Reconciling the concept of divinity with the ruthless slaughter of infants can prove a barrier of significant challenge, and one that may even be insurmountable. We are called to do so when reading this week’s parshah, and we are also asked to do so when viewing the morning’s global news report. Innocent people, many of them children, lose their lives in horrific and senseless acts every day. The luxuries of our western lifestyles appear gratuitous when compared with the daily reality of so much of the world. How do we, as Jews, actualize the command for each of us to love our God with all our heart, soul and strength? How do we maintain the fortitude to pursue justice and be that brilliant, shining light for all people?
The death of the first born is the tenth and final plague of the Exodus story, recounted every year during the Pesach seder. The story we tell around our tables, while ostensibly about freedom from slavery, includes much suffering. Lest we fail to appreciate the trials our ancestors endured, we dip our parsley in salt water to mimic the taste of tears, and choke down horseradish for the sharp sensation of bitterness on the tongue. Perhaps it is this emphasis on suffering which prompted a friend of mine to complain of the remarkable dearth of joy and celebration in Jewish holidays.
Appreciating the incalculable suffering of others, both historically and today, is valuable and necessary if we are to co-create a more just and gentle world. Understanding the persecution of our own people over the course of centuries is relevant when evaluating the anti-Semitism that now flourishes in some parts of the globe. Yet residing permanently in such a morass can be dangerous. I believe most humans are inherently empathetic, and we hurt to some degree when we learn of the pain of others. Our hearts are not invincible and our minds are not immune from the endless toll of violence, hatred and torment our news media so deftly provides. If our Exodus story were rendered in headline format, it may include such gems as, “Thousands Afflicted with Boils, No Known Remedy,” “Locusts Devour Crops, Famine Imminent,” and “Babies Slaughtered, Pharaoh Blames Hebrew God.” The information can be overwhelming. It can easily suffocate our joy, hope, and faith in divinity.
These moments call for practical intervention, returning us to the beauty of the present moment. Lengthy treatises on the dynamics of faith and the nature of God exist in abundance in our tradition. But when we are worn down by the reality of a child torn to pieces when her small body is used as a bomb, or when we burn with both anger and helplessness reading of attacks on synagogues, we need something less densely philosophical. When we honor our people through the yearly reading of the Exodus story, and the tenth plague sticks uncomfortably in our throats, all of the lofty invectives of Rabbis extolling us not to question the divine plan won’t make those murdered children any easier to accept.
This morning, I enjoyed the privilege of awakening next to someone I love, who loves me in return. There is much divinity to be found in snuggling. I climbed a mountain, ascending to its peak as the sun rose in the sky. There is peace and incomparable beauty in the wilderness outside my door. I ate lunch – itself a miracle in a world where so many go hungry – and savored an eggplant steamed to perfection. So much simple joy exists in how we choose to feed ourselves. On Pesach, we recline on cushions because the comfort of freedom is nothing less than sublime. We sing songs and hide the afikomen because silliness and laughter surely make life sweet. To live life fully, to cultivate open-hearted happiness, we must not linger too long in the shadows. We must be able to shift our awareness from a horror that deserves to be known, to a more perfect and mundane moment. Yes, a Yeshiva student praying with Chabad was stabbed by an assailant explicit in his anti-Semitic motives. We must recognize this reality. The story must be told. Any yet, we must also be able to move our awareness to the patch of sunlight illuminating dancing dust motes, or the chatter of birds outside the window. The perfection of these moments must be recognized, as well.
If we fail to redirect our awareness, we risk our joy and happiness. If we remain mired in the indisputable ugliness of our world, we risk losing the better parts of our nature which may only be nurtured through our world’s indisputable beauty. It isn’t always easy. It may seem flippant, even irresponsible. But if we are to ever truly feel a love for God, if we are to do the difficult work of justice, we need to be responsible for the tender care of our own souls. Parshah Bo calls us to tell the story of oppression. It does not ask that we reside there.