|Shabbat Pesach 5768|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Parasha for conclusion of Passover: Exodus 13:17-15:26
Imagine living through the original night of Passover in Egypt. In obedience to Moses' instructions, you chose a perfect, unblemished lamb from the flock, guarded it for four days, and then took it aside to slit its throat, catching the blood in a basin. You smeared some of the blood as a mark on your doorway and roasted the lamb whole over a fire. That evening, the whole family gathered in your hut with instructions not to go outside for any reason, until the word was given. You all ate the roasted lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, an unusual meal, made even stranger because you ate it hurriedly, dressed for a long journey, and ready to get going at a moment's notice. But the notice did not come for quite a while. As the evening wore on, you began to hear cries and screaming in the distance, from the direction of the Egyptian city nearby. You felt dread and awe and a sense of hope at the same time, throughout the long night.
Is it any wonder that, when the time finally came to depart from Egypt, you imagined that night to have been the climax of the whole story? Surely, the sunrise would bring redemption and a whole new life. But, as we read our special parasha this week, Exodus 13:17-15:26, we discover that Passover night was just the first stage on a long journey toward redemption, a journey marked by dangers, pitfalls, and dramatic turning-points.
The phrase "spiritual journey" may be overused these days, but it accurately describes the story of redemption. We have much to learn on the journey that we can learn in no other way. To help us remember the lessons of the original journey, we count the days-forty-nine days-from Passover to the festival of Shavuot, when we arrive at Mount Sinai, the intended highpoint of the entire journey. As we travel, we will be transformed into greater and greater redemption.
Accordingly, our parasha opens, "When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, 'If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt'" (Ex. 13:17). We may be redeemed by God's mighty hand, but we still must be transformed within, strengthened to live up to all that redemption entails. I'd like to focus on one part of that transformation, the shift from kvetching to confidence in God. This brings us from the far-distant past of Egyptian bondage to the everyday stuff of our own lives. Without this shift, however, we cannot lose our slave identity to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation at Mount Sinai.
Our round-about journey brings us first to the shore of Yam Suf-usually translated as the Red Sea-where we must again face Pharaoh, who has changed his mind about letting us go:
Surely this passage ranks as one of the great kvetches of all times. Yet we must admit that we come up with pretty good renditions ourselves when circumstances allow. Moses reminds us of the remedy for our complaining: "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today . . ." (Ex. 14:13). True freedom entails true reliance upon God, which is the opposite of complaining.
The "deliverance that the Lord will accomplish" at the Red Sea is itself another stage in the spiritual journey, which will further transform the Israelites on their way to Sinai. After the Israelites cross the Sea on dry land, its waters return to drown the pursuing armies of Egypt and the Lord gain a final victory over Pharaoh. The Israelites look upon this great miracle and lift up their voices in a song:
The Lord was already the strength and song for the Israelites especially in sending Moses to deliver them. But now he becomes their salvation by leading them completely out of Egypt's grasp to the far side of the sea. Israel is completely safe from bondage, delivered from the place of bondage, and from the one who would keep them in bondage. God has intervened not just to save, but to become salvation.
It is striking that Exodus frames this account of unparalleled deliverance with another incident of complaint. We find ourselves without drinkable water for three days, and again we complain against Moses: "What shall we drink?" (Ex. 15:23). God again provides for us by making the undrinkable waters sweet. The journey continues as we again learn to replace our complaining with reliance on God's goodness and power.
A few verses before this week's parasha, we were told to explain the celebration of Passover to our children by saying, "It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt" (Ex. 13:8). The passage reads, "When I came out of Egypt." not, "When the Lord brought me forth, or "When I was rescued," but the first-person active tense. The Lord redeems me and declares my freedom from Egypt, but I must go forth. Yet, paradoxically, the cure to our complaining is to rely on God's provision. We complain when we imagine things depend on ourselves or on our leaders, rather than ultimately upon the Lord. But there is something that does depend on us-trusting, prayerful obedience.
Our freedom is purchased through the blood of redemption and enacted by the Lord's mighty hand. Messiah our Passover has been sacrificed. Still, we must go forth in experience. This is one function of prayer. Without prayer, we remain enclosed in the bondage of our complaints, but through prayer we come forth. We begin to draw upon the broad provision of God's mighty hand, rather than limiting ourselves to the circumstances around us.
As we count the days from Passover to Shavuot this year, they can become days of going forth in prayer. This is the intention of the UMJC Prayer Campaign which has already begun and continues until Erev Shavuot, June 8. (You can get your prayer guide and other information at www.umjc.org .) As we pray through these days together, we journey from kvetching to bold reliance upon the Lord, confident in the end of the story he has described throughout the scriptures, including this week's parasha.
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. . . . You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O LORD, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established. The LORD will reign forever and ever. (Ex. 15:13, 17-18)
Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Russ Resnik