Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Yoke of Freedom

-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Today, and throughout this week, Jewish people all over the world are celebrating Passover -  a foundational festival much like Independence Day in the United States. The Passover is a celebration of the ancient Hebrew "exodus" out of Egypt - when the Hebrew people became a nation as they walked across the desert and took possession of the Promised Land. 

If I take a few steps from my house,  I find myself at the threshold of a vast desert wilderness. It is very similar in appearance to that desert through which those ancient Hebrew people traveled on their  way to the Promised Land,  and so,  every time I walk in this wilderness I am reminded of that "exodus"  journey.

Like all the great biblical epics,  the story of the exodus has been so popularized as to perhaps miss its true significance. Poems and songs, books and Hollywood movies have gloriously depicted this ancient spectacle of the exodus out of Egypt. 

The Hebrew people,  long-burdened under the yoke of Egyptian bondage,  gather together family and possessions and embark on a freedom march out of the land of of Egypt. They cross over the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army hot in pursuit,  but the sea swallows up the Egyptian slave masters. The Hebrews are now free. No longer slaves, they dance at the seashore, singing, playing tambourines, "free at last,  free at last."  What a great story! 

Except, when you look beneath the surface,  there is way more to this story than first meets the eye. 

When the Hebrew people cross the sea, they are indeed "free at last,"  but they aren't yet in their new home - the Promised Land. In fact, they find themselves in the midst of a barren wilderness. So, as they are patting themselves on the back at their good fortune, they suddenly come to realize that a new yoke has been placed upon their shoulders: "the yoke of freedom." 

They are in an uncharted, untamed wilderness. They have no clue as to how to get to their new country. How will they eat? What will they drink?  They are told that,  unless they trust in "God's" guidance,  and unless they help each other find the way, they will die out there in the wilderness and never arrive at their destination. 

When they were in Egypt, the people may have suffered under the cruel burden of slavery,  but at least they knew where their next meal was coming from. It was a harsh life, but they had become accustomed to obeying the orders of their task-masters. And, if nothing else, life in Egypt was at least predictable.

What you don't often hear in the popularized, "Hollywood"  versions of the exodus story is that a whole bunch of the newly freed slaves, unwilling to risk walking the wilderness path to freedom, decided to go back to Egypt. It may have been harsh but it was safer back there. 

Often times, when people hear accounts of biblical epics such as this story of the "exodus," they focus on questions of historicity - "Did this really happen?  Others, upon hearing a story such as this might say, "Well, I'm not Jewish, so this is not my story."

I'm not Jewish, but this is my story.

In fact, the story of the exodus is a universal story about our common human nature. It is a story about freedom and the responsibilities that come with being truly free.

We all walk through the barren wilderness of life. This story teaches that we make our way through this wilderness by trusting in an Abiding Presence and by taking on the responsibility of caring for one another along the way  - treating each other with compassion,  holding each other up, showing each other the way.

So here I am on this Passover morning, standing in the midst of the desert.  As always I have a choice to make today. Do I put on the "yoke of freedom," choosing to live with trust, to walk with courage on the often-uncharted path of compassion?  Or will I choose to go back to Egypt today because the path of freedom is just too hard and the way is too uncertain? 

Will I choose to stay on the freedom road, or go back and live the life of a slave, thinking only of myself and my own needs?  After all, the life of a slave may be harsh, but at least it is predictable. 

I've made my choice this Passover morning. I gladly walk down freedom road as I make my way in the wilderness. 

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