Exodus provides a profound teaching on the nature of courage through the deeds of Moses, Miriam and the People of Israel.
Every year on Passover, Jews all over the world gather in our homes to retell the Exodus story. We celebrate Passover both to remember the release of our ancestors from bondage and to look at the places of enslavement that still exist within us and our world.
Exodus is the classic liberation story, but it also provides a profound teaching on the nature of courage. In it we read about Moses, Miriam and the People of Israel, as they find the strength and faith needed to resist their enslavement and choose freedom.
One might assume that the very first Passover was celebrated in the desert by the Israelites in order to relive their miraculous experience of leaving Egypt. However, the first Passover was celebrated in Egypt before the Exodus even happened. Just after Moses announced a tenth plague, God instructed the Israelites on the preparation and offering of the first Passover sacrifice.
“On the tenth day of this month, they shall take to them every man a lamb … You shall keep it until the 14th day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it towards evening (Exodus 12:3-6). On the first Passover, the Israelites were still slaves dreaming of freedom.
The rabbis distinguished between the celebration of Passover on the eve of the Exodus and all subsequent celebrations by giving them different names — Pesach Mitzrayim (Passover in Egypt) and Pesach Dorot (Passover of the generations). The reason for Pesach Dorot can easily be understood.
Through it we try to relive what our ancestors experienced long ago and understand its relevance today. “Celebrate this Festival of Unleavened Bread, for it will remind you that I brought you out of the land of Egypt on this very day.” (Exodus 12:17)
The purpose for Pesach Mitzrayim is less clear. Why was a sacrifice called for before the tenth plague? Surely, an omniscient God wouldn’t need help to tell who lived inside. Of course, it wasn’t God who needed them, but the Israelites themselves.
According to tradition, the lamb was an Egyptian deity. So when the Israelite slaves slaughtered it and put the blood on the doorposts of their homes they risked the wrath of their Egyptian taskmasters. Pesach Mitzrayim was the ultimate act of defiance. Until this moment they had been passive participants in Moses’ campaign, now they were actors in their own destiny.
By putting blood on the doorposts of their homes, the Israelites took the first step toward freedom. A Chasidic teaching points out that the true miracle of Passover was not the plagues or the parting of the sea, but that a people who had been enslaved for generations found the courage to defy their oppressors.
Often when we think of courage, heroes who risked their lives come to mind, but courage comes in many forms. Every day we witness the miracle of courage in people who act with strength, conviction and hope in the face of pain and suffering.
This Passover, as we remember the audacity of the Israelites on their last night in Egypt, may we also celebrate these and other daily acts of courage. May we be inspired to stand up for what we believe, to live life with passion and purpose, and to look toward the future with hope.
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is director of Jewish Community Services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.