There was a family I once knew. Mom, dad, and three delightful young children lived in a small home they rented in a really rotten part of our town. It wasn’t rotten because it was poor. No, this part of town was poor because its inhabitants lived by rotten values. These five beautiful people made up one of the very few intact, functional families in that neighborhood where fatherlessness was the rule. Of the men to be seen, almost none were working or married.
My friends worked very hard; dad devoted himself to his job all day and studied accounting at night. Mom fed her children both body and soul, nourishing them and educating them with facts and morals while providing a warm nurturing home for her husband.
Then, eventually one day—a breakthrough! Dad’s employer, rewarding years of diligence, dedication and integrity, allowed him to participate on favorable terms in the company’s initial public offering. From then on their financial fortunes soared. After a few years, the family moved into a large and comfortable home in the most prestigious suburb of town.
Each of the children, now young teenagers, was given their own room. I remember their mother telling me that during their first few weeks in the new house, she’d find all her children sleeping in one room every morning. They were close siblings and instinctively drifted together as they were unaccustomed to being alone in a big empty room.
That was what mom told me. What dad told me was much more surprising. He went right back to the old neighborhood and made the owner of their old house an offer he couldn’t refuse. He then put the house up for rent at below-market with one proviso: for one night each year, his family could move back into the house while the renters were put up in a hotel.
Sure enough, I saw it with my own eyes. Once each year, on the anniversary of the date they moved out of the little old house, they moved right back in. Clutching their sleeping bags and blankets, the family drove across town. Dad parked his car right there on the street where he used to park every night for so many years. The five of them slowly walked up the short concrete pathway, mounted the steps to the front door and went in.
After a plain sandwich supper eaten while they sat on the floor of the living room, they unrolled their sleeping bags right there on the carpet and spent a weird and uncomfortable night. The next morning, they arose and without much conversation, each wrapped in his own thoughts, the family returned to its lovely new house. The slightly heavy atmosphere lasted until they walked through their elegant front door whereupon a happy bedlam ensued.
Let me have dad explain in his own words why he led his family on this bizarre annual ritual.
“I didn’t want my kids to become spoiled by our luxurious new lives and my wife and I didn’t want to forget where we came from. We decided to create a family tradition of spending one night a year where we once used to live with the intention of building a family feeling of gratitude and as a regular reminder of our good fortune. An added benefit is that our children have absorbed into their very bloodstream the belief that there is always a way out. That no matter how tough and dark things seemed to be, there was always a way up towards hope and light.”
No sooner did I hear his words than I thanked him profusely.
“With your wonderful family tradition, you have taught me the meaning of the Biblical book of Exodus, the second book of the Torah.”
Just think about it. A full 30% of the Book of Exodus is taken up by a long and detailed description of how Israel got out of Egypt. Not only do we read it repeatedly every single year, but once each year we actually live out the entire experience in a ceremony known as the Passover Seder.
The Book of Exodus serves to instill into our bloodstreams the belief that there is always a way out. Each of us suffers in our own form of Egypt but it is not terminal. There is always a way out allowing us to emerge from darkness to light and from slavery to freedom.
Verses that may not make sense when Exodus is viewed as just a storybook, begin to shine bright beams of brilliance when we realize the book is not a storybook but an instruction manual. An escape manual directing each of us how to pave our own pathway from stagnation to growth and from despair to triumph.
For example, look at this verse:
And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and He issued a commandment to Israel
and to Pharaoh king of Egypt for the Children of Israel to exit the land of Egypt.
The basic understanding might have been that God spoke to Moses and Aaron and instructed them to make Pharaoh allow Israel to leave, but why is God issuing that commandment not only to Pharaoh but also to the people of Israel themselves?
After all, Israel is the victim, right? Pharaoh must be made to release his slaves, which is exactly what God directs. But His directive is also issued to Israel. Why?
Ancient Jewish wisdom supplies the shocking answer. Israel was not to be a passive people being delivered by Moses and Aaron and expelled by Pharaoh. God never wants His children to be inert tennis balls floating down the gutter of life. God commanded them to become instruments of their own deliverance. Passivity never propelled anyone anywhere.
Today we need this reminder more than ever. We are culturally indoctrinated to think that a job is a right that someone else has the responsibility to deliver to me. Many politicians extend this principle to a right to basic income without even having a job. They call it Universal Basic Income and proudly place it on their platforms. The more that citizens reject the principle of responsibility for their own lives, the more they transfer those responsibilities to government. It follows that they are increasingly comfortable with government growing ever bigger, ever more powerful and ever more intrusive.
Put another way, the line of people in front of the window where they are giving away stuff for free will grow longer and longer. Is there hope? Yes; it has to do with replacing rotten values with real values. A few years before the terror attacks of 9/11, Susan and I wrote a book called America’s Real War: An Orthodox Rabbi Insists that Judeo-Christian Values Are Vital for Our Nation’s Survival. We are updating it and reissuing a new edition with a roadmap for our times.
We would like your participation in doing so. Starting on February 11, 2020, we are hosting ten online Facebook sessions to discuss areas that need to be added and questions that need to be answered. Please go here to find out more about this exciting project. We hope you will join us.