Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Do we ever really leave Egypt? / Shabbat during Pesach

This shabbat we deviate from the yearly cycle of Torah readings, and read a special portion in honor of Passover: Exodus 33:12–34:26. It’s tricky to find mention of Passover in this portion, but it’s there briefly toward the end, between the prohibition against idolatry and the declaration that every firstborn (human and beast) belongs to God.
You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.

You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread – eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you – at the set time of the month of Aviv, for in the month of Aviv you went forth from Egypt.

Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every firstborn among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed. (Exodus 34:17-20)
In short order, Torah tells us about idolatry, Passover and the Exodus, and redemption of the firstborn. Is there a connection here? And if so, what does it mean for us?

The prohibition against idolatry is ubiquitous in the Torah. It seems that every column is laced with concern that the Israelites not turn away from their covenant with God and engage in the idolatrous practices of their neighbors. But the biblical picture of what constitutes idolatry is rather narrow: making offerings to pillar, posts, and statues that others take to be their gods. (This is not even an accurate understanding of ancient idolatry, but that is a subject for another day.)

I understand idolatry as anything we hold to be of ultimate importance that commands so much of our worshipful devotion that it shapes our values, determines our priorities, and steers our choices in life. Modern idolatry comes in many forms. Commenting on the Golden Calf the Israelites built at Sinai, one Christian writer offered this list of the idolatries of modern Christian men: Cars. Pickup trucks. Convertibles. Motorcycles. Notebook computers. Cell phones. Big screen TVs. GPS navigation systems. Cordless power tools. Here’s my list: money, status, self-esteem, body image, consumption, political ideologies. Do any of these resonate for you?

It is only when we push aside our various idolatries that we can experience God within us and glimpse God beyond us.

Judaism enshrines the prohibition against idolatry in the second of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10. What’s the big deal about building an idolatrous image? We can’t really create something that is God’s image, so why so much emphasis on the prohibition? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that creating and erecting images is a distraction from the profound and sacred truth that we are God’s image in this world. You cannot fabricate God’s image, but you can be God’s image.

The story of Passover and the Exodus illustrate this magnificently. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt (literally, “the narrow straits”) – dehumanized, degraded, demoralized. The Egyptians do not recognize the tzelem (image of God) in each of them, and even they cannot recognize it. Perhaps that is why it takes them 400 years to cry out to God for help: 400 years to recognize God in themselves. We are commanded to remember and relive the Exodus as a reminder of that each human being – Israelite, Egyptian, and every other – is the very image of God and should be honored as such. No wonder Jews recount travesties of social justice at their seder tables: these are all examples of the consequences of idolatries that prevent people from seeing and honoring the tzelem (image of God) in others.

Would that we could all understand our connection to God, that God is within each of us, animating our souls, prodding us to be our best, offering us moral choices at every step of our life journeys. In fact, in the sense that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), each of us belongs to God. This is not another form of slavery, but rather the ultimate liberation to be who we are and were meant to be, to reach for the moon and realize our true potential. But how many of us have truly left Egypt, the “narrow straits”? Not all of us are ready, so God claims the firstborn. We can understand the firstborn not in strict familial and biological terms, but rather as those who are first ready to see the potential inborn in them. Who are the figurative “firstborn” in your life? Who are the ones who model liberation and strive to reach their potential? Who are the ones who inspire you to become all you can become?

Do we ever really leave Egypt? Yes, in fits and starts, again and again and again. That’s why we re-enact this powerful drama year after year. Our task, as Jews, is to free ourselves from idolatry and Egypt – emotionally, psychological, physically, politically, or in any other way. To do that, we need to divest of the idolatries that hold us back, and recognize in ourselves the tzelem (image) of God shining forth. Sometimes the best way to liberate ourselves is to help those around us free themselves. Sometimes we need to accept a loving, helping hand extended toward us. Then we can join the ranks of the “firstborn” and see ourselves and indeed all humanity, as the living, breathing, walking, talking, loving image of God; when we do, miracles will happen.

May this Pesach bring you liberation, love, and happiness.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. I am requesting permission to use the image of Moshe above in an email regarding Pesach. Thank you!