The springtime festival of Pesach (“Passover”) begins sundown this Friday evening. From Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, Scarsdale, N.Y. to Namutumba, Uganda, Jews around the globe will gather in each other’s homes to eat symbolic foods, drink four cups of wine, and to retell the saga of our people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land.
The Pesach story is essential to an understanding of Jewish history and destiny, but some of its lessons would seem to be significant for anyone living through this frantic, globalized, postmodern moment. I’ll try to name 10 of these lessons, as I see them.
1. We are surrounded by chametz When the Jews fled from Egypt they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. During Pesach we commemorate this story by only eating unleavened bread (matzah). Leavening (chametz) symbolizes everything inflated and full of itself in this world: the unchecked ego, shirtless Insta pics, community service to boost a resume, elitism for elitism’s sake. To jumpstart freedom, we must burn the chametz.
2. Destiny is often conceived through trial I have always been perplexed: If the Pesach story is about the birth of the Jewish people, it would follow then that we gestated in slavery, which is just a strange thing to say. But the reality is that we become truly self-conscious in the midst of life’s most profound challenges.
3. Our own successes may come at another’s failure Jewish redemption comes at a terrible, basically unimaginable cost for the ordinary Egyptian. During the Pesach Seder, the ritual meal, we spill 10 drops from our wine glasses, marking the 10 plagues visited upon the Egyptians. We take away a little of our rejoicing. We will not be so callous as to be oblivious to how our own happiness came at the expense of another’s sorrow.
4. Everything can change in an instant The Jews of Egypt went from top to bottom of the social food chain in less than a generation. “A new Pharaoh arose who didn’t know Joseph.” That’s all it took. From a privileged vantage point, the stability of socio-economics seems certain. But all around us (and within many of our recent family histories) are living examples of humans in flight from the chaos of conflict and economic collapse in homelands that once were characterized by stability.
5. Miracles require acts of chutzpah, firstly Even the ancient rabbis were uncomfortable with the idea that human redemption could come about without any human effort — that the sea might split simply by divine intervention. So they “remembered” a story about a courageous Israelite, Nachshon, who, stuck between the deep sea and Egyptian charioteers basically said, “F**k it”, and just started to walk into the water. The sea split. If you want miracles to happen, you have to be willing to put yourself out on the line.
6. It’s OK for leaders to suffer from self-doubt When God first approaches Moses with the big plan, Moses (OG disruptive innovator) is honest about not feeling up to the job. It’s OK for leaders to demonstrate something other than cocky self-assurance. It’s OK for leaders to have faults and to be human. Moses eventually builds a good executive team, surrounding himself with people that complement his skills and don’t worship him as untouchable.
7. God seems to be asleep at the steering wheel of history, sometimes It’s not until long after the Israelites are enslaved and building cities for Pharaoh that God “remembers” His people and all the big promises He had made about their destiny. Now, as a spiritual leader, this is obviously a complicated point to make, but I’ll go ahead and say what we’re all thinking: There is an unholy and confounding amount of injustice in this world. I cannot easily ascribe it all to God’s “mysterious ways.” Frankly, it sometimes seems to me that we humans have been left all alone to attempt to eke out an imperfect survival on this small rock floating through the silent cosmos.
8. There will always be a Pharaoh Conniving, mean spirited, chaos-oriented, perplexing, etc. In the various struggles for hopeful societies, clean environments, peaceful minds, open hearts, there will always be individuals and realities whose job it will be to stand in the way of all things good and right. Let us have the courage and persistence to face these challenges with determination and the (perhaps irrational) long view that sees the arch of history bending toward an outcome of righteousness.
9. The Torah is given in the desert Related to No. 2, but different enough to deserve its own point: The Jewish people are not given the Torah (the ancient code of wisdom) in a place of security and settlement. The Torah is given in the wild, barren, insecure wasteland of the desert. Wisdom is always gifted to us in moments when we least expect it, usually in situations that find us maximally vulnerable, raw, and farthest from home.
10. Sometimes the leader doesn’t make it to the Promised Land Technically not a Pesach lesson, but if you fast-forward through 40 years of entrepreneurial desert wandering leadership, you learn that for all his sacrifices, for all his investment and incubation, Moses is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Like another game-changing leader with the initials MLK once said, “I may not get there with you.” Once-in-a-generation leaders think way beyond themselves. They’re concerned more with raising others up than they are with their own personal success. They would rather prophet than profit.
RABBI JOSH BOLTON is the director of the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel. His email address is email@example.com.