For years I prayed with Rabbi Irwin Wise at Adath Israel Congregation in Cincinnati, and each year Rabbi Wise would implore his congregants to attend weekday yom tov services with the same joke. He reminded them that the people did not cross the Red Sea until the seventh day of Passover, and so “you have to come back” for weekday morning chol hamoed Passover services. After all, “You don’t want to get stuck in Egypt.” Now ten plus years into my own rabbinate, I have used the same corny joke in every congregation I have served in the United States and New Zealand and, all but for the pandemic, we have managed a minyan.
Corny, Yes. Predictable, yes, but there is deep meaning in that statement. Around the same time, I had completed my requirement of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) by training as a hospital chaplain. As part of CPE, students are required to present cases. One of the cases I presented was on a depressive obdurate patient. I shared my frustrations — “I don’t understand why she even wanted to see me. She didn’t listen to a word I said,” to which our facilitator responded, “Sometimes we need to leave people behind in the wilderness.” An entire generation was fated to die before reaching the promised land.
Furthermore, a midrash teaches that as much as eighty percent of the Israelites decided to stay in Egypt (Rashi and Pesiktah D’Rav Kahana 11:11). Depressing, perhaps, but as we know, it requires faith to leave behind the familiar and embrace new possibilities. Unfortunately, our tendency is not towards better sleeping habits, diet or exercise. We as organisms pursue homeostasis—the familiar and habituated path of least resistance. Therefore, it takes effort to redefine our behaviors and progress is not an even path. Rarely do we get it right in one go without a relapse. We must keep coming back each year in the hope that this year we will hear the inspiration that will liberate us. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches:
We are a people in whom the past endures,
In whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by.
The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever.
What happened once upon a time happens all the time.
The Exodus is among the most pivotal moments in the psyche of the Jewish people, and many of us feel we are at a similar inflection point. Events repeat themselves. Following the devastation of the Holocaust, the Jewish people and Western civilization experienced a half-century golden age. Now we are finding ourselves facing crisis after crisis and each crisis seems greater than the next. Maybe a resurgence of authoritarianism and xenophobia is the greatest challenge? Maybe the temptations of an increasingly capitalistic and selfish society? And, of their causes, perhaps it was the pandemic that exacerbated things? Now wars antagonized by aggressors and even internal division such as currently unfolding in the streets of Israel, while the environmentalists among us point out, “We are destroying our planet by exploiting its resources and bringing ever more violent weather events,” but, as George Carlin once sardonically pointed out, “the greatest arrogance of all”— “Save the planet!” He continues:
Do you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years, we’ve been here what? 100,000? Maybe 200,000? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and a half billion and we have the conceit to think that somehow, we’re a threat? The planet is fine… the people are screwed!
Indeed, each of these challenges seem to be symptoms of a greater problem. We have not yet found the discipline to collectively change ourselves. Too many of us refuse to leave Egypt, and unless we can convince each other to make some radical changes, we, not our planet, are facing an existential cliff.
Perhaps, this message is too depressing for a joyful festival, but it reverberats also in the text of the Song of Songs, read on this holiday, where the knock after knock of the beloved upon the door fails to go answered until it is, too late. What will it take for us to change our habits? So how many knocks will it take for us to respond and what will it take for all of us to leave Egypt? Are we not like Job who God spoke to from within the whirlwind?
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:5-7)
And some of us think we have the solutions through our hubris, but is this not part of the same issue? None of us fully understand the problem and none of us singularly possess the solution. More likely only through God’s providential intervention will we ever live without challenge. Some of us will always remain in Egypt.
It sounds bleak. It is, and, yet, our faith offers tremendous answers. We may not be able to change others directly, but we can change ourselves. We can continue to pray with fervor and exert ourselves to do the work of tikkun olam, because, ultimately, we are a faith of questions and actions, not answers and statement. And faith is a great teacher when it reminds us of who we are and our obligations. And if nothing else, let me conclude by quoting the words of Rabbi Tarfon, which are of great comfort:
It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labor; And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come. (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
See you on the other side of the sea. Hag Sameach.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).