God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

It is my custom to try to see the universal meanings in our parochial holidays. In the past I have urged those spiritual seekers who are not Christians to try to find a way to rejoice at the hopefulness of Christmas and the power of sacrifice at Easter. At the root of my love for and work with the late Rev. Tom Hartman is my belief that we can learn from holidays not our own without having to celebrate them.

My journey to God is a Jewish journey, but it has been enriched and guided, informed and uplifted by the spiritual gifts of Christianity in particular, but also by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in very deep ways. So here are some of my Passover lessons for those who are not among those concluding the week of Passover observances.

The universal spiritual lessons of Passover are seen throughout the Haggadah, which is the text for the home liturgy of the Passover meal called the seder, but nowhere better than in this biblical passage from Exodus 13:8-10:

“And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the Lord’s law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt. Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.”

The first universal lesson is the last verse: “Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.” Our physical location on planet Earth is located by determining our latitude and longitude. Our spiritual location is determined by our holidays. On Passover, I know that Jews all over the world are doing what I am doing. And I know that also at this day of the Jewish calendar — the evening of the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan — in years past Jews did then what I do now. A link is created through space and time by just knowing this that locates me and bonds me to both the Jewish people and to Judaism.

This power of holidays and the rituals associated with them accounts for their presence in every culture and in every age. Their truth and power are also seen in secular holidays like Independence Day and Thanksgiving. We are social animals and our sacred times provide us with a matrix for our communal joy at being a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

The passage is odd and challenging because it requires people like us who are living 3,200 years after the Exodus from Egypt to nevertheless tell our children what we did. This is the second universal lesson of Passover: the greatest stories draw us into them.

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Religious stories are not about people in the past but about us right now. This is because sacred time is not the same thing as historical time. History is about what happened and then ended. Religion is about what happened and is still happening when we tell the story and believe in its power to transform us and implicate us. No work of fiction or history can do that to us.

I love “Moby Dick” but I am never commanded to see myself as Captain Ahab hunting the great white whale. But I am commanded to see myself as having left Egypt. That is the difference between the Bible and secular fiction or history. In some ways the story of the exodus reaches out from my wine-stained Haggadah and pulls me in. I am always the reader of “Moby Dick,” but every Passover I am a participant in the exodus from Egypt in ways that are more than metaphor and less than history. Tommy told me that this is how he felt taking Communion. He was a part of God’s essence and God’s sacrifice, and God’s love when he drank the wine and ate the wafer. Even hundreds of years after the event, Buddhists today are implicated in the Buddha’s path to enlightenment and Muslims are implicated in the hajj — the journey of Muhammad from Medina to Mecca.

The fact that religious stories and the rituals and holidays they spawn have such a power to move us that so far transcends the power of normal history or fiction is extraordinary and is, in my journey, one of the clearest proofs that, although the sacred texts were inscribed by people, they were composed and inspired and written in our hearts by the finger of God.