If there is one positive quality we have witnessed in the tragic unfolding of the war in Ukraine, its courage. It’s evident in the audacity of the embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky, it’s manifest in the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers fighting against all odds. You witness it the ordinary civilians standing up to Russian tanks and acts of atrocity; in the world leaders willing to call out Putin’s egregious behaviour; in the journalists and volunteers from across the world going to Ukraine.
Courage runs through the Pesach story like a fine golden thread. It’s there when the enslaved Hebrew population stepped up to the oppressors, defiantly offering up the sacred lamb of the Egyptians as a barbecue. It’s there in the boldness of Moses standing up to the most powerful politician and authoritarian leader of the day, the illustrious Pharaoh of Egypt. It’s there in the astonishingly strong band of women who refuse to accede to the outrageous demands and practices of the dangerous crocodile of the Nile known as Pharaoh. The mother of Moses has a child despite the draconian policies against first born male children. The sister of Moses, Miriam, stands by her baby brother on the banks of the river despite the danger; the daughter of Pharaoh goes against her own father by adopting a baby of the enemy.
And just seven days after the exodus when caught between the Egyptian Devil and the deep Red Sea, there are Israelites like Nachshon who dig deep into themselves and show immense strength and faith and go forward into the waters.
This is a story of heroism that echoes through the ages right down to the present day. It is what empowers us as Jews, it is what enlightens us as human beings. The courage was not an evanescent emotion but rather an enduring trait planted deep into the Jewish psyche and soul. The courage of the oppressed to build a better future for themselves and their children and become an example of how to build a better world for all humanity.
Jewish wisdom suggests that the very purpose of the enslavement was to nurture compassion. Rabbi JB Soloveitchik calls it the basis of the ethical emphasis of Judaism. I call it the courage of compassion.
If there is one thing the world needs right now it is caring and the conviction of compassion. Courage is something we can all discover within ourselves. It is not confined to the battlefield. In fact, says the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, why should we honour only the soldier on the field of war when a human being can show as much courage by entering into the abyss of their own self.
It takes real courage to be a full human being, to stand up for yourself when the odds are against you, to protect others – especially the vulnerable against violence and abuse. It is no coincidence that one of the most repeated expressions of the Torah is be a shield for the widow, the orphan and the stranger ‘because you who experienced the slavery of Egypt know what it feels like to be subjugated and robbed of your freedom and integrity’. The scourge of child and family abuse, the ill treatment of migrants and refugees and those with disabilities, the intolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia all need to be challenged by the brave of heart!
Courage is not confined to heroes with extraordinary strength. It is often found in the most ordinary and pedestrian of hearts. It doesn’t imply an absence of fear but rather the capacity to confront the fear within.
I love the line of one of the most fearless of men, Nelson Mandela: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
This is reminiscent of the famous rabbinic statement of Ben Zoma who asks who is the hero and answers his own question: The one who conquers their own dark impulses. One of life’s great challenges is to discover who we are and to be true to that authentic self.
The story of Egypt and one of the central purposes of this festival is to reflect on the meaning of courage and find ways of translating it into action.
It can mean standing up for your religion, for your community, for your people. It’s never been easy to be a Jew in the face of what has been called the world’s longest hatred, antisemitism.
It can mean fighting for your country or fighting for freedom or battling on behalf of those who have less than you do.
It can mean having the pluck and resoluteness to be true to your own best self.
A fabled and often repeated Biblical line is ‘chazak ve ematz’ – be strong and of good courage. It’s a good line to hold onto in a time filled with so much fear and anxiety.
This Passover we discover the strength to help us be undaunted by latter day Pharaohs, fearless in the company of oppressors, pugnacious in the pursuit of freedom and venturesome in being true to our own selves!
Chag Pesach Sameach