The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh. How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity.
Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand of modern day Pharaohs: the Syrians at the hand of Assad, the Venezuelans at the hand of Nicolas Maduro, the children who labor illegally in the flower markets in Columbia and Ecuador, the degradation of human beings at the hands of human traffickers of all kinds, the oppression of women all over the world, the slow destruction of planet earth at the hand of humanity. There is no shortage of victims and violators.
If the Hagaddah reminds us of the tragedy of involuntary enslavement, the Rabbis of the Midrash chose to point out the sin of voluntary enslavement in this story. They argued that the book of Exodus tells about two enslaved peoples and concludes with the liberation of one of them and the destruction of the other. The only difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was that the Egyptians chose to become enslaved to Pharaoh. “Why were the Egyptians compared to maror? To teach you that just as the maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians…” (Pesachim 39a). In other words, the Sages of the Midrash claimed that the Egyptians started out neutral but became complicit with their leader as the Exodus unfolds. Pharaoh’s xenophobia directed at the Israelites leads him to deploy his own people to do the dirty work of murdering and enslaving them. The Egyptians, say the rabbis, are guilty of self-enslavement because they followed their despotic leader. Any moral Egyptian had a choice to walk away from his fellow countrymen and from his leader and be on the right side of history. According to the Rabbis, some of them realized the error of their ways and did join the Israelites in exile. The ones who remained, however, even when they saw they were on the verge of ruin, became Pharaoh’s instruments once again in his last ditch effort to salvage his rule, giving chase to the Israelites and meeting their end in the angry sea.
We’d do well to consider the importance of the moral standard the rabbis establish in their Midrashic reading of the Exodus. It is always hard to stand up against the tide, to speak out when we see our people, our nation going astray. But the rabbis say the difficulty of the task does not dismiss us from undertaking it. We are not wholly responsible for everything that happens. But in those matters in which we can be voices and actors on the right side of history, we are challenged not to enslave ourselves to the Pharaohs out there and be followers of our better angels, a greater Leader, and a truer Truth.
Previous messages from the Rabbi
There is a folk legend that King Solomon, the wisest person ever to have lived, once posed the following riddle: What can you say to a happy man to make him sad, that will also make a sad man happy?” Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: … Continue reading Between You and Me- March 2019
A foundation of spiritual practice is the truth that we can hold two opposing feelings all at once. We can feel joyful as we grieve, we can experience hope in our despair, we can be certain in our uncertainty and, if we are wise, always be uncertain in our certainty. The weeks leading up to, … Continue reading Between You and Me – February 2019
An appeal to fellow Americans following the Pittsburgh Shootings The deadly attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was by far the worst anti-Semitic incident in our nation’s history. But it was hardly the only one. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported anti-Semitic hate crimes rose … Continue reading Between You and Me – January 2019
Light the lights…but replace them with LEDs! Hunkering down for the dark, cold winter, our ancestors knew we needed to add light and warmth to our lives. Today, light and heat come to us at a high cost – in dollars and in impact on the world. I invite you to consider these easy ways … Continue reading Between You and Me – December 2018
…we cannot reach any higher if we can’t deal with ordinary love. -Bono I read a lot of high holiday sermons…other people’s. It’s nice to see what other rabbis choose to speak about when so many are present and listening. This year, I also read a flurry of news articles on the subject of whether … Continue reading Between You and Me – November 2018
This month, I was late in turning in my Menorah article. After the volume of writing and thinking I was engaged in to prepare for the High Holidays, I just kept putting it off. I’ve even procrastinated on adding procrastination to the list of qualities I must address in myself this new year. In their … Continue reading Between You and Me – October 2018
Rabbi’s Highlights of the 2018 CBHT Trip to Israel Thursday June 21, 2018: Meditating at 6:30 AM on our first morning on the Tel Aviv beach for 23 minutes with Asa Harris who said afterwards, “Meditation is like yoga, except without moving!” In that moment I know I’m in for a treat with this group … Continue reading Between You and Me – September 2018
You may remember the NPR audio series called This I Believe that aired a decade ago. They were short, personal essays written by various guests about a core conviction borne from an impactful life experience. I will never forget one called, “Always Go to the Funeral.” In it, the author recalled how her father insisted … Continue reading Between You and Me
Two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, I accompanied 12 students to the March for our Lives in Raleigh. Shortly after, one of our teens organized a rally for students here in Asheville. Inspired by their passion for change, their stories of being afraid at school and a deep conviction that … Continue reading Between You and Me
Years ago, rabbis everywhere were writing sermons on the intrinsic wisdom of the instructions one hears in advance of every airplane flight you’ll ever take. “In case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop down in front of you. Place the mask over your mouth and nose. If you are traveling with a child, please attend … Continue reading Between You and Me
At services recently, I shared that this is the third year I’m renewing the same New Year’s intention: to create more space in my life to experience joy. In these challenging times, experiencing an abundance of joy seems ever more elusive. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a well-known Chassidic personality who suffered from severe depression, some … Continue reading Between You and Me