Passover Lessons

Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 21–34:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ You shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
The Jewish holy week of Passover began at sundown on Mon Apr 22. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 30. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive. The first two days commemorate the 10th of the 10 plagues on Egypt. In that final plague, the mystery-beyond-naming killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover.

At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. They took their dough before it was leavened. They did not wait for the bread to rise. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

This is not history. Scholars put the setting at about 1300 BCE, but historically, it never happened. But that is not the point – because it’s not about ancient Israelites. It’s about you -- and us -- and about freedom – yours and ours -- right here and now. It is a narrative metaphor for us, as it has been to peoples through millennia.

"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom." Celebrate and reflect on the blessing of freedom. In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. If you're here today – or listening online -- then chances are that you are not enslaved in that full-scale way and never have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free.

"Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom." Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle-made. Resentments, small or large, bind us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known. We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, nor consumed wholly with mere survival) stand somewhere in the middle between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. We have broken out of some fetters – but other fetters, or perhaps reconstituted versions of the old ones, have clamped onto us.

The next step in the work of freedom lies before us. So bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.

Did you hear about the guy who was addicted to brake fluid? He said he could stop any time he wanted....

We all have our addictions. Whether it’s full-blown alcoholism or drug addiction or something we think of as milder, the key feature of addiction is that disconnect between what we want ourselves to do and what we’re able to actually do.

Passover is a time for celebrating the blessings of our freedom and also reflecting on what greater liberation would be. Pharaoh has many forms of bondage – addictions to video games or shopping or work. We can be addicted to anger or to blaming judgment.

What Pharaoh holds you in bondage in Egypt? Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before us. As they say in the recovery community: you can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering. Recovering – but never recovered.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here are 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 is a narrative for wrestling with each of these questions. As I said, it’s about you.

First, can you make the decisive break? This is the "not waiting for the bread to rise" part. Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Our addictions and our judgmentalism offer us creature comforts that are like a nice, hot yeasty loaf. What harm could it do to let one more batch of dough rise? Is it really necessary for the sake of freedom that we make do with the blandest unsalted crackers?

Sometimes, yes. It is. At some point we have to say: no more delays, no more putting it off. That’s going to mean something that was in the pipeline has to be abandoned. The bread won’t have a chance to rise. Is that a reason to stay in bondage?

It’s those little rationalizations that keep us stuck, isn’t it? Can you make the decisive break?

Second question: can you endure the sacrifices? Unleavened bread is nothing compared to hardships and trials on the path to freedom. It’s scary out there. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses – Exodus, chapter 14:
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way. A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses – Exodus, chapter 16:
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain. Can you endure the sacrifices?

Third question: 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, writes the scholar Carol Meyers,
“how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs.”
Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story. Meyers continues:
“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 such expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act.”
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. In fact, he got 9 previous warnings in the form of the first nine plagues: Water was turned to blood, there was a plague of frogs, then one of lice, then flies, then livestock pestilence, a plague of boils, of hail, of locusts, and of darkness. He got the warnings, but he hardened his heart. Actually, Exodus says repeatedly that God hardened Pharoah’s heart – so is it Pharoah’s fault?

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 says. What kind of God would do that? What kind of world would do that?

Our world contains such enormous grief, 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.

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 for you – 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.

What about the effects your liberation would have on others? A story about an activist I’ll call Gloria illustrates one way this question can play out. I met Gloria a number of years ago, back in the aughts. Gloria worked for good, for policy changes that would increase fairness and reduce suffering. Gloria had anger that took her straight to blaming and condemnation. "Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind," she said. "Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others." Her anger and judgmentalism were her bondage. It was hard for her to give that up, to be free of those chains, because she saw them as integral to helping the people she wanted to help. So there’s that question: how would your liberation affect those you care about? Sometimes we stay in the chains because we think we need them to be of service.

Gloria was venting with me one day, and I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. As the saying goes: When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me. Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people." So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?"

Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. We’d made the shift from other-blame to self-blame – a step, maybe, but not a final destination. The path ahead, to self-forgiveness and self-compassion and thence to compassionate understanding of others, including one’s political opponents, would not be easy. That liberating path would make Gloria a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more.

She assumed she needed her chains of anger and judgment to serve the causes she cares about. The truth is that freeing ourselves allows us to more lovingly and more effectively care about others.

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 faith community is for: "liberal," as in "liberty," as in "freedom." Liberal faith community 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.

Walking a labyrinth might be way you can bodily enact and reflect upon your path to and of freedom. Some years ago I was asked to lead a labyrinth walk for about 50 people in rehab to recover from substance abuse. These were people wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery to their addiction. They now faced the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build. We gathered by the outdoor labyrinth.

A labyrinth is not a maze; it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other. You must go into your center – wind your way in. You must find what is there. And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bringing the true self you have found. As the Gospel of Thomas says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
This was a group that knew a lot about what will destroy them.

Freedom is our half-won blessing. The first half is straightforward and negative (in a good way): no slavery, no masters or overlords, no chains. The second half is paradoxical. We arrive at liberation by accepting the constraints of discipline, by surrendering. By letting go and giving up, we gain. The first half involves being able to do what you want. But then you can become enslaved to your own impulsive wants. So the second half involves liberating the true self from the bondage of the desiring self.

The labyrinth is an exercise in freeing the true self by accepting the dictates of a prescribed path. When you walk a labyrinth, you wind around and around and end up at the center. Then take the path in reverse to go back out. Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and terribly inefficient. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it is reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further from your destination rather than closer.

I instructed the group to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize their steps with their breaths. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over. Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in one at a time, at five-second intervals. The first ones in reached the center, hung out there a while, and started back while others were still heading in. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and you can step back on.

Afterwards we retreated to an indoors space to debrief about the experience. I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow – to not be alone on this path. We all have our addictions. And we’re sometimes judgmental of others, of ourselves.

Before us is a path of freedom from those constraints. It may take some discerning to see it. Once you do: Take it. Go. You are not alone. There are others on the path waiting for you join them. Go. Don’t wait for the bread to rise.

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