During the administration of George W. Bush, I was privileged to be appointed to a presidential commission. I received a document that included something akin to the words, “power to execute the duties of this office.” Lopping off a few words, I tried to explain to my children that now, in the manner of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado, I had been granted the power to execute. What a difference a few words can make!
Passover, which we look forward to celebrating in a few days, is often misconstrued as a holiday celebrating freedom. Not quite. It is a holiday celebrating the overthrowing of human tyranny and slavery while accepting God’s dominion over our lives and our own responsibility to properly use the freedom we have. The first part of the equation only exists in conjunction with the second part.
In that way, Passover not only commemorates something that happened long ago, but it is an annual opportunity to rise above our own Egypts, those circumstances that block the path to our own Divine destiny. Egyptian slavery is the ultimate model of any oppressive force that obstructs our attempts to reach the purpose God has planned for us. Each detail of the Exodus provides us with a route to overcoming the limitations and constrictions in our own lives.
A peculiar phrase used in the description of the Exodus guides us towards one escape strategy.
…and the Children of Israel are going out with a high hand.
Perhaps because present tense is so rare in Scripture, the King James translation of the Bible incorrectly substitutes the past tense. That misses the Divine message. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the present tense emphasizes the relevance of this section to anyone wishing to emulate the Children of Israel and escape his own Egypt. It applies to each of us today.
We should look as well at the Hebrew word used for high—RaMaH. It appears in a similar context in Deuteronomy 32:27:
…lest they will say, “our hand is high; the Lord has not done this.”
ר מ ה
RaMaH means high and dominant. However, look at this verse:
…the horse and its rider has He flung down into the sea.
How perplexing that the Hebrew word used for ‘flung down’ is also RaMaH.
To make matters worse, see this verse from Job:
How much less man, who is [after all] a worm…
The Hebrew word used for ‘worm?’ RiMaH. Regular readers of Thought Tools know that RaMaH and RiMaH are the same word with slightly different pronunciations. With the special power of Hebrew, their meanings are also related. How can the ideas of high and low be related? Identifying that relationship exposes us to deep spiritual insight.
The mysterious message of the twin words RaMaH and RiMaH suggest that though they appear to be antonyms, there is a spiritual link between high/dominant and low/abject. Furthermore, this link is a key to escaping one’s own Egypt.
That majestic record of Jewish durability known as the Hagadah, read at the Passover Seder, hints at the link. Not surprisingly, the Hagadah relates how the powerful and mighty Egyptians were humbled and the Israelites elevated. But another essential characteristic of the Hagadah is its commencement with deprecating accounts of the ignoble beginnings of the Israelites. The Hagadah reminds us that Abraham’s father was an idolater before relating the achievements of his children.
Therein lies the valuable key. Life is not static. If you happen to be riding high at this point in your life, retain humility by remembering how easily and quickly high can turn into low. No matter what struggles you face today, you must remember how much lower you or your ancestors were yesterday. Neither the depths of misery nor the heights of triumph are constant states.
In this way, the Passover Seder serves as an annual inoculation against thinking that the status quo defines you. With God’s help and in the blink of an eye, we can go out from our difficulties with a high hand.
9 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Freedom”
Everyone really needs a Rabbi.
Thank you Rabbi for taking us beyond the surface of the scriptures.
That is what I was created to do; make ancient Jewish wisdom accessible to all. Delving beneath the surface is exciting, isn’t it?
The Scriptural paradox of r-m-h as high vs. low is remarkably instructive. At once I am reminded of a famous etching ‘High and Low’ by M.C. Escher, a master of spatial paradox. At its central vortex is parquet square like a checkerboard, which serves both as ceiling and as floor. The eye follows two scenes that diverge and devolve in opposite directions, as Escher depicts the same exact scene both from above and from below! Always a philosopher, Escher oft seems in touch with Higher sources of wisdom as he captures many a scene from two points of view mysteriously and simultaneously. And many a scene has a philosophical ‘kick.’
As you so often do, you have again made me mentally kick myself for not remembering that Escher print “High and Low” with its befuddling optical illusion of whether we are gazing down on the courtyard or up. Had I but remembered it, I would have definitely incorporated it into the Thought Tool as it is just so very apropos.
Thanks so much
Escher has also constructed an improbable building, over three stories high, whose topmost parapet is a perpetual staircase in spatial paradox. Fourteen figures on the left lane of the staircase are constantly ascending, ten figures in the opposite lane constantly descending. Is it not strange how an artist viewing things in other categories can recognize ascending vs. descending, high vs. low, as but two sides of the same coin? You honor me with your comment. Believe me, what small service I render you cannot hold a candle to the great benefit your (pl.) thoughts have rendered me in my life.
Much appreciated James!
(and we both spotted your ‘pl.’) 🙂
I admit to being a secular Jew, also a Marine and retired officer of CIA. I hold dual citizenship as a native born American and returned Israeli. To my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren I have taught that Passover is not an event that happened some 3000 years ago but is happening now in our daily lives. It is not just some old guys, with beards, robes and staffs, who look surprisingly like Charlton Heston, but our family, friends and neighbors walking to freedom. To defend that freedom I joined the Marines and as a Jew I defended our people and our freedom in the 73 war. My son and grandson continue the effort today with the IDF.
Freedom is a delicate thing, it must be defended, cherished and celebrated. As Jews we do that not only at Passover but in our daily lives. As far as I know, we are the only people who live with a constant reminder that freedom isn’t free. Would that we could really turn our swords in to plowshares. I do not see that happening anytime soon.
Great message! My thoughts of oppression are of my reflection of the Children of Abraham in Egypt and how they weren’t to “resist evil” untill God himself deliverered them!
In addition, I consider the African Americans and other minority groups in this day in a form of Egypt only when Nationalism and White privilege are not highlighted by the powerful, rich , and political leaders!
Firstly, we want to express our admiration for your service both to the U.S. Marines and to the IDF in 1973. Second, we don’t think you necessarily need to ‘admit’ to being a secular Jew. Perhaps what you really mean is that you are not an observant Jew, but to us you don’t sound secular at all. A secularist has no interest in Passover under any circumstances and neither does a secularist usually risk his life in the defense of others. We entirely agree with you about the contemporary nature of Passover and its timely message for each of us this very day. We have long taught of how the escape from Egypt is the task we all face in freeing ourselves from whatever obstacles we face to achieving our divine destiny. (See https://rabbidaniellapin.com/product/let-me-go-audio-cd/ )
We wish you a joyful Passover with your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
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