I was born and raised in northern New Jersey but haven’t lived there since 1976, when a college degree, combined with wanderlust, led me to Arizona where I’ve happily remained ever since.
I’ve listened to many jokes over the years about being a “Joisey girl.” I’ve tried desperately to lose my Jersey accent, although I never quite succeeded as my children remind me every time I “tawk” to my parents on the phone – proving, it seems, that “you can take the girl out of New Jersey, but you can’t take the New Jersey out of the girl.”
It might appear like a stretch, but I think there’s a metaphor here that is instructive when thinking about the Passover story. As a leader, Moses was tasked not only with taking the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt but of taking the “Egypt” out of the Hebrew slaves. In fact, the Hebrew word for Egypt, or Mitzrayim, stems from the root meaning to bind, shackle or imprison.
For the Hebrew people, living in Egypt meant over 400 years of bondage, poverty and powerlessness. The midnight escape may have been treacherous, but the real challenge was liberating the Hebrew psyche so that generations of slaves could become free-thinking men and women.
Back then, there were no seminars on self-empowerment or self-help websites. Enter Moses, commanded by God, to become the first community organizer to inspire independent thinking and action. What tools did Moses have to take the “Egypt” out of the Jewish people? The two key ingredients in the Passover recipe of redemption through revelation were simply these: faith and hope.
Perhaps the best “self-help” book of all times is what the 600,000 slaves received seven weeks after their escape as they stood together for the first time at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In a moment which can only be described as formative as well as transformative, the Jewish people entered into the covenant with God with the ultimate words of faith: “We will do, and we will understand.”
Those words are the words of a barely formed, fledgling belief that indicate that a ragtag group of ex-slaves could become, as the Torah instructs, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” They are the words that suggest that it is often through doing that we can acquire a deeper sense of knowing.
In Hebrew, the word for faith is emuna, which means “to believe.” Having faith means that we believe and trust that there is a greater order to the world although we may not be able to perceive or understand it. Faith can give us a sense of hope in a despairing world; it can help us respond to events and life circumstances which seem senseless and unfair – like the death of a child, a horrific accident or an act of terrorism.
Faith is often the portal to hope. It provides an inner buoyancy that keeps us afloat when we are ready to sink. And hope is what keeps us moving forward.
Hope is what inspired the Hebrew slaves to give up all they knew for the idea that they could live a better life in the Promised Land. A Midrash teaches us that when the Hebrew women left Egypt, they left everything behind except the copper mirrors they had used to entice their husbands to have children. Because those mirrors represented hope in the future, they were used to create the priestly basin in the Tabernacle. In this way, Passover teaches us that hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against the politics of powerlessness.
The story of Passover encourages us to examine two very Jewish values: faith and hope. It teaches us to examine what enslaves us in our daily lives and gives us the courage and inspiration to leave that behind and move towards something better. And like our ancestors, if we put our faith in that inner voice that guides us along the way we can hope that if we make the journey, we too, may find our own “promised land.”