The Greek poet/dramatist, Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.E.) offers a summary of the Passover story: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Today is Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar. In the Jewish calendar, Passover begins tomorrow at sundown.
The Christian story and the Jewish story are all about the human story – about what it means to be human – to have a degree of understanding and wisdom, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of our understanding and wisdom, both personally and collectively, and with a necessary humility to remind ourselves of the compassion that is at the core of what makes us human.
One of the central aspects of what it means to be human has to do with struggle and suffering – both of which have something to do with our long march toward freedom…the personal journey toward a deeper, spiritual freedom, and the collective march we share with all of humanity toward the freedom that comes from the establishment of a more sane society ‘with freedom and justice for all,’ as we say.
Let’s look again at the Passover story as told in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Torah.
The word Exodus literally means road out, from hodus, road, and ex, out. It refers, of course, to the Hebrew’s freedom march from bondage in Egypt and has become a metaphor for human liberation in all its forms. The name Moses means, ‘from the water.’ The story says that his mother put him in the water in a basket to be found by the Pharaoh’s daughter so he could be raised as an Egyptian – mothers will do anything to save their children, even when it means ‘letting go.’
The story says that Moses had fled Egypt to avoid prosecution for killing an Egyptian guard who was beating a Hebrew slave, prompting Moses to intervene, to come to the aid of the slave.
Moses had to ‘get out of town’ in a hurry. In the wilderness he helps some young women gain access to the well by intervening again, this time with some shepherds who were blocking their way to the well. The women happened to be the daughters of the priest of Midian, one of whom whose hand he offered to Moses, Zipporah, with whom he settled down and was raising a family.
One day when he was keeping the flock of his father-in-law he had an encounter with a burning bush, a religious experience, you might say.
The voice from the burning bush said, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…the cry of the people has come to me, and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people…out of Egypt.”
The story says that the bush was burning but was not consumed by the fire. This, of course, is a clever metaphor for the compassion in us that leads to action, the energy that moves us toward justice, etc.
The Torah says that Moses was a reluctant prophet who argued with God against his assignment to liberate the captive Israelites, telling God that he chose the wrong person. He says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt.” Beware of the prophet who volunteers for the job!
Moses is a mythological figure, a composite of all people who have struggled to find the balance between freedom and responsibility, a prototype figure representing the thing in us that connects us to other persons – empathy and compassion.
He represents the desire for freedom – he’s the liberator, actualized in men and women like Lincoln and Harriet Tubman. The slaves in America referred to them as their Moses.
God, the voice from the burning bush, assured Moses that He would help Moses to persuade the Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go. Indeed He did, sending ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn (or highborn.)
After each plague Pharaoh’s heart is softened and he promises to let the Israelites go, then, when the plague is over, he hardens his heart and refuses to let the people go, until the final plague of the death of the firstborn.
It was this tenth plague where God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to kill a lamb and mark their doorposts with some of the blood of the lamb so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ those homes. (Christians would adopt this story by claiming that Jesus is the ‘lamb of God,’ sacrificed for you, causing the angel of death to pass over you so that you would not die but have ‘eternal life.’)
What are the deep universal truths in our human experience that gave rise to this myth and has kept it going for thousands of years?
Certainly there’s something about the underlying fear of death that plays a role in the ancient drama. The fear of natural disasters is another – earth quakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes – and the fear of illnesses, as well as the death of livestock or the destruction of the crops by drought or locusts, etc. The plagues play a part.
But fear is not a reliable teacher. Fear is the great imposter, the friend of tyrants and enemy of freedom who prevents wisdom from emerging out of the flames.
This is where the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, enters the stage, saying, “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Suffering does not necessarily come with a money-back guarantee of wisdom, but some suffering is inevitable. Our afflictions, which bring about suffering, make significant demands on us – not only to endure, to carry them, but to learn something from them.
The voice of God that came to Moses from the burning bush said, “I have seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…the cry of the people has come to me…”
This is the voice of wisdom. It is the voice of compassion. It is the voice of empathy. It is the voice that comes from the depths of our own being, from way down deep ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
That same voice was the driving force and sense of determination of our President and members of Congress to pass a health care bill. In essence, President Obama said, “I have seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…the cry of the people has come to me…” That’s the voice that comes from a burning-bush-moment, a burning desire to respond to the suffering of ‘the people.’
At a health care rally in Ohio last month he said, “I’m here because of the countless (Americans) who have been forced to face the most terrifying challenges of their lives with the added burden of medical bills they cannot pay. I don’t think that’s right. Neither do you, and that’s why we need health insurance reform, right now.”
The passage of the health care bill, no matter what you think of it in terms of its economic impact, or its political fallout, was brought about by the voice that said, “I have seen the affliction of my people,” which is the voice of human compassion — the voice of God in us.
In this sense, Obama takes on the Moses persona, promising to liberate those held in the bondage of fear of economic oppression brought about by catastrophic illness. He put it all on the line, even to his own surprise; he was a man on a mission.
“A new season for America,” he said.
Now look again at the Moses story. After escaping from bondage in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, headed for a land ‘of milk and honey,’ the Hebrew people had their work cut out for them, but it was their own work. It took all they had to keep at it. Many wanted to return to Egypt where they knew they would be able to eat and have housing; a sense of insecurity and uncertainty plagued them as they faced the next step toward freedom
The passage of the much-needed reform of our health care system is the end of a long struggle and the beginning of a new chapter…a ‘new season.’ There is a great deal of uncertainty ahead, especially as it relates to the economic impact on the nation.
As in the ancient story – a story that comes from the depths of human experience – there are volatile voices crying, “Let’s go back to Egypt, let’s repeal the health care bill. Kill the freedom marchers! This is socialism!”
There’s something in us, in each of us, that resists change. It feels like too much of a struggle.
The passage of the health care bill is an attempt to build a more just society, a society plagued by joblessness and the fallout from it, leading to foreclosures and the drying up of savings and the need to use money set aside for retirement.
Moses had a vision – the promise of a new land, a land ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ the Promised Land. He had a dream, a vision. But he never entered it. The story says that he ‘saw it,’ from a distance. Martin Luther King, Jr. made reference to the Moses story the night before he was assassinated, saying, “I have been to the mountain top, I have seen the promised land, I may not get there with you…”
Scott Cairns, in a new book he titled The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain, says, “…our afflictions oblige us to glimpse and to appreciate a somewhat bigger picture; they offer us a chance to see the greater, more troubling scope of our situation – the roiling reach of what, back in my own college days, we were fond of calling ‘the human condition.’
“Our afflictions drag us – more or less kicking – into a fresh and vivid awareness that we are not in control of our circumstances…that our days are salted with affliction.
“They insist on our noticing how our seasons move through cycles of joy and pain, and that our very lives…are fairly (and sometimes unfairly) riddled with death.”
In other words, our seasons of suffering somehow force us to be more human and more humane.
When we are more human and more humane we are able to say, with the voice from the burning bush – the bush that was not destroyed by its burning – ‘I have seen the affliction of the people, I have heard the cry of their suffering, and I am moved by it.’
The title of his book, The End of Suffering, is a play on words. On first glance it looks like he is suggesting a way to end suffering, but his book turns the title around to mean ‘the end’ in the sense of purpose or value of suffering – the end result.
The Passover story says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, again and again, in his determination to keep control over those he held in bondage; but it was softened by suffering, it was moved when he experienced each affliction of the ten plagues, until finally he let them go.
But again he changed his mind and chased after them only to be swallowed up by the Red Sea that closed in upon him and his army.
There are moments in life when we know we are standing on holy ground – the sacred, the insightful, liberating, transformative moments, and we need to take the shoes off from our feet and make direct contact with that ground…to be fully present or ‘grounded,’ and to learn what it has to teach.
Like Pharaoh, we have moments when our heart is hardened, but then we ‘hear the cry of the afflicted,’ and something happens to us that leads to our growth as a person who is able to echo the voice from that burning bush and say, ‘I am who I am!’
We’ll conclude with a modern Passover story about an elderly Jewish man in Miami who calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Fifty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams.
“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and he hangs up.
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this.” She calls her father immediately and screams at the old man, “You are NOT getting divorced! Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back!, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hangs up.
The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “so they’re both coming for Passover and they’re paying their own airfares.”
Have an insightful Passover!
The bush was burning but it was not consumed;
the energy being emitted didn’t destroy or use up the bush, as it does in the normal day-to-day experiences…
it’s a metaphor for that which inspires us – that which ‘sets us on fire,’ and motivates us to respond to the needs of others; the energy we devote to larger causes…
it’s about the source of human compassion, which sometimes seems to ‘go against our natural need for self-preservation’ …