Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach must be the king when it comes to the sheer amount of teachings, insights and ideas that have been taught in its name. About Seder Night alone, a ritual that lasts just a few hours on one night of the year, there are volumes and volumes written. As soon as Purim is over, we start to think about hametz and cleaning and the haggadah and how we are going to, this year, give over the story to our kids better than ever.
But each year there’s one teaching that rises towards the forefront of my memory more than most others, coming to remind me of its unique and significant place in the story.
It’s the oral teaching that shares that when the Children of Israel finally left Egypt after more than two hundred years of enslavement, a dream they must have dreamed a million times, only twenty percent of the nation actually left. One-fifth. A small minority.
A full 80% never made it out.
Imagine, even after the ten plagues that showed even the leaders of the polytheistic-pagan world that there was one G-d that ran the whole entire show here on planet Earth, four-fifths of the soon-to-be Jewish nation were still too entrenched in the Egyptian mindset to leave, devastated by the physical and mental slavery and lacking the faith and the belief that they could actually be free.
Intense. This teaching is a big story changer the first time you hear it. Could make us ask questions that we can never find answers to like: What would the Jewish people have looked like if they all made it out of Eygpt? What would Jewish history have been like? Would things have turned out different? Better? Worse?
But this one oral teaching also tells us, in a very hidden and subtle way, about the essence of the Jewish people. About who we’ve been throughout our history. About who we are today.
We are the 20%.
We are the descendants of those who didn’t give up.
We are the offspring of those who, despite the soul-shattering suffering they and generations before them experienced, believed that there was still hope.
We are the future of those who trusted that there was a way it could all change and that a day would come that would bring that change.
We are the 20%.
You and me and all the different kinds of Jews that exist out there in the world, every kind, we are the inheritors of a spiritual DNA that doesn’t allow us to give up. Doesn’t allow us to give in. Keeps us banging our heads against the wall because we know that things could be better. They have to get better. They one day will get better.
It’s sometimes so much easier to just not care. To live in the bliss of ignorance and just focus on ourselves, today, right here, right now. But even if we try, even when we try, there’s that voice. That reminder that this is not real. That this is not called real living. That real living is opening our eyes as wide as we can so that we can see the unbelievable, incredible, this-world-is-so-amazing kind of beauty that surrounds us every single day. And at the same time, because our eyes are so wide open, we also see the pain of our world and the suffering of our world and the brokenness of our world and the…and the…and the…
It’s so hard to have open eyes. Because then we see. Then we know. We can’t pretend anymore that we don’t know. And then we start thinking. And wondering. And questioning. Have I, in some way, in any way, contributed to this suffering? Is there something that I can do to alleviate it? Would that something force me to change the way I live my life?
But possibly the hardest thing about having open eyes that see might be the feelings that come as a result. The feelings that come as a result of not forgetting. Of remembering. Sometimes too often and too much.
It’s painful to see others in pain. To know that while I am living my relatively happy, peaceful life, there are so many people on this planet suffering in so many different ways. From hunger, from sickness, from war, from terror, from hate.
It could make us want to give up. Give in. Close our eyes. Pretend it’s not happening. Not be bothered by it because it’s too much to handle and I can’t do anything about it anyway so I might as well just get my coffee to go and turn on the radio and pretend everything is just fine.
But we don’t. Because we can’t. Because it’s not who we are. Because our ancestors thousands of years ago instilled in us, inscribed in us, a belief that hope is our strongest tool. That believing in a better world is essential to living in it. That feeling pain and sorrow over the world’s pain and sorrow means you’re actually alive. That feeling motivated to alleviate some of that pain and sorrow means you’re living life the way you should.
We Jews know a little something about suffering. About pain and about sorrow. About oppression and persecution.
To the extent this history of ours motivates us to improve the plight of those suffering today, to better the world, we are manifesting one of the deepest teachings of Pesach.
To this extent, we are truly living up to our inherited status as the 20%.