Rabbi Reflection: Redemption Takes Much More than a Heartbeat

Thoughts on the message of Seder in a troubled time

By Rabbi David Weiner / Knesset Israel

“The more we embellish the telling of the story of the Exodus, the better.” With this phrase, the authors of the Haggadah set the tone for the Seder – the night of song and conversation, questions and narrative, symbolic foods and a sumptuous feast – that kicks off our celebration of Passover. Participants turn the story from different angles, connect with ancestors who celebrated Seder in different times and circumstances, and reflect on its contemporary meaning. The more elaborate our retelling, the more relevant our interpretations, the better.

Using the Exodus story as a paradigm for understanding the Jewish experience is an ancient practice. We even find the story in other parts of scripture, including the Book of Esther. At times, Esther plays Passover for laughs: Why doesn’t the queen serve food at the drinking party she prepares for Ahashverosh and Haman? Because the party takes place in the middle of Passover, and Esther didn’t want to explain why she’s serving matza balls. Why does Esther hold two drinking parties, on two consecutive nights, when one would suffice? Surely that question resonates with anyone who typically attends a second Seder. Like most humorous books, however, Esther is not only written for laughs, and its juxtaposition to Passover yields depths of meaning. A close reading shows us that Esther asks the Jews of Shushan to fast for three days not on just any day but over what would be that year’s Seder eve. Theologically, this was a gutsy protest of divine silence in the face of persecution. For one year, a fast replaced the annual feast, transforming the celebration of redemption into a desperate plea for relief.

The Book of Esther and the Haggadah also share a common fantasy: that redemption can come as quickly as destruction. The theme emerges in the Haggadah, especially in the hymns of praise later in the book, poems that imagine God transforming our lives overnight “from slavery to freedom, mourning to festival, despair to joy.” That our ancestors left Egypt at midnight and crossed the sea in the dark hours before dawn intensifies the Haggadah’s message of hope for instantaneous redemption at the darkest times. Similarly, the inspiring refrain of the Megillah is “V’na’hafoch hu – Everything turned upside down.” Everything changes in an instant. Haman the king’s vizier swings from a tree. Mordecai, a pariah and a foreigner, becomes a prosperous royal advisor. Esther, moments after begging for her life, suddenly attains great power. The condemned Jews of Persia take a deep breath, defend themselves, then throw a party. Redemption seems effortless, sudden, and instantaneous.

But this year I find myself wondering: Is the Book of Esther preaching that God redeems the faithful overnight, just like God took us out of Egypt? Or is it slyly satirizing the cherished and somewhat absurd Jewish fantasy of instantaneous, effortless salvation? In my experience, devastation is quick, but building and rebuilding take time. An accident, a hurricane, or a bomb strikes instantaneously, yet recovery may require a decade of sustained investment. A town that can be leveled in hours will take years to build. A saboteur can quickly tear down even entrenched norms of civil society, institutions that can be created only over generations. Trust betrayed in an instant can only be restored through years of deliberate, focused effort. Light turns to darkness quickly, but darkness has a way of lingering, and it takes a long time for light to reemerge.

This year as I prepare to sit at the Seder table, my hopes are tempered by my understanding that redemption takes much more than a heartbeat. As I retell the Exodus, I will celebrate God’s strong and outstretched arm that brought about the end of slavery and the crossing of the sea. I will also be reflecting humbly on the journey that followed it – forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Over two generations, our ancestors journeyed, changed, confronted foes, reckoned with loss, and developed before they could even contemplate entering the Promised Land.

I will join in the 3000-year chorus of our ancestors who prayed for effortless, sudden, instantaneous redemption not because I believe in the impossible but instead to establish a hopeful vision for the future. I intend for the song, food, story, and the vision it represents, to inspire everyone at my Seder table for the long, slow work ahead of us. We cannot despair or desist. With faith and perseverance, we might just build a more just, secure, prosperous, and peaceful society.   

Rabbi David Weiner is spiritual leader of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield.