History documents many revolutions of the oppressed over the ruling powers. In more recent times the French revolution and the Russian Revolution staged armed uprisings by the people to throw off the rule of oppressive monarchs. When we open the book of Exodus and read about the Jewish people being freed from slavery, we might expect to see a similar call to arms. Yet in the unfolding of the Exodus story, there is no such rebellion. While the ten plagues are unfolding, the Jews are largely spectators to this drama. The plagues were brought on the Egyptians by the Almighty himself on their behalf.
Finally, immediately before the last plague in this week’s Torah reading, the Jewish people are mobilized to action by Moshe. However that call is not one to pick up arms and turn on the Egyptians. The call is rather unexpected and in some ways strange. They are told to take a lamb, to keep it in their homes for three days, and the night before they liberated they are to slaughter, roast and eat the lamb at a banquet which will be immortalized as the Passover seder. (A later famous revolution would begin with a tea party –Jews do bar-b-ques instead). Nahmanides (commentary to Exodus 12:3) tells us the reason for this unusual command. The lamb was an object of worship for the Egyptians, therefore by slaughtering the lamb the Jews were showing that they were rejecting the Egyptians’ gods and putting their trust in the Almighty. A vital aspect of the freedom process was for the Jews to take a stand against the Egyptians, not through armed revolt but rejecting the Egyptian belief system and affirming their belief in the One G-d. This act was made even more public by having the Jews take the animal into their homes, which could draw the attention of the Egyptians. Then they were directed to slaughter and eat it, and to splatter the blood on their doorposts, another very visible action. The public nature of the seder demanded an even greater commitment from the Jews. It was act not of physical revolt, but of spiritual revolt in face of the Egyptians.
Throughout the history of our exile, Jews were not known to be skilled warriors, however there are others in which we fought back. After horrors of the holocaust, people asked why the Jews allowed themselves to be lead like sheep to the slaughter. They greatly outnumbered the Germans, why didn’t they fight back and overpower the Germans? There are several answers to this question. There were times when they did rebell. In Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz there were uprisings, but unfortunately these attempts were quickly suppressed and all those involved died bravely. But there were also other ways of fighting back, there were spiritual uprisings. In the fall of 1944 in Auschwitz a group of yeshiva students were being herded into the gas chambers to be killed. They students knew that it was Simhat Torah, the holiday when we sing and dance around the Torah. As they faced their last moments, the young men broke out into song and dance, which affirmed this final moment of serving the Almighty, even in the face of death. Perhaps it was also to prove to the Germans that they could physically subject them to torture and death, but they could not destroy their spirit. The German officers commanded them to stop the dancing, and when the yeshiva students continued to dance the Nazis were furious. They pulled the boys out of the gas chambers and told them that the death by torture would be far worse than death in the gas chamber. The next day an order came that able-bodied workers were needed, and these brave souls were shipped off to a labor camp. Their spiritual rebellion resulted in the saving of their lives. (As told by Rabbi Meisels, author of Sefer Mekadshei Hashem, a survivor who witnessed this event, and written in Small Miracles of the Holocaust by Halberstam and Leventhal).
The Psalms (ch. 20) tell us “these fight with chariots and these fight with horses, but we give recognition to the name of G-d.” The Passover story teaches us that more important than physical strength is the power of the spirit.