Kneel Down to Open Something New: A Pesach Teaching

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

Tired of eating matza yet?  And why are we still eating it anyway?  The seder is over; we have celebrated the redemption of our people and our journey to freedom.  So why, now in the middle of the week of Pesach, are we still eating the bread of affliction?  Our daily ritual of avoiding chametz and eating matza keeps the messages of Pesach close to our hearts (and our guts).  For the week of Pesach, matza is our daily reminder of affliction, and of transformation yet to be.

Professor Julius Lester is a retired African American Jewish scholar and activist.  In a modern midrash (creative commentary), he asks the question: “Why did God give the responsibility for Moses’ rearing to an Egyptian woman and the daughter of Pharaoh?” 

Professor Lester explores the moment when Pharaoh’s daughter, who the ancient rabbis call “Bithiah,” opens the basket she finds in the reeds beside the river.  Bithiah does not have one of her servants look inside.  Instead, Bithiah takes responsibility for her initiative.  The text teaches: “She opened it, and saw it, even the child” (Exod. 2:6). 

For Professor Lester, the word “it” appears to be repetitive and must have an additional meaning.  What is the “it” that Bithiah sees before she sees the baby?   The key to understanding that word “it” is in her difficult and important spiritual act: opening. Lester writes: “To open is one of the most important and difficult spiritual acts we are asked to do.  Only when we open can the new present itself.  But opening means forsaking the comfort and knowledge of the familiar to enter the unknown, whose parameter and shape is not yet revealed.”

Lester submits that the “it” that Pharaoh’s daughter sees is the Divine Presence—the Shechinah.  When we open ourselves to new possibilities and new risks, new knowledge and new obligations, we open ourselves to the Divine Presence.  Bithiah’s act of opening would save Moses and serve as a turning point for the transformation of the Israelite people.

Picture that moment, that physical act of a young woman kneeling down to open a basket.  Any one of us can draw on that image the next time we are ready to open something new.  Perhaps before the week is over we might open ourselves to a possibility of transformation.  We might take a new look at some kind of affliction in this world.  Where does Egypt still exist?  What needs to be liberated?  What is waiting to be redeemed?  Consider sharing your own response by commenting here.

For these last days of Pesach, every time we bite into the bread of affliction, may we, like Bithiah, kneel down to open up something new.  And in that something new, may we encounter the Divine Presence.