When does liberation begin?

When does liberation begin?

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, and serves as one of the national co-chairs of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign to reduce gun violence.

It is zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom. At this season, we recall God’s miraculous power — a power God used to liberate us from Egyptian bondage to freedom. This story — our story — is a story that has echoed throughout human history. And it is also a story that has inspired so many other people of faith, so many movements of liberation. Why does it resonate still, 3000 years later?

Surely it resonates because of the miracles that God performed for us; it resonates because it is the archetypal story of freedom from oppression, freedom from powerlessness, a freedom granted by a gracious and merciful God who wants freedom for all people.

But something else is true — something I hope you’ll bring in to your Passover seder tonight. Remember the midwives. Remember when we cried out to God. Remember the blood we put on the doorposts of our house. The story doesn’t begin with God; it begins with us.

The story of Passover really begins with a miraculous act of civil disobedience, when the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, defy Pharaoh’s decree that all male Israelite babies should be killed. This is a disturbing story though. Why didn’t God simply intervene to stop this madness?

The first pangs of liberation actually begin with us —when we cry out for help to God under the strain of 400 years of slavery. This detail in the story could make one reject faith in God; why didn’t God intervene in the first 400 years of our bondage?

And the story reaches its climax in Exodus 12:13, when God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to put blood on the doorposts of our house before the last plague, so that the angel of death will pass over our homes. This detail always surprised me. Why does God say, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you?” Is the text audaciously suggesting that an all-knowing God wouldn’t otherwise know which homes were Israelite and which were Egyptian? Or is this, as some biblical commentators suggest, simply a test to see if the Israelites will do what God commands?

I see it another way. These three stories together — the midwives, the crying, the blood — are all agitations to us. In Bible times and still today, we must be active participants in our own liberation.

The courage of Shifrah and Puah, standing up for what was right in a world gone mad, is the opening parenthesis to this saga that continues to inspire us three millennia later. Surely we lamented our plight for 20 generations of bondage, but it is that moment, when we ask for help from God, that as the text says in Exodus 2:25, the Holy One of blessing takes notice of us. And yes, we did need to put blood on our doorposts — not for God, but for us — to seize a degree of control in a moment that felt as if it were beyond our control.

There are things in our lives that are beyond our control: random acts of violence, freak accidents, illness that strikes without warning and for no reason. This is, tragically it seems, a part of the chaos of being alive. In these moments, we call upon God and each other to endure the unfathomable. In these moments, we seek strength to survive something we couldn’t have imagined, couldn’t have seen coming, couldn’t have avoided.

But much of what we experience in life is within our control, or at least within our control to decide how we will respond. The ability to decide whether we will take care of our bodies or make poor choices that result in some illness is within our control. The ability to decide if we will look out for the well-being of all of God’s creatures or just the some who look and think like us is within our control. And, I would submit, a powerful message of Passover is that the ability to choose to wait passively for liberation or be active participants in bringing that liberation into a world in need of liberation is within our control as well.

It’s not that God doesn’t play a role in the Passover story — far from it. But neither do I believe that it is a coincidence that the story is written in such a way that God only gets involved when we defy an evil decree, when we cry out, when we paint our own doors with the neon red.

In this season of our freedom, let us be grateful to the God who set us free. And, let us be grateful to a God who has honored us by making us God’s partner in bringing even more freedom, even more liberation, even more holiness into the world.

I believe that when we act, God acts with us. It was true then; let’s work with God to make it true now.

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