Here is one of my pre-Passover rituals. Every year as Passover and Easter approach, I call up a dear friend, a Christian pastor and teacher of mine and ask, “So what are you preaching about on Easter?” Without pause or reflection, he has offered me the same one word answer every year.
The first year I heard his answer, I thought to myself, “That is a great message for Easter.”
The second year I heard the word “hope,” I thought, “Well, maybe you have more to say on the matter that you didn’t get to last year.”
The third year he told me “hope,” I joked with him. “Didn’t you preach that last year and the year before? How about something new and engaging?”
“No, this year I am going to preach about hope again. We need it.”
Through all the subsequent years, my question and his one word response became a joke of sorts. He knew to expect the question. And I knew what his answer would be. “Hope.”
This year I made my call. I received his one word answer. And this year, I was unexpectantly moved to hear him say his word “hope.”
Year after year, struggle after struggle, so much is new but the human condition remains the same. We descend into hopelessness. Conflicts swirl around us. Perhaps we suffer with pain or sickness. We worry about our livelihoods and our families. Sometimes, even in the face of the objective fact that human life is easier and more comfortable now than in any time in human history, the world still feels as though it is spiraling into chaos and taking us with it. Chaos. Violence. Fear. Where are we going and how are we going to get where we need to be to feel safe and optimistic about the future?
The logical answer to this worry is to despair. Erect the personal bunkers against the outside world. Hunker down. For dear life, hold on to what you have! Our natural defense against the world of chaos is to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our possessions.
And along comes Easter. The preacher, no matter how many words fill the pages of his sermon, offers only one word that counts. “Hope.”
That is our spiritual answer to the problems of the world. Hope is an active verb. Hope for a better future. Hope so you don’t despair. Even when you think it is the end, and the lifeless body lies cold in his tomb, even then there is hope for new life. With faith, we never come to the end. Not ever.
As Christians prepare to hope again, I find myself as a Jew with the same existential phenomenon. At Passover, we sit at our seders and tell the same story generation after generation. We start in the Egypt of slavery, oppression, powerlessness and death. And with the help of God, we make our way through the desert to the Promised Land of freedom and blessing. That was the physical journey.
But the spiritual journey is different. As a people locked into Egyptian bondage, we found that the first step towards leaving Egypt and arriving to the Promised Land was to find hope again. The spiritual struggle was to believe that the bitterness and cruelty will end, and that God will sustain us and provide us with a better future. First we have to have hope. Only then can we pack up our stuff and move beyond Egypt into a more glorious future. God will split the Red Sea for us. But first we have to hope. God will provide us with manna and water in the desert, but first we have to hope. God will defeat the Angel of Death, but first we have to hope.
My tradition and my pastor provide me with the same message. The path to a world redeemed where we can finally leave Egypt and overcome death itself is to first maintain hope in a better world. Even when our fears fill our souls, hope can drive out the darkness. Even when we see no way out, hope can set us free.
The first and most important step to creating the world redeemed is to have hope. And all the rest will eventually follow.
At this time of our spirit when we exalt in the spiritual gifts that God offers us, may this Easter and Passover inspire us with hope, and may our spiritual journeys bring us to God’s kingdom together.
Happy Passover and Happy Easter.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller