This is the special holiday Dvar Torah thread for Passover, feel free to share your divrei Torah here.
This week’s special Dvar Torah is:
There is a house in Tucson, AZ, near the U of A campus, that has, painted on the side, “Happiness is Submission to God.” I haven’t lived there in many years, but it is something I think about quite often. It was pointed out to me by a friend, a man who was sort of a mentor/confidant/teacher figure to me back then. We were riding by it in his car when pointed and asked me what I thought it meant. I just kinda shrugged, thinking it was some sort of born-again Christian thing, of which there is a fair amount in Tucson. He said, “It’s true, you know” and we left it at that. I got the feeling that he was thinking, “You’ll understand one day.” He may have even been right.
During Pesach, we remember the start of a new nation. We were certainly a family, as the descendants of Ya’akov, but our exodus from slavery in Egypt was our creation as a people. The next point in our arc (the arc of creation, revelation, and redemption that repeats throughout Jewish history) is seven weeks later, when the Torah is revealed to Moshe at Mt Sinai. When we left Egypt, we were 600,000 men and their families, none of whom had known a day of freedom in their lives. We were suddenly free to do what we wanted.
The story is the mitzvah, though. Jacob and his children all migrated to Egypt with their families because of a famine in the holy land. Several generations go by (despite some sources saying only 80 years passed between Bereishit and Shemot) and the Jews became enslaved to the Egyptians. God remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and decides that enough is enough. He comes up with a plan that will result in the Jews being free and in Pharaoh being punished for enslaving us. Moshe tells Pharaoh to let us go, Pharaoh resists, and God inflicts plague after plague upon Egypt until he relents. The Jews are able to escape Egypt, crossing the Sea of Reeds in dramatic fashion, and set out into the wilderness. We retell this story every year at our Pesach seder, and allude to it in several of our prayers. It is our foundational event.
But in the wilderness, we were lost. We had Moshe as our guide, of course, but we lacked direction, we lacked purpose. We were, at that time, less of a nation and more of a group of people. What we needed then was exactly what God had waiting for us at Sinai. His Torah became our Torah, along with all of its rules. We were chosen to receive the Torah, and we accepted it willingly. Accepting it made incumbent on us God’s values and ethics. Over the next 40 years, we incorporated these values into our culture, and went from a group of freed slaves to a nation. Our entire culture formed around the Torah and the exodus from Egypt.
What this means for us today is that A: we are no longer slaves in Egypt and B: we have a moral code which God wants us to follow. If God had simply forced us to accept his Torah, we would have done it, of course, but God knew that we had to accept it willingly because, and this is the important bit, we get fulfillment by serving him of our own free will. The charity, the goodwill, the volunteer work and social justice action, all of it in God’s name, is what makes us holy, a holy people. It is God’s will that we do these things and it is doing them that makes us whole, that feeds us spiritually, that makes us God’s people. Happiness is submission to God. Or, to put it another way, serving God with a pure, sincere heart makes our lives and our world better. Being who God wants us to be, willingly and without reservation, makes us happy and, more importantly, makes the lives we touch better. We were brought out of Egypt to serve God, just like we were brought out of slavery to be free, and we were given the Torah in order for us to be fulfilled.
And if all of the other stuff weren’t true, if serving God and doing good works wasn’t our fulfillment, if we had abandoned our religion and culture long ago and fully assimilated, disappearing into the nations of the world, and if the only thing God ever did for us was free us from slavery, it would have been enough. But today we are grateful that it turned out to be so much more.