Aaron’s Story of Passover
Aaron: Tonight is the beginning of the celebration of Passover. I want to speak to you a bit about the meaning of that holiday, which I have enjoyed as a human of the Jew-ish faith, and as some of you also have…
I find this a beautiful holiday. Barbara used to have some difficulties with it because the meaning had never been properly explained. She understood it as a celebration of freedom, but it seemed to her to be a celebration at the cost of others who had been enslaving the Jews. This is not to condone their keeping of slaves, but it had seemed to Barbara that the suffering of the Egyptians was ignored.
Let me offer some background for those of you who are unfamiliar with this holiday. The Jewish people were slaves in Egypt, suffering the fate of slaves everywhere: beat-en, coerced, families separated. They were simply “owned,” and not considered people but animals. The leader of these people said to the Pharaoh of Egypt, so the story goes, “Let my people go!”—in other words, end the slavery. I’m not saying that’s exactly how it happened. We have a myth here, and we’re more concerned with symbols than with history. The Pharaoh would not end the policy of slavery. This was both a human plea—“My brother is suffering, my child is suffering, my parent is suffering— let us go!” and it was a plea on a higher level: come to that level of understanding where you acknowledge that you may not harm any sentient being, regardless of whether you consider us human as yourself or animal. What right have you to rape, to beat, to sepa-rate parent and child? What right have you to create pain for another sentient being?
The myth has it that the Pharaoh kept saying no; the Egyptians clung to their slavery. Then God then brought a series of plagues to the Egyptians, each one harsher than the last. Each time they had a choice: to relent and say yes, they will stop slavery, or to hold to it. What makes one being enslave another? It’s not just custom, there must also be greed. “Here is somebody who will do my work while I can be lazy, someone who will grow my food, who will make and care for my clothes, who will clean my house. I can have all that I want, and I need not concern myself with his welfare because he is not human.” What kind of denial is this? Even if they did not recognize the humanity, what attitude of heart allows one to eat in front of any being who is starving without of-fering them food?
These plagues became harsher and harsher, until the final plague, until the first-born son of each Egyptian household was killed. The Hebrews were commanded to mark their own doors with blood from the sacrificial lamb, and the Angel of Death passed over those houses that were thus marked, taking the firstborn son, then, only from those homes that were not marked. This story bothered Barbara very much. She said, “I do not believe in a judgmental God; I believe in a loving God. And I also do not believe that God claims the desire to strike down this one or that one.”
At the Passover Seder there is a ceremony in which these plagues are read off; one dips one’s finger or a spoon in a glass of wine and drips that wine on the plate, one drip for each plague. Barbara had refused to participate in that, saying, “I will not cele-brate another’s trials.”
I read this whole story differently. First, although I do acknowledge with reverence that which I call God/ Goddess/ All-That-Is, I do not find this God to be that which says, “Lo-custs or hail will fall on you,” and makes it so. There is karma here, group karma. The Hebrews and Egyptians were interacting together to learn about greed, selfishness, and fear. The Hebrews, perhaps because of their own past karma, their own greed, had agreed to balance that karma by becoming the foil for the Egyptians’ learning. At any point in this process, the Egyptians could have stopped it by taking a look at what made them retain the process of slavery. They refused to do so.
Why these specific plagues—hail, locusts, death of the firstborn? I find them symbolic. I am not going to run through all of them. (And I repeat: I do not say that this happened or did not happen as it is reported to have happened) They’re attacked by the natural elements, which is a statement: you cannot control the natural elements. Look at the sense of power you believe you have and find a deeper truth of your place in the uni-verse. Boils—you cannot control the health of your body. Locusts— you cannot control the coming and going of other creatures. Each one was offered as a specific form of lesson. Look into yourself and in each of you—your greed, your grasping, your fear, your domination over others—and open your heart with compassion to the suffering around you, or you call that suffering back upon yourself. I think the statement that God pointed a finger and said, “Now this plague; now that one,” is symbolic rather than real.
Remember, we’re dealing with a culture that did not believe in or have a word for kar-ma. In the Aramaic language in which the Bible was originally written, there was no word for karma. So, these people brought these plagues upon themselves until they finally learned what they needed to learn.
This ceremony that appalled Barbara, of dipping the finger the glass and taking out wine, actually I find a very beautiful part of the Seder. Because of the pain of others, which we recall with this ceremony, by that much is our own cup of joy diminished. We cannot drink the whole cup; we must take some out for each memory of the pain suf-fered by others. It is a great teaching of compassion. Here are those who have been enslaved, brutalized, and yet they are asked not to celebrate the pain of their oppres-sors, but to open their hearts in compassion to their oppressors.
Finally, it is not only the Jews who found freedom. The Jews found freedom from slav-ery, and the Egyptians found freedom from very distorted and egotistic mind states which allowed them to enslave another. Sometimes a learning carries great pain. It did so in the case of the Egyptians. They simply were not willing to listen until the pain reached that great a size that it captured their attention. Thus it is with all learning. Suf-fering is not required; only to pay attention. But often it is only suffering that focuses the attention.
This, then, is the celebration of Passover. We are not celebrating the death of the firstborn son of our oppressors; we are not celebrating the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. We’re weeping that the oppressors could not learn to look at their actions un-til confronted by death. Certainly all Egyptians did not change overnight and repent. They repented more out of fear than out of love, but there were many who did begin to look at their choices.
Barbara did not like this story because she said, “I do not believe in a judgmental God.” Many of these Egyptians were strongly mired in negativity. The culture revolved around power and who was the most powerful, a very structured society with slaves at the bot-tom. It raises an interesting question. One can speak kindness to cruelty, in fact one must do so. The Jews did not fight back in terms of rebelling and trying to kill their op-pressors; they simply trusted God, or phrased differently, trusted the universe and the energy of the universe. Those that oppress will eventually be confronted with their ac-tions.
It is important that the punishment did not come directly from the Jews but was a result of the Egyptians’ own choices. This fact is what led them to begin to consider those choices—reluctantly, at first, of course. Because they were so mired in negativity and understood only power and had not yet opened their hearts to love, it took power to call their attention to the cruelty of their choices. It took the loss of those they loved to open their hearts. Their own choices provided the energy for their results. A cruel sort of karma, it may seem. When you are killing the sons and daughters, the parents and ba-bies of another race, what better way to have your own heart opened to the suffering of those you have oppressed than to lose your own beloved child? This is not a case of “they asked for it.” There is not punishment involved so much as awakening to truth. It’s important to understand that the Hebrews were not punishing the Egyptians, and that God was not punishing the Egyptians. The Egyptians were creating an increasing-ly painful learning situation for themselves until they had had enough of it.
It is the story of oppressed and oppressor, wherein those who are oppressed do not smite the oppressor but allow the oppressor’s own negativity to become the foil for change. Because of the power of that catalyst, many Egyptians also did find freedom from old patterns.