As If We Ourselves Were in Egypt

Alive

This evening at sunset begins the Hebrew month of Nisan; if it is clear tonight, you can see (or not see) the new moon.

Nisan is a very special month in Jewish tradition. It is the month that contains the holiday of Passover, the celebration of the Hebrew’s liberation from Egyptian slavery millennia ago. The entire month takes on certain observances–most of which eliminate mournful practices.

There is a lot of getting ready for Passover: cleaning, purchasing special foods that can only be eaten at Passover, getting rid of the food that cannot be eaten (because it contains leavening), and preparing for the festive Seder meal. It is a lot of work, complicated further by the current COVID-19 situation. It is difficult to go out and purchase the special foods. Many of us are used to hosting a lot of people for Seders; that won’t be happening. The whole thing is rather disconnecting.

There is also spiritual preparation for the holiday. For weeks leading up to Passover, there are liturgical additions on Shabbat that get us thinking about the meaning of the holiday. It is, of course, about freedom and redemption–and not just from Egyptian slavery, but every day in our lives and in history. We live our lives trying to make the world a better place–redeeming a broken creation and trying to restore the correct balance. In essence, this is what God was modeling to us when were brought out of Egypt.

It is difficult for many to relate to the story of Passover. It took place so long ago and so far away. Most people sitting at the Seder (unless they are Holocaust survivors, former Soviet Refuseniks, or former inmates), have never experienced slavery. We don’t really know what it was like for our ancestors. The Haggadah (the book we use to guide us through the Seder) tells us that each participant must see him/herself as if s/he personally went out of Egypt. How do we do that?!?

This year is the first time that many are getting a tiny taste of what it might have been like (with obvious big differences). We now know what it means to be cooped up in a small place unable to leave. We know what it feels like to not have a sense of what tomorrow may bring. In short, we realize that our destiny is not totally in our hands; this is always the case, but now we sense it more strongly.

This is not Egypt. There are parallels, though, and perhaps we can draw on them to make the festival more meaningful. We may not be able to control events around us right now (can we ever?), but as Victor Frankl pointed out, we always have a choice about how we want to face what is going on. Can we find purpose in this moment? Can we draw meaning from the inconveniences and suffering of COVID-19? The choice is ours.

We can sit and sulk. We can grieve. It is appropriate to do so. For a while. Then we must accept what is going on around us; we must adjust to whatever the new normal will be. We must rise above it. We must find ways to connect with others through new media. We must continue to take care of ourselves and the vulnerable in our midst. We must find ways to enrich ourselves. We must become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us.

None of us was in Egypt, yet every year we focus on the story to draw inspiration, courage and wisdom. Right now, we are not in Egypt, but that shouldn’t stop us from learning and deriving meaning from our experience today.

Happy Nisan! And stay healthy!

Fitness in the Passover Story

File:Figures The Israelites Eat the Passover.jpg

The Israelites Eat the Passover,
illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)

Passover and fitness in the same sentence! Is that even possible? Most of us who observe the Passover holiday think of it as two nights of Thanksgiving Dinner-sized meals followed by carbs, carbs and more carbs. It is possible to eat healthy during Passover, but that’s not my focus here.

The Passover holiday commemorates the departure of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery as told in the Book of Exodus. The events described would have taken place thousands of years ago. The Haggadah–the book that contains the service for the Passover Feast (called a Seder) held on the first two nights–tells us that each of us should see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt. This is a tall order; many, if not most, of us have never experienced discrimination or oppression–let alone slavery. It is a challenge to try to put ourselves in the story.

The holiday is not just about the historical exodus from Egypt, though; the underlying theme is about redemption–the idea that where we are now is not where we need to be forever. The Hebrews’ situation seemed hopeless and yet, with God’s power, they were able to make their way to freedom; not only that, Egypt–the most powerful empire on the planet–was brought to its knees in the process. This sets a paradigm for us in the world and in our personal lives. The world we live in, with all of its problems, need not remain as it is; we can make it better–redeem it as it were. On a personal level, who we are today does not define who we will be tomorrow; we are always capable of becoming more and better than we are now.

Which brings me to Fitness and Passover…

Many folks look at their own personal fitness and say, “well, this is how I am.” “I’ll always be fat.” “I can never get in shape.” This outlook becomes even more rigid as we age. All the research on fitness, however, points in the opposite direction. Embarking on an exercise and/or diet program at any age is beneficial; we are always capable of improving our health. The prevailing notion was always that as we age there are certain functions that we must inevitably lose; study after study shows that we can maintain and even improve our muscle mass, cardiovascular health, endurance and reaction time–or at the very least slow the progression of their weakening. We all know individuals who were sick and frail who, after a period of rehab, were back to “normal” or even stronger than before their illness or injury. We know that we can transcend the situation in which we find ourselves; we can get better. The lessons of Passover echo this idea; they teach us that we are always capable of redemption. Although there are chronic diseases and conditions like cancer that we may not be able to overcome, we still have greater control over our fitness destiny than we may have thought in the past.

Another connection has to do with the idea of freedom which underpins the Passover story. The Hebrews were not liberated from Egypt simply so they could run around in the wilderness without a care in the world; the exodus had a purpose. The Israelites were forced to serve Pharaoh, which meant that they could not serve God. How could they focus on their connection to the divine when every day was a struggle to stay alive? The purpose of the Hebrews’ liberation was to allow them to serve God and follow the Lord’s commandments that they would receive soon afterwards at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were made free in order to serve; it sounds oxymoronic, but it is a profound idea.

Likewise, watching what we eat, exercising, and taking care of ourselves is for most of us not an end unto itself. We take care of ourselves so that we are able to do the things we want to do longer, more efficiently and more easily. We build strength and endurance in order to carry out the tasks of our lives. What are those tasks? Certainly much of our lives are taken up with grocery shopping, paying the bills, working, studying, folding fitted sheets (!), etc., and we need to be healthy enough to do that–but most of us look for a deeper purpose to our existence. If, in fact, one of our duties as human beings is to partner with God and our fellow humans in making the world a better place (redeeming it), we cannot do so if we are frail, weak, tired and out of shape. Ideally, we maintain and strengthen our bodies–which are vessels given to us by God–to be able to carry out our mission in the world (however you define that for yourself).

The work of redemption is not easy. It is slow, laborious and often frustrating–kind of like some of our workouts. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is not our obligation to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to excuse ourselves from the work of redemption. One of the ways that we can ensure that we are up to the task is to prepare ourselves spiritually AND physically. We are capable of changing the world for the better…but not if we don’t first change ourselves for the better–in spirit and in body.

Chag Sameach! Best wishes for a happy and fit Passover holiday!