The holiday of Pesach is known by many names. It is known as the festival of spring, the festival of matza and the festival of freedom. But at its core, Passover is all about freedom. And our exodus from Egypt has long been the paradigm of the human longing for liberation.
And yet, the moment of exodus didn’t result in an immediate panacea for our people. There were still plenty of troubles and obstacles that lay ahead. Sometimes the Israelites wished they could go back to the certitude of Egyptian bondage. Slavery in Egypt may have been awful, but at least it was predictable. You knew where your next meal was coming from. So what Passover actually kicked off was not instant salvation, but the beginning of a long, exciting, and sometimes arduous journey.
And that is life in a nutshell. As it has been said, life is more about the journey than the destination.
It is hard to believe that over 30 years have passed since I left rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and came to Beth Shalom in Atlanta, GA as a very young rabbi, along with 2 young children plus a brand-new baby in tow. I remember being a bit culture-shocked upon my exodus from New York and our arrival to the “deep south”, where congregants sometimes recited their Hebrew prayers with a decidedly southern drawl. I also remember glancing at the license plate on the rear of my car and thinking to myself “what in the world is a nice Jewish boy doing in fakatka Georgia?!”
Now, 30 years later I can look back and marvel how I grew together with my adopted community and created the vibrant synagogue we’re so proud of today. “Together” is the operative word. One individual cannot create a community. A rabbi’s efforts must be shared by many others who are willing to roll up their sleeves and create a kehillah, a true community that feels like family.
We Jews have always looked upon ourselves as family, albeit sometimes a dysfunctional one. But it is because we have always cared about each other as family that we established a network of synagogues, hospitals, organizations, and even helped to build a State of Israel in the 20th century.
After the Holocaust, the Jewish world was confronted with the challenge: “to be or not to be”. And what we became is absolutely incredible! And it’s all because we see each other as family. A Christian in America doesn’t feel the same connection to an oppressed Christian in Egypt as a Jew feels for our people scattered around the globe. Judaism is a religion, a nation, a people… and a family!
There is a wonderful Hassidic story about Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov who would pray for many hours every day.
His disciples had long finished their own prayers, but out of respect for their master they would form a circle around him to listen to the sweet melody of his prayers and behold the spectacle of his soul soaring up to heaven. And it was an unspoken rule amongst the Hasidim that no one would leave until their rabbi had concluded his prayers.
One day his disciples were particularly tired and hungry as the rabbi went on with his davening. They reasoned to themselves that since the rabbi still had much davening left to go, they would slip out for a few moments for a bite and to make a “l’chayim” together. Based on past experience, they were sure that they could return in plenty of time, and that the Baal Shem Tov would not even notice their absence. But to their great surprise, as soon as they returned, they found that their rabbi had already finished his prayers and left.
Later they asked, “Tell us, Rebbe, why did you conclude your prayers so early today?”
The Baal Shem Tov told them that to answer their question, he would have to tell them a story:
Once, a group of people were journeying through a forest. Their leader, who had very keen eyesight, spotted a beautiful bird perched atop a tall tree.
“Come,” he said to his friends, “I would like to capture this beautiful bird. Let us form a human ladder so that we might capture the bird and enjoy looking upon its beautiful plumage”. And so they did. Together, they formed a chain reaching toward the sky, to bring their leader up to reach the beautiful bird. But eventually they became tired and went off to eat and rest, and the man at the top of the ladder came tumbling down to the ground.
“So”, said the Baal Shem Tov, “when I am davening you become the ladder that allows my soul to soar to the heavenly heights. I do not merit having my own personal ladder. So once you had left me I instinctively felt your absence. I quickly davened the required prayers and went back home.”
Our kehillah with its unique blend of caring, talented and dedicated members has been that “ladder” for me over the course of these past 30 years. For that, I feel truly blessed to have found my spiritual home here, and to have had the privilege of serving as its rabbi for over three decades now.
God-willing, there will be many years left together to carry on that journey!
Hag Kasher v’Sameyach!