Rabbi Nanus's Shabbat Message - April 8, 2022

  • Clergy
  • Shabbat

A week from tonight, we will sit around our tables with family and friends and read about the seminal event that shaped our Jewish identities – the Exodus from Egypt. We will drink four cups of wine, taste the bitterness of slavery with a bite of maror, and sample the sweetness of freedom with a mouthful of charoset. We will eat matza and read the age-old story of our people in Egypt and the miracles that released them from physical bondage and led them to freedom. The youngest child at the table will ask four questions, beginning with Ma Nishtana ha-laila hazeh mikol haleilot? “Why is this night different from all other nights?” 

But perhaps a better question might be, “What makes this story different from all other stories?” Why has this story captured the hearts and minds of so many oppressed people, Jew and non-Jew alike? How has it inspired political and religious leaders, social movements, and revolutionaries? And finally, how has our Exodus story of liberation and redemption - which many of us take for granted and only think about once a year – influenced or even changed history? 

The first Haggadah to be printed and available to the public was in Spain in 1482. We can only imagine what the Jews of Spain felt ten years later when they experienced their own Exodus through their forced expulsion from a land where they had resided for 1300 years. Every aspect of the seder would have symbolized their own trauma – the tears of sorrow, the bitterness of exile, the sacrifice of their homes and livelihoods, the rush to leave before the imposed deadline. No doubt, they clung to the hope that just as God protected and guided the Israelites, God would protect and guide them, as well.

Two hundred years later, the Exodus story played a major role in British politics through its influence on English Puritans. Oppressed and persecuted, the Puritans identified with the ancient Israelites and considered their journey to America to be a reenactment of the Exodus. Historical documents show that they compared England to Egypt, and referred to King James I as Pharaoh. Their voyage across the Atlantic was compared to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, after which they arrived at the Promised Land. Once there, they aspired to create a new society based on the laws prescribed in the Torah.

The Exodus was again used against the British Monarchy a hundred years later when American Revolutionaries identified with the subjugated Jews seeking freedom. They saw King George III as an embodiment of Pharaoh as they fought to break free from the chains of British rule. In fact, when the Founding Fathers met in 1776 to decide on a new seal for the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed the images of Moses lifting his staff to divide the Red Sea, but in the end, he was overruled.

As we know, the Exodus had a profound effect on Martin Luther King. The mantra of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement was “Let my people go.” But long before that, the abolitionist cause was inspired by our ancient freedom story. Spirituals with titles like “Go Down, Moses” and “Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost” were sung by countless Negro slaves yearning for liberation. Harriet Tubman’s authorized biography appeared under the title, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. And Frederick Douglass, at an abolitionist rally on July 4, 1852, reminded Americans of the responsibility that lay in their freedom by explicitly evoking our Jewish festival, saying “This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God.”

You may not know that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place on the first night of Passover, April 19, 1943. Identifying with the oppressed Jewish slaves struggling against the mighty Egyptian empire, the teens and young adults of the Ghetto decided to strike back and fight to the death for their freedom. They wrote a new Haggadah with their courage and blood, inflicting the plagues of Molotov cocktails, sabotage, and gunfire on their Nazi oppressors. Though they hoped in vain for a Moses to lead them to freedom, their rebellion inspired other Jews to fight back and later on, to finally reach the Promised Land and establish the State of Israel. 

The Exodus also had a profound impact on the campaign for Soviet Jewry – Again the slogan heard around the world was “Let My People Go,” and ultimately, one million Jews were able to experience their own Exodus, leaving Russia and finding their way to freedom in Israel and America.

And now we are witnessing the people of Ukraine experiencing their Exodus story. A modern-day Pharaoh is trying to enslave 43 million civilians because his hunger for power is insatiable. Three million women and children have been forced to leave their country with only the possessions they can carry, while their husbands, fathers, and brothers remain behind, led by what I would call a modern-day Moses leading them in their battle for freedom. For the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews, this year’s Pesach will not be symbolic, but painfully real. For the millions of Ukrainian Christians who have read the Bible, the story of the Exodus will also resonate and have meaning.

And what about us? Next week, when we sit safely with our loved ones around our Seder tables piled high with food and drink, how should the Exodus story affect us?

The Haggadah instructs us that “in every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt.” 

What is the purpose of this? To remember, yes, -- but the lessons of the Exodus story are far more profound and have deeper implications for all of us.

First, freedom is precious and not to be taken for granted. It can be smashed or stolen from any society, any people, unless they understand its value and fight to preserve it. Once lost, freedom is far more difficult to reclaim.

Second, we cannot turn our back on suffering or the enslavement of others. We Jews have been enslaved several times, not just in Egypt. Jews were also Roman slaves after the Destruction of the Second Temple and slave laborers across Europe during the Holocaust. We are obliged to fight for justice and against oppression wherever we find it. 

Third, miracles are possible. Not necessarily by the hand of God, but through our own doing, by uniting together against the Pharaohs of our time with a common vision of a better life, a better world, a Promised Land. 

Fourth, we are obligated to teach and instill these values in our children. The first half of our Jewish story takes place during our escape from slavery to freedom. The second half takes place at Mount Sinai where we receive the foundational teachings on what to do with that freedom. Of all the commandments in the Torah that God gave to the People of Israel, there is only one that is repeated thirty-six times: “Remember the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” 

What makes this story different from all other stories? Perhaps because despite its elements of suffering and despair and pain and fear, this story is filled with strength and courage, and hope. Perhaps because despite the impossible odds of the mighty against the powerless, this story speaks of resilience and resolve, and perseverance. And perhaps because this story declares that when we fight for justice and freedom, the struggle is well worth it, and to never give up.

Shabbat Shalom,