And you shall explain it to your child on that day, saying, "It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)
In the beginning of this week’s portion, Bo, God commands the Israelites to celebrate Pesach as a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, before they were actually released from slavery and allowed to depart. The first seder happens in Egypt itself. How could the Israelites understand what they were supposed to celebrate, when it has not even happened yet? Indeed, the Israelites are even told what to tell their children, in the distant future, when they ask about the festival ritual: "It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt." But they've not yet gone free! Would it not have made more sense for God to wait until after the Israelites had actually departed from the land of bondage?
No. Because in a time of darkness and deep despair, we need a taste of liberation to awaken our yearning for freedom and encourage us to take action toward that end. As Rabbi Jordan Cohen notes: “By giving the commandment to observe Pesach before the exodus, and by emphasizing that this festival is to be an eternal observance, throughout the generations, the Israelites are being given hope. When a commandment is made for the future generations, that meant there was going to be a future generation. Pesach provides hope for the otherwise hopeless Israelites that they were going to be saved, that they were going to survive the exodus, and that their descendants throughout the generations would remember and tell the tale.”
These days, it feels like each morning brings a grimmer set of headlines. The news goes from bad to worse. Injustice rages around us, bigotry proliferates, and indecency oozes out from the pinnacles of power, poisoning our nation’s public life. Heather Heyer, the young woman senselessly killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville last summer left a telling last post on her Facebook page that sums up both the difficulty and the urgency of the hour: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Yet one cannot live a decent life in a perpetual state of either outrage or despair. We need to find sparks of light and hints of hope that break through the darkness. We must tell tales of liberation, past and present, and in so doing, fortify ourselves for the struggle for liberty and justice that lies ahead. Let us resolve to follow in the footsteps of our forebears, and speak and dream and work for deliverance, even—or especially—when it seems distant.