“Dad, did that really happen?” is a question my children often ask me, especially around Pesach. A burning bush? Frogs falling from the sky? A sea parting? It certainly is improbable, but of course improbability is fertile ground for the miraculous. So how do we make sense of the story of Pesach while holding on to the wonderings of youth that my children express?
Let me suggest that we think of the story of Pesach in the same manner as another famous story of a hero, some foliage, and the virtue of honesty.
As children, most of us learned the story of George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. At age six George received a hatchet, which he tried out on his father’s tree. When his father learned of what little Georgie had done, he confronted his son, asking him if he had, in fact, chopped down the tree. “Father,” George replied, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Based on this story, we hold up George Washington as a man of honesty and integrity, and use it to teach young children to always be honest and tell the truth.
The problem is the whole story is a lie. It is a myth created by Washington biographer Mason Locke Weems in his work The Life of Washington, and it did not even appear until the book’s fifth edition. That Weems would make up a story to teach us all the value of honesty drips with irony. But, despite the story’s manufactured nature, the essential lesson that honesty and integrity, even or especially when facing potential consequences, carries immense value. In fact, one could argue that the truth of the story lies not in the veracity of the events it describes, but in what values it celebrates and the lessons it teaches us.
Each year at Pesach we celebrate our people’s foundational story. Through the signs and portents of the ten plagues God convinces Pharaoh to let our people go, with an outstretched arm God leads us to freedom, and miraculously splits the Sea so that we could walk across on dry ground to safety. And then in each generation we are told to ask ourselves, “What does this mean?” Earlier this week I was in a conversation that wended its way over to that very question, the meaning of Pesach and the story of our redemption. One answer, we discussed, is found in the first of the Ten Commandments:
I the ETERNAL am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage:
By bringing us forth from bondage and slavery to Pharaoh, God cemented our holy relationship. God demonstrated the Divine’s Ultimate Authority, and invited us to join in the brit, the eternal covenant that would be offered a few weeks later at Mount Sinai. By beginning that covenant with this command, God reminds us of how the experience of the Exodus from Egypt is an essential element of our relationship, something that we should never forget.
A second lesson from the Exodus, expressed in our Haggadah, is how we grew in our understanding of the world as a result of moving from slavery to freedom. We carry with us the generational memories of slavery. The Haggadah instructs us that “In each generation we should see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt,” carrying with us the pain of slavery. From that, and from our Torah’s constant reminder to care for the orphan and the widow, to love our neighbor and to love the stranger, to see the divinity in each and every human being, we glean the notion that our own experience in bondage obligates us to confront oppression whenever and wherever we see it. We cannot remain indifferent to the suffering of others, because we know how it feels to suffer. So each year at seder, when we say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we offer the prayer that we will all make our way to the Promised Land, be it the physical Land of Israel, or the spiritual and emotional land of freedom and safety.
These two lessons of the story of Pesach- our eternal relationship with God and our mission to confront the oppression that continues to plague society- are true and valid irrespective of the historical veracity of the events recounted. Just as the teaching from the story of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree is true, even if the events may not be, the story of our Exodus is true. We learn and re-learn it, year after year, to remind ourselves of its eternal message, and celebrate in the freedom we have received to bring is vision of a world redeemed to fruition.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Greg Weisman