I admit I was not so certain. I could not account for exactly why the traumatic experience had happened to me, and why I was so fortunate to escape with just some muscle aches, an initial mourning for the car, and a shaken psyche. Bad luck, maybe, or poor reaction time, or the jerk that forced me to swerve and spin out of control—none of them really mattered. As far as I could tell, physics had caused the accident. Overconfidence in my own preparedness, perhaps, and above all, a false sense of control over the risks had left me dangerously vulnerable to chance. How many others had been out on the road that day? How many had been in worse trouble and met far less fortunate ends? It did not help to think about people who had no warm place to go home to as the weather worsened, or to remember that people were being slaughtered in Syria.
Nevertheless, a well of profound gratitude swelled within me. A few days later, I saw the car for the first time since the accident and fully grasped how much worse I could have fared. I needed to honor the simple joy of being safe and alive that momentarily settled all other considerations. I had been robbed of control over my most prime concerns, but that precious freedom had been restored to me. A week after the accident, I held a seudat hodaah with friends at the local Chabad on campus, to celebrate my deliverance from danger and to thank God for keeping me safe. In spite of doubts about my providential election, it overwhelmingly felt like the right thing to do. No one asked me to say something, but I knew in advance I wanted to share my thoughts. In another turn of good fortune, Parshat Bo, which tells of the first celebration of freedom in our people’s history, offered me the perfect springboard.
I noted the appropriateness of holding a thanksgiving celebration the week when we read about the first Pesach Seder, the signs and symbols of our redemption from slavery in Egypt, whose Hebrew name Mitzraim is derived, according to tradition, from meitzar, meaning captivity or oppression. I admitted I did not know why I had endured such a trying circumstance, or why I had merited deliverance from danger. I mentioned that God’s ways are ultimately unknowable, that the painful question of why any of us deserves to suffer trauma cannot ever be fully answered. All I knew was that in the history of the Jewish people—and for those of us privileged with life and good health—God eventually takes us out from our trials. With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, God protects us and sets us free. This renewal of our freedom reminds us that the gift of life is precious and of how much we are capable once our freedom is restored. Life may be vulnerable, yet it is full of potential.
Similarly, when Jews sit down on the night of the Seder, we exercise our collective memory. We use the annual rituals to once again ask “Where do we come from?” so each of us can answer the questions “Where am I going, and why?” For this reason, our journey that night begins by recalling the events of Parshat Bo with the words: “We were once slaves to Pharaoh in the Land of Egypt…”
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment a situation of life and death, or any experience in your life where you sensed or saw with your own eyes an immanent danger, physical or otherwise. Then imagine the moment when the danger passed; when you reached out to save another or they did so for you. Now remind yourself of where you come from, of your parents, your grandparents, and their parents—as far back as you can trace in memory and imagination. Now realize that all of you are slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, in danger, under oppression, imprisoned in a land that belongs to others. Imagine the cries of the oppressed, the tortured, and the dying. Our sages call the enslavement in Egypt an iron vice, a trial by fire and by blood.
Suddenly, a voice, the word of the God of your fathers, cries out “By your blood you shall live!” Your bleeding is a sign of life! Your covenant with your Creator, your encounter with history and destiny is forged not only in the blood of slavery, but also in the blood of the commandments of circumcision and the sacrificial lamb.
“A lamb for each household they shall take.” Out of nothing, there is something; out of darkness, light. Your Creator has returned to you possession. “A lamb for each family, according to its forefathers.” God has returned to you family—“And all of them shall slaughter it, the entire Congregation of the House of Israel.”—and heritage. “And let them take from the blood and place it on the doorposts and across the lintel of the houses in which you shall eat it.” God has given you the gifts of privacy and identity. “And the blood will be a sign for you upon the houses which you are in and I will see the blood and pass over you, and there will not be among you an opening for destruction as I smite the Land of Egypt”—the honor of distinction and the promise of protection.
In one night, a horde of slaves is transformed into a great nation, as God promised Avraham. In one night everything has changed. You are now free. You are safe. You have been saved from death and given life and freedom; you, your parents, your children, your whole family and your entire people. Therefore, the Torah says, “This day shall be for you as a remembrance and you shall celebrate it as a holiday before God for all your generations.” Its description of this night is a “night of protection,” on which the Kli Yakar comments:
“ ‘A night of protection unto the Lord’—because the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Israel, ‘My light is in your hands, and your light is in Mine. Watch over Me, and I will watch over you. Guard the light of My commandments and I will guard the ‘light of God, which is the soul of man’ that is in My hands.’ ”
In every generation, the Haggadah recounts, enemies rise up to destroy us, and periods of darkness envelope our world, only to yield in time to victory and the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness. Our God and our Torah show us the value of life, the preciousness of peace and the dignity of purpose, for us to teach our children, our neighbors and the world. Yet, “in each and every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt.” Every year we are commanded to not only to remember the Exodus from Egypt as the founding epic of our people and our faith, but also to relive that experience individually.
We come into this world small and vulnerable. We are loved and deserving of life and of God’s protection, but we are also, as the prophet tells us, “naked and bare,” tasked with much work to do in building the world and building ourselves. The Torah and its commandments, which begin in Parshat Bo with the institution of Rosh Hodesh, help us to accomplish that mission. The Torah is a covenant made between God and the Jewish people, to match the essential covenant that exists between God and the individual, signified through the circumcision of a newborn baby.
Wondrous plagues and miracles show us that God watches over our people in the course of history. The awesome Night of Protection extends that promise to every one of us, though we may not see the miracles that happen every day, with every breath of life. Whether or not a special providence watches over our every move, the Light of God resides in us, shining with the preciousness of life. We have part in that promise. In return for the gift of life, God commands us to follow the Torah, the guide for living a noble, fulfilling existence.
“The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, and those revealed belong to us and to our children forever…”
I do not know why I was spared from harm, why God watched over me, or if such special protection even occurred. I do know that God, manifested in my own life as well as in history, reminded me of what I am must do with that gift. God seemed to be saying, “As I watched over you, now watch over Me. Watch over the life I have given you, use it well as I have taught you, and I will always be with you.” Though I cannot believe with a full and constant faith in a divine shaping of my ends, I know that this promise lights my way forward.