Passover Lessons: Responsibility, Humility, and Patience

April 26th: Conclusion of Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the many Torah portions for Passover features the actual departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt, where they turn into the desert and cross the Red Sea on dry land. It is a story that is full of drama and wisdom, and we Jews are bidden to pay attention to the story—over and over and over again—to find whatever gems of insight God has imbedded in it.

Though miracles are a big part of the Exodus story—what, with the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Tradition has some ambivalence about God’s miraculous intervention. On the one hand, we believe in miracles, and we hope for miraculous relief from tragedy and injustice. On the other hand, we should be reticent putting all of our energies into hoping and waiting for miracles. We have the responsibility of solving our own problems. As a result, whenever the Torah speaks of miracles, some rabbis in the Midrash modify the narrative to reflect the participation of humans. One of my favorite Midrashim (found in Sotah in the Babylonian Talmud, Bemidbar Rabba, and our prayer book on page 38) tells the story of Nachshon son of Aminadab and how his faith helped split the sea. The entre’ of the Midrash is a koshi in the wording: How people could walk into the sea (meaning the water of the sea) on dry ground? Either it’s water, or it’s dry land. One ancient Rabbi resolved this conflict with a scenario in which Nachshon leads the people into the water before the waters split. Thus is the phrase “into the sea on dry land” a sequence: into the sea/water; then the miracle and dry land. The miracle only works when faithful humans do their part.

Another Midrash speaks of the Israelites earning their redemption by remaining Jewish during the 400 years of slavery. Rabbi Eliezer haKappar, whose opinion is recorded in the Mekhilta, taught that Israel merited redemption from Egypt by keeping alive their Jewish Identity and morality: ““Did not Israel possess/observe four mitzvot while they were in Egypt? They were sexually pure. They did not gossip. That they did not change their names—kept using Hebrew names. They did not change their language—kept speaking Hebrew.” Though there are other implications of this Midrash, it is also part of the ethic that we have a part to play in our own redemption.

What about the negative side of the miracles? Is there any human agency is drawing God’s wrath? Consider an interesting passage in Exodus 14, where the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of the Red Sea. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.’ Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach.” In the Hebrew for the last phrase, “Umitz’rayim nasim lik’ra’to,” another interpretation is possible. Mitzrayim means Egypt; nasim means traveled or fled, but lik’ra’to can be read to mean to greet it—as in, Egypt fled to greet the oncoming waters: hastened into the disaster. This was not a disaster that just happened to them; they went after it—engaging in behavior that would court a catastrophe.

How often do we put great energy into paths that lead to disaster? It is as though we get so focused on a course of action that we fail to see the consequences. Sometimes it is a surrender to impulsiveness. Other times, we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by passion or anger or an overly narrowed sense of ownership or power. In any event, we ignore wisdom and judgment and caution, rushing headlong into the jaws of defeat.

How do we guard against our foolish and self-destructive possibilities? I believe that our two best defenses are humility and patience. Humility, realizing that the world does not revolve around us, is a good first step. We have our rights, and we are responsible for taking care of ourselves, but other people need to take care of themselves, too. As important as we are, we need to remember that we are but dust and ashes,” not always the most important. Sometimes, others and their needs should take precedence.  The other way to help ourselves is to practice patience. How often are we tempted to respond quickly, immediately—and how often are immediate, rushed responses less than the situation requires? Some emergencies need quick responses, but often the immediacy is artificial, and the foolish consequences of rushed reactions are paraded across the public consciousness to the embarrassment of the “rushers” and to the detriment of the issues or persons involved.  

An example of patience and prudence—a counter-example to a rush to judgment—is being acted out in our own community right now. Most of us are aware of the tragedy that happened a few weeks ago, when Osaze Osagie was killed in an encounter with police officers. Everyone involved agrees that it was a tragedy, but the questions of who did what and whether protocols were followed or wise are complex and require thoughtful investigation and review. The local authorities are approaching the tragedy carefully and with due regard for all of the people and factors involved. The public wants answers, but rushing to judgment will not allow the procedural care that justice and good public policy require. In particular, I was struck by the tone of a Center Daily Times report the other day. The article was about the careful, professional, and deliberate process of investigation and policy review by the Borough Council and the District Attorney. The reporter began, however, with impatience: “Nearly a month after the shooting,” suggesting that the authorities are taking too long. As sad as the situation is, rushing will not bring Mr. Osagie back, nor will it lessen the pain of his family and friends; nor will it assure that justice is done; nor will it allow the complex review and perhaps revision of procedures that may prove to be necessary. I applaud the patience of our leadership, though they are having to resist the demands for immediate answers.

Humility and patience are often hard to muster, but they can offer us alternatives to rushing headlong into disaster.

The lessons of the Passover are deep and varied—and worth pondering throughout the week. As we eat our matzah, let us think about the wisdom that can come from our people’s experience, continuing the 3000 year discussion that is an essential part of our Tradition.