Chag samei’ach – and welcome to this first day of Pesach morning service. Chag samei’ach means ‘a joyful festival’. Chag samei’ach is an invitation to rejoice, even if we are not feeling very joyful as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Chag samei’ach is an invitation to enter into another dimension, and allow ourselves to celebrate the gift of life.
In the midst of the service, I will pause for us to reflect on what we can learn from the Exodus story for this time of extraordinary crisis, but first, let us turn to the service and begin by singing together, wherever we are:
Hal’lu! hal’lu! hal’lu! … Hal’lu-Yah! [Praise! Praise! Praise! Praise the Eternal!]
So, we have arrived at Pesach: the festival celebrating the Exodus of our slave ancestors from Egypt – what the rabbis coined: z’man cheiruteinu – ‘The season of our freedom’.
Pesach celebrates the defining moment of the Jewish people, recalled also every Shabbat – the weekly day of freedom – and every evening and morning in the blessing of liberation that follows the Sh’ma, when we sing extracts from the song sung by the Israelites after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land.
But Pesach is special, of course. For seven days, as we eat matzah, we re-enact the moment of freedom; the moment when the slaves fled Egypt in such haste, the dough in their kneading bowls had no time to rise. For seven days, we are the newly-liberated slaves, eager to be free.
Well, that, at least, is the theory of it. How about the practice? My question is not about how Jewishly observant we are. I’m wondering: how do we, in the context of our own lives, manage to identify with the Exodus story?
Here we are, right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In my article in the April issue of This Month, I suggested that ‘it feels like we are being afflicted by a deadly plague and must stay in our houses until it passes over’.
We are not in the Exodus time yet – we are still in Egypt.
So, what can we learn from our ancestors’ experience of being slaves – for hundreds of years?
As it happens, the Torah says very little about our ancestors’ experience of being slaves. But what it does tell us is significant. We read that, afraid that the alien people residing in the region of Goshen, might become too mighty and numerous and pose a threat to Egypt, the new Pharaoh that ‘did not know’ Joseph forced them into slavery, making ‘their lives bitter with hard servitude, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field’. We read that Pharaoh commanded the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah to kill the new-born baby boys – and that they resisted Pharaoh’s decree. We read that a mother and sister – unnamed in the story – saved the new baby boy in their household, by making a waterproof basket for him and placing it in the reeds of the river. We read about that now grown-up baby boy – named Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter when she found him in the bulrushes – killing a taskmaster he found beating a slave and then fleeing to Midian, where he met and married Tzipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian.
These are familiar stories. Less familiar is the one we read straight after this at the end of Exodus chapter 2 (23-25):
And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the King of Egypt died; and the Israelites sighed from the bondage, and they cried out, and their cry for help went up to God from the bondage. / And God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. / And God saw the Israelites and took notice of them.
The language of the Bible is very spare. Unlike common English usage, there is a tendency in Hebrew to repeat the same roots – the three consonants that form the basis of verbs, nouns and adjectives – again and again. And yet, in this passage, we find a multiplication of roots describing the anguish of the slaves: they sighed (va-yei’an’chu), and they cried out (va-yizaku), and their cry for help (shavatam) went up to God, who heard their groaning (na’akatam).
So, what’s going on here? The passage is not simply multiplying language, it is describing a process: the slaves sighed, then they cried out, then they cried for help with such intensity that their cry went up to God, then God heard their groaning, remembered the Divine covenant with their ancestors, saw the Israelites and took notice of them. So, what does this suggest? That God had forgotten the covenant? That God had not seen the Israelites during all the years of their enslavement? That God had not noticed them?
The key to understanding the passage lies in the event described in the first phrase: the death of the King of Egypt. This passage doesn’t just pose challenging questions about God’s absence or indifference during centuries of slavery, it says something challenging about the nature of slavery: that it is so all-consuming, such a constant and perpetual reality in the lives of those enslaved, year after year; that it is only when there is a major upheaval in the social fabric – in this case, the death of the Pharaoh – that the people are stirred out of their torpor, their numbness and stupor. So, at first, all the slaves could manage was to sigh, then they mustered themselves to cry out, then their cry transformed into a call for help so powerful that it pierced the heavens.
We can learn many things from this passage and its evocation of the overwhelming experience of slavery. Most importantly, at this time, as we endure the coronavirus pandemic, we can learn about endurance. We have not yet reached the moment when there is a major development with the potential to change the course of the onward march of the coronavirus pandemic – although, the experience of China, gives us hope that that moment will come. Until then, those who are not essential workers, have to stay put indoors – apart from a daily walk and essential visits to the shops – and wait it out. Spring is burgeoning, so we must find new ways to enjoy it and relish the signs of life we see through our windows. Pesach is here, but the season of our liberation – z’man cheiruteinu – has not yet arrived. No renewal for us. Not yet. The numbers of those dying are still rising. The suffering continues. And so many people, not only have to endure confinement to their homes, they have to endure that confinement alone.
In Hebrew, ‘endurance’ and ‘suffering’ are expressed by the same word, seivel. Let us take courage from the endurance of our slave ancestors and help one another to endure by continuing to reach out to each other and supporting those in greatest need. And as we eat matzah this Pesach, let’s remind ourselves that before it became the bread of freedom, it was as the Haggadah tells us, ha lachma anya – ‘the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt’. And when this terrible time has passed – and it will pass; that is the core message of the Exodus story – we will renew our lives and the world around us. May we find within ourselves the savlanut, the patience – a word that is related to seivel – to wait, hopefully and expectantly, for that moment. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
First Day Pesach Morning Service
9 April 2020 –15 Nisan 5780