Goldilocks Responsibility: The Half-Won Blessing, 3

Goldilocks responsibility means taking the amount and kind of responsibility that's just right -- not too much and not too little.

In our last thrilling episode, The Liberal Pulpit posed these four questions:
  1. Can you make a decisive break with a big part of your past?
  2. Can you endure the sacrifices this will mean?
  3. What about the effects this will have on others?
  4. Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation?
The Passover story gives us a narrative structure for wrestling with each of these questions. The previous Liberal Pulpit glossed the first two questions. We turn now to the the third: what about the effects this will have on others? Are you just being selfish thinking about your own freedom?

In the Passover story, the Israelite quest for freedom involves an enormous slaughter of Egyptians.

The rituals -- the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn -- probably predate the story and the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals. The rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know
“how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs.” (Carol Meyers, Exodus, 2005, 92)
Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story.
“The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at the expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act.” (Meyers 93)
The Israelites path to freedom came at the cost of this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns. Is it worth it? What is the cost to others of your freedom? Should the Israelites feel responsible for this tragedy to the Egyptians?

It’s true that liberation leads to compassion. The chains that hold you back, more than anything, limit your ability to be present and caring to others. But might it not be better to try to work with the chains you’ve got, dragging them with you though they hamper and slow you? Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors? Pharaoh got the same warning you did. He hardened his heart and disregarded it. Perhaps that's what all the Egyptians did. Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming.
“There was not a house without someone dead.” (Exodus 12:30)
What kind of God would do that? The kind that is the way the world is. There is massive suffering. It is more than you or I can fix. Your path to freedom occurs in the context of others' pain and loss, but your freedom is not the cause of their loss. To see clearly, at last, what we are responsible for and what we're not responsible for, is essential for freedom.

Perhaps the Israelites’ hearts went out to their neighbors. Maybe they asked, how can we help? They were told to just leave – which happened to be what they’d always wanted. If there is a path to liberation – going back to school, quitting your job, changing the way you eat, changing your daily routine to include journaling, study, and meditation – and you hesitate because of the effect this might have on the people around you – you might just ask them. They might tell you, as the Egyptians told the Hebrews, just go. Do it.

Fourth question: Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation? Here, too, is a lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free.

Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. You, individually, have to decide it can’t wait any longer, can’t wait for whatever batch of dough you’re in the middle of to rise. You, individually, must choose the uncomfortable path. Once you do, though, you don’t have to face it alone. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together.

That’s what a liberal ("liberal," as in "liberty," as in "freedom") faith community is for. It offers support – maybe some guidance, maybe some insight, maybe some affirmation and encouragement – as we wander in wilderness trying together to make our way to the freedom that is our birthright. You aren't responsible for everything -- sometimes you have to let go and let others manage on their own -- but we are responsible for care and connection to one another.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "The Half-Won Blessing"
Next: Part 4: Paths to Freedom
Previous: Part 2: No Easy Thing
Beginning: Part 1: Bring Out the Festal Bread


  1. Not quite true… you say "Pharaoh got the same warning you did. He hardened his heart and disregarded it.” But Exodus says, "10 Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.” God in the story did this deliberately… which is far more problematic.

    (As I put together a UU Passover ceremony in Toronto, I wrestle with this)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Peter. The whole story is indeed problematic, as I emphasize and you further underscore. As far as "He hardened his heart" vs. "God hardened his heart," I have to say I don't really see a difference. Where does heart-hardening come from? Even when we find our own hearts hardening (as happens to all of us sometimes -- our compassion flags), we don't really know where that hardening came from. Hardening is just there (and, of course, we bear responsibility for dealing with it, wherever it came from). Perhaps this is the perfect time for using passive voice to dodge questions of agency: "His heart hardened."

    2. And, more to the point, perhaps: I'm looking through the Israelites eyes as they grapple with how to respond to the Egyptian death and grief all around them. From their standpoint, in particular, struggling to see what duty and compassion call for, they can't know whether Pharoah's heart-hardening came from himself or from God -- nor would it matter.