Seven days ago, we sat around our tables, telling the story, as we do each year, of our forebears’ deliverance from slavery in Mitzrayim. More than that, though. We were invited to live the story – to experience it, as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and as though we ourselves witnessed the miracles of which the Haggadah tells. No matter what our opinion of the theophany of the Exodus narrative, we are asked to embody this formative moment of our people. Beyond the seder nights, this has at least one very palpable implication for our observance of Pesach, which I would like to take a moment to remind us of.

Ho lachmo anya: This is the bread of our affliction. For seven days, we have been reenacting our forbears’ trek across the desert. Simple as it may seem, the act of refraining from chametz, I think, is meant to connect us with the story of the Exodus, to remind us that: “B’chol dor va’dor, chaiv adam lirot et etzmo keilu hu yatzah mi’Mitzrayim” – “In each and every generation, a person ought to look upon him or herself as if he or she had gone out of Egypt”. We have been asked to take part, physically, in the retelling of one of our foundational moments as a nation through limiting what we eat. And we have. In this way, we are called to remember. And, more than remember, to participate.

So, here we are, seven days later. And the words of the seder, for me, are still strong:

Ho lachmo anya: This is the bread of our affliction that our forbears ate in Mitzrayim. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who need a place join us in our Passover celebration. Now we are here. Next year, in Eretz Israel! Now we are not all free. Next year may we all be free people!

Passover seder

We have been walking through the proverbial desert with this bread for a week now, and today we have crossed through the Red Sea, as our Torah tells us, by the hand of God. And once we have crossed over and been delivered from our enemies, we sing a song of praise – the shirat ha’yam, song at the sea, that we heard this morning.

As is often the case when I get confused about a particular moment in Torah, I turned to the Midrash. And, as any of you who have had the opportunity to read midrash knows, this means that I was only barely able to scratch the surface of today’s parshah. I assure you, I intended to talk about much more, but I was so struck by this particular drash that I decided it was more important to focus on one line of Torah than give any sort of exhaustive overview. So, I give you:

Another explanation of THEN SANG MOSES. It is written, She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue (Prov. 31:26). From the day when God created the world until the Israelites stood near the sea, no one save Israel sung unto God. He created Adam, yet he did not utter song; He delivered Abraham from the fiery furnace and from the kings, and he did not utter song; Isaac, also, when saved from the knife, did not utter song, nor did Jacob when he escaped alive from the angel, from Esau, and from the men of Shechem. As soon, however, as Israel came to the sea, which was divided for them, they uttered song before God, as it says, Then sang Moses and the children of Israel. This is the meaning of ‘She openeth her mouth with wisdom.’ God said: ‘I have been waiting for these’.

Midrash ShemotBeshallach, 23:4

I puzzled over this midrash for some time. It’s beauty was immediately apparent to me, but the choice of a prooftext from Proverbs stumped me. Until I turned to the pasuk in question. This pasuk occurs in the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs, in the half of it better known to us as Eshet Chayil. This beautiful passage sings the praises of a “capable wife”, extolling her virtues. Why, then, do the rabbis draw on it as a prooftext for “Az yashir Mosheh u’vnai Yisrael”, “Then sang Moses and the Israelites”?

I would venture that there is something metaphorical going on here, as there always is in Midrash. That it is no accident that the rabbis chose the description of a wife for B’nai Yisrael in this moment. The midrash points out that this is the first utterance of a song of praise in the Torah, despite many notable miracles. None of the patriarchs sang, although they certainly all were delivered from adversity in our holy text. And, well, the matriarchs, I’ll leave that without saying. But here, just across the Red Sea, away from the Egyptian pursuers, B’nai Yisrael sings a song of praise. And the rabbis notice. And in this moment, they choose the image of Eshet Chayil to describe the Israelites. The Israelites are the capable wife, worthy of praise, in this moment. They have entered a partnership with God in sealing their collective identity as a free people. A partnership that God was waiting for.

I hope you will understand where I am going when I choose to draw on a passage from the famous French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, from his brief essay entitled, “Judaism”:

The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted peoples of the world. My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display for the Other. I cannot fail in my duty towards any man, any more than I can have someone else stand in for my death… Man is therefore indispensable to God’s plan or, to be more exact, man is nothing other than the divine plans within being. This leads to idea of being chosen which can degenerate into that of pride but originally expresses the awareness of an indisputable assignation from which an ethics springs through which the universality of the end being pursued involves the solitude and isolation of the individual responsible.

Emmanuel Levinas, “Judaism”

Levinas gives us, I think, a very palatable definition of “chosenness” which fits nicely with the Reconstructionist reconfiguration: “sh’bachar lanu l’avodato” – “who called us to do His work”. It is in our relationship to the sacred that we experience ourselves as moral people.

The Haggadah I grew up with cites a beautiful midrash about the man, Nachshon, who, faced with the sea at his front and the Egyptian army at his back, walked into the water as deep as his head. The rabbis tell that it was only then, as he acted out of absolute autonomy and faith in God, that the waters parted for the Israelites. I would like to add to this by noting that had Nachshon, in this telling, not taken this absolute risk, not put himself out there to possibly drown, not acted as an absolute individual in a moment of fear and anguish, the water may never have parted, and we would never have crossed over the sea to our collective freedom. In this way, Nachshon acted, wittingly or unwittingly, out of absolute responsibility for his people. It is only when Nachshon became an active part in the miracle of the parting of the sea that the miracle itself occurred. Nachshon, in this way, became a true partner to God in the Exodus narrative. To restate what I think is key in the Levinas passage I quoted above, “Man is therefore indispensable to God’s plan or, to be more exact, man is nothing other than the divine plans within being.” To complicate this a bit: God is no more than humankind allows Him to be. This statement, I think, is valid no matter how we perceive God — as supernatural, as the sum of nature, or, as altogether non-existent. In some way, we are partners in Godliness. This is at the core of our existence: we were, after all, created B’tzelem elohim: In the image of God.

So, what does this mean for us? We all have the potential to be Nachshon in our lives, in whichever way this may happen for us. To put ourselves out there and see what comes. Or, as Levinas would put it, we should “follow the Most High God…by drawing near to one’s fellow man, and showing concern for ‘the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the beggar’,” and, in this way, we can live our lives as called upon to do this holy work.

This to me is the meaning of Passover. I was fortunate enough to spend the second seder at the home of my wonderful friends, Rabbi Aaron Levy and Miriam Kramer. They introduced me to a custom which they had learned and then adapted for their seder. One group of Jews has the tradition, before hiding the Afikoman, of taking the bag, one at a time, and throwing it over their shoulder as if it were a pack. Each participant in the seder is asked: from where are you coming? Each answers: from Mitzrayim. Each is then asked: and where are you going? And each answers: to Eretz Yisrael. Aaron and Miriam adapted the custom to make the experience deeply personal for each member of the seder. We were each asked to name our own personal Mitzrayim, etymologically, narrow place, which we hoped to leave this year, and to name our own personal Eretz Yisrael, or promised land, which we hope to reach.

As Pesach ends, and we cross over the Red Sea together to freedom, I would like to invite us all to leave the narrow places of complacency and lack of empathy and move toward a place of renewed commitment to ourselves, our community, and the world around us.

Chag sameach.

This D’var Torah was delivered at Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto on Monday, April 25, 2011.