It was the dead of night when Moses informed the Israelites that they had to flee Egypt. Despite every promise, prophecy, plague, and negotiation, it was still possible that Pharaoh could change his mind. Even simple bread did not have time to rise. And there was no time to pack either. The Israelites grabbed their people and whatever they could carry, and away they went.
There are many choices a community facing a crisis must make in real time. Amazingly, we are living many of these choices thousands of years later in Israel – this year in Jerusalem – as if we too must come out of Egypt in the same haste that the ancient field guide of Jewish imagination, the Haggadah, commands.
Which form of submission shall we choose? An earthly leader we know but are not sure we trust, an unseen God, a tyrant who feeds and clothes us but divides, threatens, and tests us just the same? Shall we hold with what is familiar but oppressive in the most insidious of ways, or what is new, free, and terrifyingly unknown?
Marching through the streets of Jerusalem chanting, dodging eggs and jeers, meeting up with friends, a Greek word on our lips – de-mo-krat-ia – when we rose from Ramban to ibn Ezra to Ben Maimon to Azza – the line of thousands stopped. Access to the road directly in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence was blocked. We needed to turn around.
It was funny. So much anger, anticipation, and uncertainty and then, boom, no outlet. So many clever signs and songs. A palpable spirit of togetherness, even joy, at doing something that felt like it really mattered and was shared with strangers in a strange land not as strange as before. We turned around in good humor, not commanded, because we were together, and because it was easy to find another place to stand.
Later that night, the decree proclaimed by the leader of the Land upon the Israelites was delayed – for some a plague averted for a time, for others a proclamation of life-affirming truth revoked. And then, after unprovoked, untenable, despicable attacks on Arab bystanders and members of the press by a few pathetic participants in a protest supporting judicial reform, we awoke today to something like normal. For now.
Not long after the Israelite journey out of Egypt had begun during the first Passover, the Egyptian army at his back and an entire nation awaiting his command, Moses stood on the banks of the Nile, desperately seeking Joseph’s bones. After 400 years of slavery the Israelites were at the cusp of freedom, but like a traveler who had misplaced her passport while a taxi waited outside, the Israelites could not find the proof of identity they needed to cross the border.
Recall that Jacob’s children had made an oath to their brother Joseph – the same brother they had left for dead as a young man – to take his remains with them if they or their descendants ever found a way out of Egypt (Genesis 50: 24-26). Moses miraculously found the casket with Joseph’s bones. The journey continued.
A tradition from Tractate Sota in the Babylonian Talmud says that years later, still wandering, the Israelites carried two caskets on their journey. One held the “shekhina” – roughly translated as the earthly presence of the divine. This probably means that they were carrying the elements of the Tabernacle, which served as the physical focal point of the Israelite religion (and a precursor to the Temple) or the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The other casket held Joseph’s bones. Passersby would ask: “How can you carry a casket of the dead next to something divine?” The Israelites replied: “What is carried in this one was made possible by what is carried in the other.”
In Israel, where we march on streets named for medieval scholars the week before Passover, and Jewish destiny is still a live wire that no one can hold for more than a moment or two, questions from thousands of years ago still boggle the mind: Who are we? Where are we going? What’s next? Who is with us? What is carried in this one that was made possible by what is carried in the other?
As always, this year’s Passover seder will be different from all other nights, but the essence of the call to reflection and action is the same. Tradition demands that the Jewish people wake up in the middle of the night, seek out wisdom from the past, and take the risks necessary to find freedom amidst the myriads of others with whom we will build a future
I am lingering with both wonder and worry this Passover Eve, feeling the tension and joy of being part of a crowd facing life and death consequences of Jewish communal choices and knowing that there are no clear answers about where those choices will lead.
May this year’s choosers be blessed to choose a path wisely. May they know how to find freedom and affirm life from the bones and traumas of the past. May all merit to have a story that their children and children’s children will be inspired and comforted to tell.
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.