let’s face it: Haroset is weird. Delicious, of course, but strange. This sweet dip is supposedly meant to remind us of something bitter, the brick mortar used by our enslaved ancestors in Egypt. How to explain this dissonance? While fanciful allegory is possible – we may, for example, understand the Haroset as inviting us to see the sweetness in our suffering – a better explanation can be found in the food’s origins. According to scholars of ancient Judaism, Haroset becomes a standard Seder food not because of its religious significance, but of its utility. The Seder is adapted from Greco-Roman symposia, and it was common at such meals to have a sweet dip made of fruit, nuts, and wine as an appetizer (or, possibly, as a kind of antiseptic wash for vegetables). Once it became a common Seder food, people began to ascribe Haroset with symbolic meaning, linking it to the brick mortar, or to the apple orchards where Israelite women brought their husbands to conceive babies in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree, or to the blood of the paschal offering. Haroset, in this sense, embodies the essence of what it means to be Jewish: to take the stuff of this world and make it heavenly, to turn the ordinary into the sacred, and to transform the regular into the holy.

Day 30 – The first official Pesah ritual is clearing our homes of, destroying, and nullifying our remaining Hametz. When we do this, we declare that any Hametz remaining in our possession “shall be ownerless, as the dust of the earth.” Echoing this declaration is the Seder’s opening sentiment, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and one of its concluding acts, opening the door for Elijah. It’s as though Pesah invites us to say, “all that is mine belongs to you, too.” Urging us to adopt this attitude – an attitude that, according to the Mishnah, is the definitive trait of the pious – may ultimately be the objective of the entire festival. Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites out of a fear of losing what he perceives to be his. He relates to everyone as means to his own ends. Our tradition responds by saying “The Earth is the Lord’s, it’s fullness thereof; the world, and all who dwell upon it.” All that we have belongs not to us, but to God. In a sense, this means that our possessions belong to others. If its sinful to see things as our possessions, then all the more so must we never see people as objects subject to our use, exploitation, or control. Passover urges us ultimately to encounter others, as the philosopher Martin Buber put it, as “Thou’s” and not “It’s.” If this holiday teaches anything, it’s to relate to others not as means to our own ends but in the fullness of their humanity and equality, seeing ourselves as infinitely responsible to and for them. Wishing you a happy and sweet Passover!

Day 30 (edited) The first official Pesah ritual is clearing our homes of, destroying, and nullifying our remaining Hametz. We declare that any Hametz remaining in our possession “shall be ownerless, as the dust of the earth.” Echoing this declaration is the Seder’s opening sentiment, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and one of its concluding acts, opening the door for Elijah. It’s as though Pesah invites us to say, “all that is mine belongs to you too.” Urging us to adopt this attitude – which, according to the Mishnah, is the definitive trait of the pious – may be the objective of the entire festival. Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites out of a fear of losing what he perceives to be his. He relates to everyone as means to his own ends. Our tradition responds by saying “The Earth is the Lord’s, its fullness thereof; the world, and all who dwell upon it.” All that we have belongs not to us, but to God. In a sense, our possessions belong to others. If it’s sinful to see things as our possessions, all the more so must we never see people as objects to use, exploit, or control. Passover urges us to encounter others, as philosopher Martin Buber put it, as “Thous” and not “Its.” If this holiday teaches anything, it’s to relate to others not as means to our own ends but in the fullness of their humanity and equality, seeing ourselves as infinitely responsible to and for them. Wishing you a happy and sweet Passover!

 

 

 

 

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