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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Leaving Egypt

So, we have left Egypt, left it behind. Monday night, Tuesday, Tuesday night last week, we told it, narrated it, rehearsed it. We were in Egypt, we slaved for Egypt, we knew Egypt like the back of our hands, our weather-beaten, calloused, workers’ hands, it was bitter, bitter as midnight, we were lodgers in Egypt so long that Egypt was lodged in us, and we left, in a hurry, in a rush, in a mad exodus, all panic and mayhem around us, blood on the doors, the smell of sacrifices, the smell of death in every home but ours. We left it, we left it all behind - a plague on their houses! - no provisions for the journey, just a suitcase of memories, hardship, nothing in our hands except our children, grasping them tightly for the journey ahead, our treasures, our children, our hope for the future, for what will come to pass when we are gone, when we have passed over...

Bitterness, the soul’s sour lament, it’s what we know: our history, our slavery, noses to the grindstone in our daily toil, don’t look up, keep on going, hard-bitten, slaves to the job, slaves to our rulers, slaves to the markets, slave to those who control our daily bread, give us today our daily bread, we left in haste, no time to bake, no time to let the dough rise, no time to look back, no time to question, no time to leaven the conversation with yiddischer humour, or tales of  defiance, just urgent unleavened haste, no going back, we didn’t know where we were going, only away from this, away from here, away from here...

Would we have stayed if we had known? Would we have clung to what we knew, this everyday slavery, serving masters who held our lives in their hands, would we have stayed enslaved to the familiar drudgery if we had been told that after this was only wilderness, wandering, desert and death, so we could serve again, an unseen master, the ruler of all? Would we have left if we’d known that the choice is only who to serve, do you serve man or do you serve God?

Bitter-sweet freedom when this is the choice: freedom from slavery, yes, but no freedom from being caught up in another kind of service, bound into a history, fettered to a story and the telling of a story, chained to a tradition that won’t let us go, that claims us for itself, that holds us bound, spellbound, in its vision, that manacles us to a promise: you will be free to the extent you bind yourself to this story, remember this story, retell this tale, tell it to your children – ‘I am making you free so that you can bind yourself and your children and your children’s children to the wheel of  Jewish history’.

And you will never be liberated from this: the task of freeing those bent low – for you were bent low; and reaching out to the poor – for you were poorer than poor; and aiding the widow and the orphan, for your rulers made too many of you widows, your men-folk martyred under the lash; and too many of you orphans, your parents ground into the dust, their names never recorded; and centuries go by and the story is always the same...

And I the Eternal One am making you free so that you will never be free of this story, never be released from indebtedness, never be freed from the obligation of repaying Me by remembering the strangers, all strangers, in all lands, and in all generations, for there will always be strangers, and you will always need to be reminded, remembering where you came from, remembering that Egypt will always be with us, that slavery will always be with us  - slavery to ideas, slavery to hardship, slavery to the need to earn a crust of bread, slavery to people with power, slavery to isms, fascism, monetarism, consumerism, cynicism, idealism – slavery and Egypt are always with us. As are strangers: strangers who don’t belong, strangers not like us, strangers who seek asylum, strangers whose faces don’t fit, strangers who are new to our land, strangers who don’t know our ways, strangers seeking a better life – strangers like you through the ages.

Would you have left Egypt this week if you had known that you will always be strangers, always seem strangers to someone else who imagines you are different to them? Would you have left if you had known that the only way to be free is to live for the stranger your brother, the stranger your sister, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt? Ah, I the Eternal One,  bless Egypt for teaching you this lesson, for without this lesson in your souls, without this lesson in strangerhood bound like a sign upon your hand and like frontlets between your eyes, without this knowledge in your hearts of what it means to be outsiders, I would have no-one to be my hands in the world to reach out to, to look out for, those who live on the margins, who are neglected, impoverished:  the strangers who lead lives of quiet desperation, whose lives are of no account - really no account - to the new Pharoahs who arise, the new masters of the universe, the new rulers in their gated ministries and their boardrooms and their hushed corridors of power.

Would you have left Egypt behind if you knew this was your fate? Would you have walked out of the pain that was known into the pain that cannot be imagined? Would you have walked into the wilderness of millennia, yoked to this mission of memory, of telling the story of liberation in order to enact that liberation over and again for those who need liberation?

Would you have left Egypt, if you had know you had to leave Egypt again, again and again, every year when springtime comes - or even when springtime does not come, when the season freezes as if in chilling mimicry of the new Pharoahs’ austere and frozen hearts, cold, cold, like the desert at night?  Would you have left Egypt if you had know that Egypt is still here and now, and that you would have to struggle for your freedom every day of your lives, straining the bitterness of enslavement out of your hearts? would you have left Egypt way back then if you had known it may still be inside you wherever you go: your narrowness of perception, your limited vision, your constrained hearts, your embittered souls? Would you have left Egypt if you had known how hard the journey would be – when you have only Me to rely on, Me to trust, Me to guide you, Me in my unseen majesty, Me in my infinite and imminent presence, Me inside you, whispering in your ear, here I am, be still and listen, here I am, serve no-one else, be bound to nothing else, be bound only to my boundless lovingkindness, be bound only to Me so that you can be released from serving anything except Me.

This is your freedom, yetziat Mizraim, the leaving of Egypt:  here with Me you are free. Here is the promised land, here I am, here and now. Here it is. My promise. My promised land. Entwined with me, here you are free. Bound up with Me, this is what it means to be free. Bound into me, nothing to choose, nothing to lose, except your chains. I am what I am: your wilderness, your promised land. Here I am.

[This piece was inspired by Marge Piercy's extraordinary poem 'Maggid' and offered as a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Chol Ha'Moed Pesach, March 30th 2013]


  1. Yes! It's worth it!

  2. Yes, it undoubtedly is. And thanks also, Howard, for the introduction to Maggid, which I had not known before.

  3. Sorry, didn't mean that last Post to be Unknown! It's me, Robert Stone

  4. This question you ask, one that reverberates in my head w/ each meaningful choice: b/ thoughtlessness and freedom, heart and coldness, compassion and cruelty. Thnx!