How we tell the story

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is Community Chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

“Our tale begins in degradation and ends in praise.”

This is more or less the entire original seder “script” outlined in the Mishnah nearly 2,000 years ago. It outlines not only the story of Exodus, but also a way of looking at Jewish and divine history that is desperately needed.

The “degradation” and the “praise” that the Mishnah is describing is not the move from physical enslavement to basic freedom. It is describing two mindsets we can adopt when living in a world that contains oppression and evil.

The central struggle of the Book of Exodus does not seem to be the “how” of escaping Egypt. The biblical text presents us with God as a character who can turn the Nile into blood, slay the first-born child of every Egyptian household, split the Reed Sea  and utterly upend the order of nature. Such a God could manage the “how” of freedom in a single chapter, miraculously bringing us out of Egypt in a single step. 

Yet the story of our liberation that we read and tell is a long one filled with struggle. What God cannot do easily, even God as portrayed as the All-Powerful Liberator, is change human hearts and human minds. 

From the moment that the God of Exodus steps into the story of liberation, it seems that God is struggling more than anything with our doubts, fears and resignation. When God reveals the plan to Moses, Moses replies, “They will not believe me! I am not up to the task – please send someone else!” (Ex 3:11-4:17)  

And indeed, his first attempt at speaking with Pharaoh results in backlash and retaliation. Pharaoh demands even more crushing and backbreaking work from the Hebrews. In turn, they – we – begin to regret ever listening to Moses (Ex 5:20-21). After the 10 plagues are brought on Egypt and the final instructions for departure are given, they – we – somehow cannot dare to prepare for the journey, and do not pack or bake any food for the road, and are left scrambling to bake unleavened bread when the time to leave finally arrives (Ex 12:39). 

Even after our departure, at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, we cry out, “Why did you force us to leave Egypt? It would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die here in the wilderness!” (Ex. 14:11-12)

We seem hopelessly stuck in the idea that our suffering can be tolerable, that the risks associated with hope and freedom are too great, that slavery is simply the way of the world, that nothing can change for us. 

But along the way, the story of our Exodus is studded with breathtaking moments of hope and courage. The biblical and rabbinic traditions seek out and highlight the many small moments of hope that make room for the God of Liberation to enter the story:

Two midwives who refuse to kill the Hebrew babies, even knowing full well that they cannot protect these babies from the soldiers that Pharaoh will certainly send (Ex 1:15-22); Miriam the prophet, begging her parents and her people not to despair (BT Sotah 12a-b); Nachshon walking into the sea, stepping into waters that reach head-height before the sea can split (Mechilta, Parashat B’Shallach); Miriam, packing timbrels for the journey out of Egypt, expecting that miracles would be performed and that she would need to be prepared to celebrate (ibid). 

It is these small moments that move our story of liberation from one step to the next, that carry us through the moments of fear and hopelessness.

The story of Passover presents us with a Liberator who wants us not only physically removed from Egypt, but intellectually, spiritually and emotionally able to believe in the possibility of greater and ongoing redemption. This is not a journey that we can take in the simple, linear way that the Mishnah envisions. We do not simply move from one extreme of “degradation” to the other of “praise” while we sit at the seder table. 

But we can tell and retell the story by finding those redemptive moments along the way, deciding to approach our story in a way that highlights possibility, hope and courage. We can deliberately struggle to adopt a worldview of hope and praise.

And we are going to need it. Fear, oppression and slavery are still very much at work in our world today. The ongoing stories of liberation and redemption still do not move in a linear way. They still involve those moments of backlash and inertia. They still involve great risk. 

And if we are going to be a part of those stories, we are going to need to know how to jump into the sea before it is split, and how to pack our timbrels.