Shabbat Hagadol, The Great Shabbat. First Steps To Freedom [Parshat Acharei By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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On this day, thirty-three hundred years ago, the Hebrew slaves made their first tentative move in the direction of mental and physical freedom from Egyptian oppression … they took into their homes the animals they were going to eat as a final meal before leaving Egypt for good. Each and every family made sure to have a lamb or goat in hand, ready and waiting to be turned into kebabs. To any Egyptian inquiries they responded bravely that they were leaving town, but not before the final plague, Death of the Firstborns, would take place. Havoc ensued as panicked Egyptian firstborns tried forcing the rest of society to release the Jews, and thus stave off that final plague – to no avail.

That first act of defiance was the first step, a small one for the individual but a giant leap for the nation. This showed that they were still able to cast off their mental shackles, rusted in place after two hundred years of slavery. The first step out of an abusive relationship is the hardest; making that first phone call for help. The realisation that things can actually be different, better, is the very beginning of a path that leads to complete freedom.

The Exodus from Egypt, all those thousands of years ago is not just our history. We retell this story at the seder every year not simply to remember where we came from, although that is also important; we tell the story because we need to relive that story every day of our lives. We are constantly confronted with things that try to trap us, to compel us to act in a way which is antithetical to what our Creator desires.

Sometimes we acquiesce, sometimes we struggle, sometimes we win … but the narrative of overcoming negative forces to meet G-d in the Promised Land is far from a Jewish Aesop’s fable. It is a compelling force for good, a catalyst for change, a reminder that power is transient, that wealth is inconsequential unless used in the service of G-d, and that all it takes to begin that journey of self-discovery is one single courageous step.

This past week we experienced the completion of an Exodus of a different type. This was an Exodus from hatred and division, violence and sectarianism; and far from being the first step, hopefully this is the last. This week the President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann) was an honoured guest of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, for the first time in history. After generations of conflict, hatred and bloodshed, these close neighbours have not only left that behind them, but have gone so much further to cement a peace of brothers and a friendship of equals. Those brave souls who made the first attempts at healing those long-festering sores of hatred and difference can now be credited with having created their own small miracle; a peace and brotherhood which many believed would never come to fruition.

Ireland’s national flag is the tricolour of green, white and orange; green representing Roman Catholics, orange representing Protestants and white symbolising peace between the two. So many on this island prayed for the day that peace would arrive, put down roots, and settle in for good, and slowly but surely that time has arrived. The Royal visit to Ireland in May of 2011 – described by then President Mary McAleese as “an extraordinary moment in Irish history” – was the beginning of the end of that process; a mutual acceptance that we belong together as friends and partners. The reciprocal visit this week has made that a double knot and tied it fast.

In our own lives, as we tell the Exodus story to our children and grandchildren, we need to realise that the story is not just about those that came before us – it is about a path which leads all the way from the lush pastures of the Nile Delta right to our very doorsteps. A chain of tradition forged in miracles and revelation amidst slavery and suffering, and then link by generational link until today. That chain beckons us to grasp our history and our traditions with both hands, to be lifted above the confusing mists of daily life, societal mores, influences and pressures, into the clarity of faith, tradition, G-d and His commandments.

It is not enough to taste the wine, matzah and maror and sink back into complacency … Judaism demands more of us than that. It urges us to hold that chain tight and not to let go until we reach the Promised Land.

Leshana Haba beYerushalayim. Next Year in Jerusalem.  Shabbat Shalom.

 Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent  is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

 

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