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Dangerous Religion

04/09/2019 04:38:34 PM


Dangerous Religion
"In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt." (Mishna)
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Clergy Corner, April 10, 2019

This is dangerous religion. Taken seriously it changes everything -- the way we work, the way we play, the way we spend money, the way we vote, the way we dream. Having known the life of the slave -- brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized -- and having tasted the sweetness of liberation, how can we return to business as usual? How can we complain about freeway traffic or neglect to cuddle our children or forget to check in with our elders? How can we walk obliviously by a beggar on the street or listen placidly as some politician offers simplistic solutions to complex societal problems? Slavery and liberation radically re-shaped us. Consider three dangerous verses from the Torah:

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan." (Exodus 22:20)

Jewish compassion is not the product of abstract ethics. It is the result of real, personal experience. Knowing the cruelty of slavery, I cannot block out the cries of the needy, the outcast, the forsaken, the vulnerable. Because I was in Egypt, the child gunned down in a gang shooting, the crack baby abandoned in the public hospital, the woman trapped in an abusive circumstance are all my people and my problem. Since leaving Egypt, I cannot push their screams into the white noise of urban life and go on pursuing my own gratifications. This is dangerous religion.

When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again, this shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. (Deuteronomy 24:20-24)

What sort of person tosses and turns all night obsessed about the one grape left unharvested on the vine, the sole olive left uncollected on the tree? What deep fear, what hunger of the soul, what sickness of the spirit prevents a human being from saying, “I have enough”? Egypt isn't just a place in the Middle East. It is a place within us all. It is all the fear, the neediness, the obsessions and addictions that bind and shackle us. For the Hasidic tradition, Hametz is much more than the crumbs found behind sofa cushions. Hametz represents the sourness of the soul built up over the past year. Hametz is all that warps our ability to love life, to cherish relationships, to dream of a better day. Passover is our release from all that sours life. Passover changes my story. How can I be afraid of anything in life? I have witnessed liberation! How can I be cynical? I have seen the destruction of Pharaoh! How can I deny my dreams? I have seen God's promise fulfilled! Dayenu! Any one of the miracles would have enough to liberate my spirit from the bondage of doubt, distraction and denigration.

"I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me." (Exodus 20:1-2)

Over the entrance of the synagogue of the Bratslaver Hasidim are the words, "Jews Must Never

Despair". After Holocaust and pogrom, Inquisition and Expulsion, what gives us the strength to resist resignation and despair? Only one thing -- this story. Because we were freed from slavery, because we saw the sea split, we can dream. We know that God has purposes in human history. We know that power and cruelty are not history's last word. We know that there is always hope. At Seder's end, we sing the charming Medieval song, Had Gadya . That song ends when God, in love and compassion, slays the Angel of Death. The last word of the Seder is the first word of the Torah -- God's light vanquishes the darkness, hope overcomes despair. Hag Sameach, may the holiday bring abundant blessings.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784