Each Pesach, it is our responsibility, our joyful duty, and our deep challenge to coax the story of our ancestors to come alive anew in our minds and hearts. Our Passover story tells how we became a free people, how we broke away from our status as slaves, and the difficulties and the joys of claiming our status as a free people for the first time in hundreds of years. When we are able to feel and imagine ourselves in our ancestors’ place, and empathize with them, then we begin to know and understand - on a visceral level – what the story of Passover means. The following is an interpretation of the Exodus and Pesach story, which could be shared at a Passover seder, at a service, or as a meditation to connect with and prepare ourselves for the holiday. In my experience, it has the greatest impact when it is read aloud in a dramatic fashion.
It is the 14th of the month of Nissan. You remember how the Israelites broke away from Egypt in the middle of the night. The Israelites left in a hurry, not because they wanted to escape secretly without Pharaoh knowing, but rather because Pharaoh and the Egyptians told them to go. Or maybe begged would be a more accurate word – for the Egyptians woke up that very same night to discover that the eldest of each household was dead. The Egyptians were terribly afraid: “We shall all be dead,” they feared, and they were impatient to have the Israelites leave their country. When the Israelites left Egypt, Pharaoh and the Egyptian people did not simply make a concession and let them go; rather, they couldn’t wait for the Israelites to leave!
Now, imagine that you are one of the Israelites, traveling by foot alongside six hundred thousand of your kinsmen, as well as hundreds of thousands of Israelite women and children. Pharaoh has just kicked you out of Egypt – he no longer wants you to be his slave. Before you left Egypt, the Egyptians had lent you their objects of silver and gold, and clothing. Now, you’re not escaping from where you came, but neither do you know where you are going. You have a leader, Moses. You probably do not know Moses personally, and you might not understand why the freedom of your people is so important to him that he has dedicated his life to it. But you’ve heard that he once killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite, and you’ve heard about his confrontations with Pharaoh, so you know that he has strength and chutzpah. Now he is leading this journey to freedom and you have to trust him. And finally, you know you have God on your side. You witnessed the plagues, you were unharmed, and you heard that God, not Moses, was the One who had caused these atrocities in order to win your people’s freedom. You probably know the stories of God’s special relationships with your ancestors, but God has never addressed you personally – yet. And now, as you are traveling up out of Egypt and into the wilderness, you see a big pillar of cloud ahead of you. This pillar guides you and your people through the wilderness each day. At night, the cloud appears as a pillar of fire, lighting the way, so that you can travel by day and by night. The pillar never leaves you, and people say that the pillar is a sign of God’s constant presence with you. You know who is with you, who is on your side. The enemy seems to have lost their interest in keeping you as their slaves. And the wilderness, the unknown, lies before you. Do you feel strong? Do you feel fearful? Do you look at the question marks of the future with a knot of anxiety, or do you resolve to take one moment at a time, knowing that God and Moses will care for you?
After a time, Moses, in response to God’s command, tells you and all the Israelites to turn about and encamp by the sea. You notice that you are hemmed in on all sides – by the sea, by Egyptian fortresses, and by the wilderness. You are not bothered by this, until you hear the sound of an approaching army in the distance. Pharaoh and his chariots, horsemen, and warriors have come back for you, and you have nowhere to run!
Before the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptian army, the Torah describes the Israelites as poised – they were departing with “upraised hand,” a metaphor which indicates confidence. But as soon as they caught sight of the advancing Egyptians, they lost all nerve. They cried out to God, and they cried to Moses, “Why did you bring us out to the wilderness to die? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” Are you crying, scolding, along with the majority of the Israelites, romanticizing your tired years in Egypt and the horrors of slavery? Or are you looking ahead, trying to figure out with all your might how to hold onto this newly-given gift of freedom, which is so precious to you and your people?
Do you trust your fear, which is all too real and near, coming closer, or do you trust yourself, Moses, and God to help you keep that freedom?
When Moses turns to God with his own cries at the shore of the Red Sea, God reminds him, “Moses, this is not a time for prayer. This is a time for action.” And so, Moses and the people take action, walking into the sea, away from what they knew and towards the unknown.
We are told that when the Israelites are standing at the Sea of Reeds, we are to imagine that we are standing there with them. “B’chol dor va-dor,” the Passover Hagadah reads, “chayav adam lirot et-atmzo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim – In every generation, a person must regard himself (or herself) as if he (or she) personally went out from Egypt.”
What does this mean to you, as you imagine yourself as one of the Israelites fleeing Egypt – and also as you live your life within the Jewish community today? How do we make this message relevant to each of our lives?
Perhaps this means that when we find ourselves standing at our own Sea of Reeds, surrounded on all sides, with danger encroaching and fear building inside us – we must act as our ancestors did. We must go forward, no matter how fearful we are, because our freedom – as a people, and as a nation – depends on our choices. And we must trust that we are not alone.