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Bo 5780

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, contains within it some of the most famous incidents in the Torah. The final plagues of locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn are mentioned, as well as the introduction of the Passover offering and the observance of Passover as an eternally relevant festival in the life and collective national memory of the Jewish People. Though we no longer offer the Passover offering, the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the mainstay of the Passover seder. The seder is intended to be interactive, embodied and multi-sensory, with an emphasis on children, because it’s not enough merely to tell the story, we must also live into it. As we learn in Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, every single one of us, in every generation, is to see ourselves as if we, too, went out of Egypt. Freedom from slavery in Egypt is not a one-time historical event. It is an active component of our religious and ritual lives and memories. Remembrance of the Exodus appears twice daily in traditional Jewish liturgical prayer—once during the morning service or Shacharit and again during the evening service or Maariv. Additionally, the Exodus is mentioned during the Kiddush or blessing over wine or a grape beverage on Shabbat and holidays. The Exodus from Egypt is one of the six remembrances, six things that some Jews mention daily in addition to their prayers and in Tefillin, the leather boxes that some Jews wear during morning prayers on weekdays containing four passages from the Torah, portions of Exodus 13, the final chapter in our Torah portion are amongst those passages. In that way, the Exodus is part of embodied rituals annually, weekly and even daily for some. It is not meant to remain only in our minds but is intended to impact how we move throughout our world and our lives.

We are commanded to recall our freedom and redemption not merely for ourselves, but as a lesson to us about how we encounter and interact with others. And we know that our Exodus story was not only liberatory for us, but profoundly empowering and liberatory for African-Americans and many other oppressed groups.

There is something profoundly radical and deeply countercultural about Jewish conception of collective memory. In a culture profoundly influenced by Western conceptions of linear time, history is removed from our lived experience, apart from how we move throughout our world and, consequently, something we might learn about intellectually but not something we need to consider or integrate into our modern experience. Put another way, if time is linear, and we progress over time, then lessons from the past might inform our present but because progress moves ever forward and never backward, we can be grateful that we’ve learned from the past and certainly don’t carry any of the values from that checkered past into our more enlightened present. Though this idea allows for self-congratulation, we sense instinctually and intuitively how wrongheaded it is. More often, it serves as a stumbling block towards realizing real liberation and redemption for us all because it inhibits our ability to examine systemic challenges at their roots, unwilling as we often are to come face-to-face with the work left undone in the world.

At its best, the Jewish tradition, by centering the Exodus narrative, asks us to be constantly mindful of the freedom we experienced so that we never cease yearning and hoping for a better world, a place where the Divine Presence or Shechinah can truly dwell. During periods of tremendous oppression for the Jewish people, remembering the Exodus was an act of deep spiritual resilience. We must never give up on the world as it should be, even as we live in the world as it is. We learn in Perkei Avot that we may not finish the work, but we are not permitted to cease from doing it. Social change takes generations, solutions often do not come overnight. Yet, when the going gets rough, we are not permitted to walk away, to throw up our hands despairingly. We learn from many of the great Chasidic masters—Rabbi Nachman of Breslov amongst them—that we are never to succumb to hopelessness, never to give up and that, as he famously said, the world is a very narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid. The Piaseczna Rebbe teaches that when redemption feels far away, we can and must create our own moments of personal joy by engaging in acts and activities that bring us delight.

When we feel like the road to a more abundant and equitable world is never-ending, may we be mindful of our tradition’s call to us to recall our own freedom, so that we might remain hopeful, resilient and able to continue the work for the long haul. When burnout and depletion feel like they are going to get the better of us, may we create moments of joy and redemption for ourselves and our communities, so that we may fully live into joy as we fully grapple with the brokenness of the world around us. Joy is essential to a healthy spiritual life and is necessary if we are to keep working, never ceasing in our struggle for justice and freedom.

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