A Lesson in Hope

When you think about all the challenges we face, it is easy to be cynical or just give up. Remaining hopeful in a world where so much seems out of our control and where we know so much is an essential spiritual challenge.

Thank God for Pesach because Pesach is a lesson in hope. It’s all in this story…

The Israelites seem doomed from the very beginning: a nation of slaves pitted against the super power of its day and the most powerful person in the world—big, bad Pharaoh.

First lesson in “hope:” Don’t underestimate what a few committed people can do.

The revolution begins with Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders to drown the newborn Israelite baby boys in the sea. They are, as far as I can tell, the first example of civil disobedience we have.

Moses is less thoughtful in the beginning: he just acts, and his action – killing the Egyptian slave driver – results in his flight. He doesn’t know from “hope” yet, but he will soon learn and a bush will teach him.

What about that bush? What does it teach us?

Everything is holy, even a lowly thorn bush—yet another touch point for hope. Who knows where help will come from? The seeds of change are scattered all around. The magic of the ordinary is part of God’s plan, the potential embedded in reality, God’s blueprint for hope.

What else about the bush? It burns but does not get consumed.

That’s us, the Jewish people! We’ve been through a lot, but we are still here. Fire ultimately destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 587 and 70 – and the fires of the inquisition burned many and ruined even more. The fires of the crematorium, the Nazi murder factories, are unthinkable, yet, even after that horrendous assault, we are still here. We are that bush that burns but does not turn to ash. We, our very existence, is a message of hope…

It takes Moses quite a while to believe in the promise of the future, to be the hope-filled leader he eventually becomes, but he does learn. Of course, it takes the Israelites – and they are us – even longer. Every step along the way, they k’vetch and complain.

It’s hard to believe in hope. In fact, it’s hard to be a hopeful person when life can seem so desperate.

Having grown up as slaves, the Israelites could not imagine being free. And even when they were free from Pharaoh, their fear regularly drove them to other kinds of slavery, like idolatry – the Golden Calf – or nostalgia— “if only we were in the flesh pots of Egypt…”

But the Exodus is “Hope 101” for the Israelites and for us. Think about it: what does it mean to be a slave? You have no control over your life. You are powerless to affect your destiny except in the smallest and most indirect ways. You are at the whim of your master. There is no hope in the life of a slave and that is what makes the freeing of a slave nation – the Israelite revolution – so potent. No wonder the Exodus has been and continues to be the archetypical story of revolution in the West, for it is brimming with hope. If a slave nation can become God’s chosen people, then anything can happen. If a rag-tag group of slaves can defeat the greatest superpower of its time, then the promise of the future is real for all people everywhere.

Hope is all about perspective. Gershon Gorenberg, a prominent Israeli historian and political commentator, writes, “A hopeful person sees three answers where others see one…. To hope is to operate with the logic of water, not the logic of a rock.” To hope is to leave the lockstep, linear realm of the logical and enter the domain of the imagination that, like water, “flows around barriers till it finds a way through.”

Here one can’t help but think of Nachshon. Do you remember who he was? He’s the guy, according to the Midrash, that does not wait for the sea to part. What does he do? He plunges into the water until the water reaches his nose and then, and only then, the sea parts. “A leader is meant to be a master of hope, someone who finds a way, rather than explaining why history teaches there can’t be one.” (Ibid)

This is sometimes hard to remember. Lest we forget, we have the story of the Exodus and Pesach to remind us that the straightjacket of history is really an illusion and that we are only truly limited by our vision and our courage.