Passover and the Mitzvot

The following was originally delivered as a sermon at Passover Festival Morning services, March 26, 2013.


In my understanding of it, the central text of the Haggadah is the line: “In every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he were the one who went out from Egypt.”

The Exodus from Egypt is to be a personal and present experience for each of us. To this point, Michael Walzer reminds us in his book, Exodus & Revolution (and then adapted in our siddur, Mishkan Tfillah), that “Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

We are all in this together. We are in it with one another here and now, and with every generation that has come before us, and every generation that we bring about. In the Pesach seder and at other moments, we are invited to recognize that it is we who experience liberation from Egyptian slavery; God takes us presently from Egypt to give us the ever-Promised Land.

How strange is it to bend time in such a manner? Upon what basis are we enjoined to experience life as if we are the ones who go out from Egypt?

The answer can be found in our text. Exodus 13:8 is quoted four times in our Haggadah: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is on account of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.’”

On this verse, Rashi asks “On account of what?” What is the this in the biblical verse? On the accounting that each of us will be established by God’s mitzvot. The drive of liberation is that we go from Egyptian bondage into God’s direction. We are liberated in order to do mitzvot.

Last Shabbat, in our weekly Torah Study, we looked at the meaning of the word Tzav, the first significant word in last week’s parasha. God commands Moses to command Aaron and the other kohanim. “And God spoke to Moses saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying…” (Levitucus 6:1-2). God speaks to command Moses to command. It is the force of that second command within the sentence that raises questions: Is God not Metzaveh, the One who Commands? How is it that Moses also has the power to command those within the community? Rashi answers this problem by saying that tzav here is a code word. Tzav really means zaruz, to urge on.

As we studied this text, I was struck by the idea that observance of the mitzvot was never meant to be a simple task. Accepting one’s obligations takes intention and dedication. From time to time, we really do need to be urged and compelled to do them. Mitzvot are ritual, they are the regularized, routinized actions of Jews. We fill our days with rituals. We wake up, put our feet on the floor, stretch out our arms. Same as any other day. How often do we know that we’re supposed to brush our teeth, but go “eh… I can get away with skipping it today.”

We know that our daily rituals are actions that are good for us. Daily rituals keep us healthy, keep us sane, keep us balanced, and –in fact– can make us a holy people.

In every generation, we continue to serve God through mitzvot because we once had to serve another task-master. Still, our Jewish tradition is brilliant to recognize that from time to time, mitzvot may not feel like joys to fulfill, but that they can continue to feel like tasks forced upon us.

It would be disingenuous of me to claim that I find it easy to always fulfill mitzvot. As a dedicated Jew driven by the teaching of generations of reform Jewish thinkers, I am constantly in dialogue with the tradition, trying to dutifully practice actions that bring me closer to HaMetzaveh, the commanding God. Many have recognized this tension that exists for us to live in our world and be observant of God’s mitzvot. And as of late, I have found motivation from an unlikely source: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.  I have what to say about Chabad; still, one thing that I think they get right is the idea that observance leads to joy. Through the observance of mitzvot, through dedication to God’s commands, we are brought closer to God. And, joy emerges from that experience.

Rabbi Schneerson once wrote that “A hassid is he who puts his personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps. That is the function of a true hassid” (Cited in The Rebbes Army, 21).

We do not need to go putting aside our personal affairs, and we do not need to go to the ends of the earth to inspire other Jews toward God’s commands. Yet, I agree: Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot. Through acts of justice and righteousness, we are lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot. Through the coming together of community in study and prayer, we are lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot. Via selfless caring we show toward others, we are lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot.

Torah and mitzvot happen in the present. They are what we do as Jews. And it is a normal thing for anyone to ask, “Why am I supposed to do such things?”

In Passover, we are given an answer to that key question: Because the Holy One of Blessing liberated us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Because of the miracles God did for our ancestors. Because God took us out of Egypt in order that we might stand at Sinai. All of us, we stand at Sinai, to receive the commandments, to learn what it is we as Jews are called upon to do, to define us, to guide us, and ultimately to give our lives particular meaning and worth. To proclaim naaseh vnishmah, we shall do these things and we shall come to an understanding of their meaning.

In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as personally liberated from Egypt, for in every generation we are called upon to live by the mantle of mitzvot, as Jews have done for millennia.

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