July 18, 2019

Participating in Our Own Redemption

Photo from Pixabay.

One day you wake up after years of being painfully trapped in an untenable situation and realize you can’t take it anymore. Your friends have told you to make changes. Secretly, you hoped that someone would swoop in and save you. You’ve gone to bed crying many times, thinking, “Help me, God.” 

Finally, you realize that the pain in staying is worse than whatever unknown is on the other side. So you hurriedly gather your things because you know that if you don’t make the change now, you probably never will. This is your moment and you take it. 

You are saved. In Judaism, we call this redemption (geulah) and this, my friends, is the core spiritual lesson of Passover. After 400 years of slavery, we collectively wake up, take action and are delivered into freedom. 

While growing up, I thought that the Exodus story was “just” one of God’s miracles. Dayenu. But a closer reading reveals a more powerful spiritual teaching that is hidden below the surface. The lesson is that even at our most vulnerable, we must participate in our own redemption.

We begin this story right before the last plague, God’s ultimatum to Pharaoh that if he doesn’t let us go, Egypt’s firstborns will die.

God instructs us to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the doorposts of our homes (the pascal offering). We are not passive observers. No, we must act. And when we do, we need to be ready to leave, with “our loins girded and sandals on our feet.”

“After 400 years of being slaves, we must slay the god of our oppressors.”

And here is where we need to pay close attention. The Torah text says, “… the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I [God} see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

Does God really not know where the Jews live? Does that sound like the all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipresent God? And why must we commit such a severe act?

The key word here is “you.” Putting the blood on the doorposts is the action we must take to show ourselves that we were ready to be free. Once we act on our own behalf, then God will pass over our house.

Why a lamb? We learn from Maimonides that “the Egyptians worshipped Aries and therefore abstained from killing sheep …” Aries symbolized the ram, an Egyptian god.

After 400 years of being slaves, we must slay the god of our oppressors. Looked at in this way, the Passover sacrifice is a profound act of civil disobedience from which there in no return. No mystery why they needed to eat hurriedly and be ready to flee.

Our ancestors had to step out of the pain that they knew into a vast uncertainty. As poet Marge Piercy wrote, it takes “… courage to walk out of the pain that is known into the pain that cannot be imagined, mapless, walking into the wilderness, going barefoot with a canteen into the desert …” 

This is how we must read the story of Passover — not as history, but for the deep spiritual truth that we must participate in our own redemption.

The spiritual wisdom of the Exodus is relevant every day of our lives.  Rebbe Nachman of Breslov recognized this when he said: “The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year and even on every day.”

For all the times that we have been in painful places and deeply wanted someone to save us, the truth is that other people might play a role, but unless we are willing to take the first courageous step, we will never be free. 

It is we who need to make the phone call to get help, say no to toxic relationships or to a job that is destroying the soul. 

No matter the situation, the process is the same.

What is holding you back this Passover? What brave step will you take on your own behalf? Chag sameach.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Hineni Mindfulness Community and Path With Heart. Sign up for her and Rabbi Cindy Enger’s daily Omer reflections here: eepurl.com/dpZm5r.