Going Against the Grain by Rabbi Zell
Anglophones have an edge, come the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Thanks to the English Language with its plethora of aphorisms, Anglophones are able to describe Pesach as a Festival that goes against the grain. An integral part of the human race is the need to see that justice has been served. As such, our ancestors in Egypt would have every right to protest slaughtering a sheep or goat, daubing the doorposts and lintels with blood, and roasting that sheep or goat. What about the Egyptian taskmasters as well as those who engineered the entire system of subjugating and enslaving the Children of Israel? What about their just desserts? The slaying of the Egyptian firstborns was hardly comeuppance for a grave injustice committed against G-d’s chosen. Why are the taskmasters not receiving what is due them? Oddly enough, never is heard a questioning word from the Children of Israel, as they carried out one of the first commandments handed down to them as a nation. Instead of harboring hatred, they were handling hyssop! Doesn’t such behavior defy human nature? Doesn’t such behavior go against the grain? But perhaps going against the grain was the primary requirement of meriting being delivered from enslavement. Perhaps true freedom is recusing oneself from retribution.
Although most of us are unaware or oblivious to the fact that once we became a nation, we were given a phrase word that was intended to mold our behavior as a people. Nary a day goes past without “Zecher L’Tziat Mitzrayim” being brought to mind. “Zecher L’Tziat Mitzrayim” is translated as “in remembrance of exiting Egypt”. Those three Hebrew words go against the grain. We are neither enjoined to remember the slavery nor adjured to recall the suffering. Other than reading about the suffering of the Children of Israel in the Haggadah at the seder, rarely, if ever, do we give thought to the pain and suffering our people were forced to endure as an enslaved people. Human nature would have us dwell on man’s inhumanity against man. But because we are a people encouraged to rise above human nature and go against the grain, we do not dwell on suffering in Egypt, but rather exiting from Egypt. As G-d’s chosen, we are directed to dwell on liberation rather than subjugation. Perhaps this helps us to understand why in recent history, the government of Israel chose to accept the offer of reparations from Germany. Rather than become ingrained with bitterness and vindication, the government of the then nascent State of Israel knew that it had to go against the grain. Unlike individuals, we as a people, guard against being drawn into feuds.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood teachings found in the Tanach is the phrase “Vengeance is mine”. Over the centuries, that phrase provided much fodder to anti-Semites who were only too happy to contrast Judaism with Christianity, particularly when it came to divine behavior. While anti-Semitwas touted the benevolent behavior of their savior, they denounce the vindictiveness of the G-d of Israel. Little did those anti-Semites realize, that “vengeance is mine” is divine reassurance that we, the Children of Israel did not let injustices consume us. Ultimately, injustices against us will be addressed. G-d will choose the time, place, and method. And so it was, as far as punishing our Egyptian enslavers. G-d chose the time. It took seven days, the exact same amount of time G-d devoted to creating this world. It took place at a body of water. Just as redemption began at a body of water with an Israelite infant floating in a wicker basket, so too would redemption come to fruition at a (albeit different) body of water. As far as the method?
G-d repays in kind; G-d rewards in kind. The Children of Israel were able to go against the grain when they gained freedom, by occupying themselves with fulfilling G-d requests instead of settling all accounts with their enslavers. The Children of Israel were encouraged to go against the grain by focusing on the leaving from Egypt rather than the suffering in Egypt. G-d chose to repay and reward in kind by having the waters of the Sea of Reeds go against the grain and divide and save the fleeing Israelites only to come together again to drown the Egyptians. In doing so, the Egyptians were served their just desserts while the Children of Israel experienced a phenomenon that would last for all ages.