Rabbi Naomi’s Passover Message 2023

Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

On all other Passovers we’ve discussed injustice, tyranny and the longing for liberation. On this Passover we must do everything we can to redress the planetary injustice of climate crisis, to stand up to tyrannical movements here in the United States and across the world, and respond to the younger generations’ desperate longing to be liberated from the enslavements of poverty, hatred, war, and environmental disaster.  

In Biblical Hebrew the land of Egypt is called Mitzrayim meaning “the narrow place.” All of humanity and all other species are passing through a narrow place such as we’ve never seen before. The recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us a stark warning: we have only a decade left to take action to avoid the worst outcome - Climate Change Is Speeding Toward Catastrophe

In our great liberation story, Moses, Miriam and Aaron lead the Israelite people out of bondage and into the unknown of the wilderness and the future. Having lived as slaves for hundreds of years, they must learn how to become a functioning society. Moses ascends Mount Sinai and brings down divine guidance in the form of laws and rules for wholesome, righteous living and meaningful worship to maintain the human-Divine connection. While Moses is up on the mountain, the people grow anxious and demand that Aaron let them build an idol, a calf made of gold, something they can see and worship in the ways of Egypt. That tale ends badly, making it abundantly clear that we are not to worship material objects, most especially gold.

Though Moses is revered as Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses our Teacher, he is never elevated to the role of monarch. When the Torah does speak of future kings it is to expound the limits of their powers:

If, after you have entered the land that your God ???? has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by your God ????. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since ???? has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere his God ????, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.  ~  Devarim/Deuteronomy 17:14-20, The Contemporary Torah, Jewish Publication Society, 2006 translation

According to the Biblical narrative, the Israelites were led by priests and judges for about a century until the time of the Prophet Samuel, Shmuel Ha-Navi, when the people complain, “You have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5)  Samuel reluctantly agrees and anoints Saul as king, but his reign is not a happy one and foreshadows the intrigue, murder and mayhem we read about in the stories of King David and his successors. In their wisdom, the rabbis of the Talmud decided that on fast days and High Holy Days we sing the traditional “Avinu Malkeinu - Our father, our king,” acknowledging that the Holy Source is the only true sovereign.

The Exodus Narrative is one of the most influential stories in the world, shaping the religious imagination of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. As our friend Rabbi David Zaslow of Ashland comments in his book Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom, “More than a quarter of the world’s population holds the story of the Exodus as sacred.” This epic tale has left its mark on American history: The Exodus in American History and Culture; “Americans have used the exodus story for a variety of causes, but three in particular—the American Revolution (1776-83), the Civil War (1861-65), and the modern Civil Rights Movement (1940s-1970s)—illustrate common ways they have interacted with it.”

Rabbi “Yitz” Greenberg gives us a lovely teaching on Why The Exodus Was So Significant. But did it actually happen? Yair Hoffman, Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University provides an overview of scholarly opinions in Exodus: History or Mythic Tale? This is excerpted from one of my favorite books, a fabulous text with stunning illustrations in an oversized volume: A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People. If you love Jewish culture and you want to learn about our multi-layered history, buy this book! (Be sure to order the 2003 edition.)

I just recently came across a 2013 interview with the brilliant scholar Richard Elliot Friedman who makes a compelling argument for the historicity of the Exodus. Professor Friedman explains that not all the Israelite tribes were ever in Egypt, just the Levites, who eventually migrated to Canaan and merged with other semitic tribes, becoming the warrior-priests. How do we know this? From various textual evidence including:

1) the Egyptian names of certain Levites
2) the design of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sacred tent (a major focus of the priestly texts), which closely mimics the battle tent of Pharaoh Rameses II, who reigned from 1279–1213 BCE, the time period in which the Exodus is set.
3) the Levites’ emphasis on welcoming the alien, “because we were aliens in Mitzrayim.”

I love this scholarship and it resonates with my own understanding of the text and the times. Please enjoy The Exodus Is Not Fiction  

So here we are in 2023, three thousand years after the time of the Exodus, and we see world leaders acting like Pharaohs, flaunting their wealth with a golden escalator (Trump), a private palace (Putin, see 53:12), and ill-gotten luxuries of fancy cigars, champagne and designer ice cream (Netanyahu). These would-be pharaohs' ostentation and indulgence are paired with their cruelty and disregard for human rights.

Who would have imagined that in 2023 we would be witnessing an Exodus out of Israel as tech companies start to relocate to other countries due to the unprecedented governmental crisis? Tech Leaders in Israel Wonder if It’s Time to Leave

This Passover is also different from all other Passovers because of the horrific rise in antisemitic rhetoric and attacks across the United States, including from the former first family:
As Florida county bans Holocaust book, actual neo-Nazis grow bold in U.S.  
Republican attacks on George Soros becoming a more prevalent anti semitic dog whistle

Like all our chagim (festivals), Pesach is a time of joy. When the cup that’s poured for us seems to be so bitter, it takes a certain discipline to also taste the sweetness. At our Pesach seders this year let us sing the beautiful love poetry of Song of Songs and celebrate the spring, and then rise up, stronger, braver, even more deeply dedicated to the cause of freedom for one and all and rescue of our spectacular and fragile ecosphere.

I’ll close with a heartfelt, uplifting message from Union of Reform Judaism President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs:
Rabbi Jacobs - Passover Message 2023

Chag Pesach Sameach ~ A joyful Passover Festival!
Rabbi Naomi