In January 1994, at the start of my day-long interview for the rabbinic position at my synagogue, I was asked to make a few remarks on that week’s upcoming Torah portion, Bo, the third parsha in Exodus. I focused on Exodus, chapter 12, which contains God’s detailed instructions to the Israelites about their first Passover meal on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt. We will read the first half of Exodus 12 as the maftir (concluding Torah portion) this coming Shabbat for Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, preceding the new Hebrew month of Nisan and Passover. Therefore, I decided to look back at my d’var Torah from more than two decades ago.
Before I relate to you what I wrote about this chapter, let me remind you of the turbulent background against which God’s command to the Israelites to hold that first Passover meal took place. By the time we reach this chapter in Exodus, God’s tense stand-offs with Pharaoh have escalated; each of the first nine plagues has intensified the Egyptians’ horror and despair, yet Pharaoh’s heart is increasingly hardened. Rather than respond with humility and deep concern for his nation, Pharaoh digs in his heels, refusing to accept God’s supremacy, that the Egyptians are dying, and that he, a human leader, can no longer brutalize an entire nation with slavery. At midnight on the fourteenth of Nisan, coinciding with that first seder meal, the Egyptians begin to die en masse in the plague of the firstborn, as God’s messenger begins to decimate them.
In 1994, I titled my d’var Torah, How Can You Eat At A Time Like This? I questioned how, in the midst of all this turbulence, bloodshed, and dangerous transition from slavery to freedom, God suddenly demanded of the Israelites that they hold a multi-course meal to be shared by households large and small. This, at twilight no less, when they should have been furiously packing up their belongings in preparation for the mass exodus from under the Egyptians’ oppressive thumb. Why at that moment would God tell our people to sit down and eat?
I explained that this first seder meal was God’s way of slowing down the Israelites precisely when they were most frenzied. God, as it were, stopped the camera from rolling on the calamitous events preceding their freedom, so that the Israelites would be forced to reflect deeply upon what was happening to them at that terrifying moment of their redemption from Egypt. Three millennia later, in the midst of our frenzied, harried lives, when we easily take for granted the blessings of freedom, we still perform this ritual of the Passover seder; it slows us down so that we are forced to reenact our ancestors’ transition to freedom and to reflect deeply upon our own.
One of the things I love most about writing divrei Torah is saving them for decades in my files so I can see how my ideas have grown or remained the same. The Torah has seventy dimensions, as the Talmud teaches, so that for every d’var Torah I may write, there are at least sixty-nine other interpreters and their teachings waiting for me to learn them. Dr. Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, DC, a writer and a Jewish educator. Last Shabbat, as I leafed through her Haggadah commentary, Seder Talk, I read her thoughtful essay on that first Passover seder. Contrary to my thinking about Exodus 12, she asserts that the whole scene was not about the Israelites calling a brief halt to the turbulent action swirling around them in order to reflect quietly on their new freedom. That first Passover being described was God’s insistent challenge to the people to utterly, even violently, reject the Egyptian culture of oppression that held them down and to make the terrifying move toward self-liberation. It would have been so easy for the Israelites to live statically and without change, sleep-walking passively through their lives as slaves. Yet God threw down the gauntlet and said, “Take a risk in this liminal moment at the doorway of the Exodus, take charge of your lives and commit to being free people in relationship with Me.”
Brown insightfully draws from earlier commentators on this portion to make her case. The Israelites were told to take a cute, unblemished year-old paschal lamb into their homes for four days; then they had to suddenly disrupt their growing attachment to the little animal by slaughtering it, spreading its blood on their doorposts, roasting it, and consuming it in massive outdoor freedom parties, the acrid smoke of the meat and the thrum of a million celebrants wafting into the noses and ears of the Egyptians. They were to do so dressed, as it were, for war, in a big rush, loins girded, sandals on their feet, staffs in their hands. Ancient and modern commentators alike remind us that the lamb was sacred in ancient Egypt. By slaughtering and eating the Egyptians’ god, the Israelites were, to paraphrase Brown, signaling an overt act of war against them, one which they could never reverse as they turned their backs on oppression and its gods forever.
The very first Passover meal and all subsequent ones are forceful, troubling reminders, as Brown puts it, that freedom isn’t free; there is always some Pharaoh waiting happily to take it away by naked force, through invidious methods of divide -and-conquer, or using the pseudo-logic of dictatorships that Big-Daddy knows what is best for us. On that first seder night, our ancestors had to make a choice between passive somnambulance and violent, revolutionary rupture. Their stark choices and our contemporary reality are still vastly different. We citizens of Western countries are blessed with functioning democracies that for all their faults, are still great gifts to us and to the world. Our revolutions still happen through ballots and not bullets. Yet, we would be fools to dull our sense of sharpened vigilance in behalf of our freedom, whether by buying into false information, hoping unrealistically that freedom will never erode, or refusing to see the Pharaohs under our noses. An enlightened democratic public keeps freedom healthy when it can trust and verify.
I want this year’s sedarim to be peaceful ones of celebration, family and community. I know that this year’s sedarim, like all the sedarim past and future, will also need to be ones of “eyes-wide-open” vigilance.