Exodus 12:21 – 51; Numbers 20:16 - 25
“And Egypt bore down on the people [of Israel] to hurry to send them off from the land, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.’ And the people carried off their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” [Ex. 12:33-4]
These verses mark the beginning of the Exodus we are commanded to revisit in our collective memory every year.
We know the story from the seder. We know that we are celebrating our freedom from slavery through the power of God. We know that there was not time to let the dough rise, and we eat matzah rather than leavened bread for the duration of the holiday. We use all of our senses at the seder to re-enact the story.
We know it all. Yet, despite the details we communicate year after year, we also miss something important, found in the Hebrew of the verse: “And Egypt bore down on the people to hurry them off from the land…” The Hebrew word for “bore down” is vatechezak, which comes from the verb chazak, meaning “was strong.” This is the same verb used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart which is ironic, because that is why Pharaoh refused to let us go free. While my translation is not as poetic, a more literal rendering of the verse is: “The Egyptians used hard strength to hurry the people off from the land.” A little later, this idea is repeated and intensified:
“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” [Ex. 12:39]
According to the text, the Exodus was not a Hollywood-esque march from slavery to freedom with Moses at the head of the column. We were driven from the land by the Egyptians. Furthermore, we were not expecting to leave – otherwise we would have had provisions at the ready. The seder may be an orderly reenactment, but the original event was anything but.
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik used this passage to teach:
“Genuine geulah, genuine redemption, always comes suddenly, unexpectedly, at a time when people are ready to give up hope … At that moment, when the crisis reaches its maximum and threatens the very existence of the community, when people begin to give up the geulah suddenly comes and takes them out of the land of affliction. It comes in the middle of the night and knocks on the door when no one expects it, when everybody is skeptical about it, when everyone laughs off the possibility of redemption.” Festival of Freedom, p. 58
Soloveitchik’s “knock on the door” is a nod to why we put out a cup for Elijah and open the door hoping that this year he will be there. According to rabbinic tradition, Elijah will return one day to announce the coming of the messiah, and the beginning of the messianic world to come where the ills of the world-as-it-is will be no more. The legend says that Elijah will arrive either as the Shabbat ends or during a Passover seder. However, there are two conflicting views on what must happen before the messiah actually comes. One view, referenced by Rabbi Soloveitchik, asserts that the messiah will only come when the world has become so dark that things cannot get any worse. The other view says that the messiah will only come when we have made the world so perfect that we no longer need him (or her). The first view can give us hope when the world is pressing in against us, the second inspires us to work towards building paradise here in this world.
Either way, the process is messy.
This year, if the world seems too dark or dangerous, let us look to the future with messianic hope. Or, if we have the strength, then let us determine at our seder tables to take concrete and specific actions to bring our world closer to redemption.
Passover is not a “once upon a time” observance, but a “for all time” celebration.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras