As economic worries increase, religious leaders nationwide are discovering a teaching moment.
The Passover holiday — with its central themes of freedom, redemption and hope — provides such an opening for area rabbis.
Jews are urged to observe the eight-day festival commemorating the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt as if they were experiencing it themselves. Present-day lessons are drawn from the ancient account, and contemporary challenges become metaphorical Egypts.
This Passover — which begins today at sundown — rabbis will acknowledge the current economic turmoil, but the messages they deliver will not be of doom.
"We and the world are different this year,'' said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. "Economic issues present serious challenges to individuals and to communal institutions. Yet there is hope today as when we were slaves of Egypt.''
As the holiday approached, Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg found inspiration in this year's Passover message from CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
"Passover, as we know, is all about the experience of getting out of Egypt. In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means 'a tight spot.' We're all struggling with the feeling right now of how to get out of a tight spot. When we look back and reflect on what happened in ancient times, we wonder how the ancient Israelites were able to do it,'' he said.
"CLAL's message offers a sense of hope that we can help to liberate ourselves by expecting the best even when things seem to be at their worst. Jewish tradition suggests that somehow Miriam and the women of Israel knew that even when things looked bleak and hopeless, rushing out of Egypt, there would come a time to celebrate. As the story is told in the Torah, after we got through the Red Sea, Miriam and the women sang with tambourines. We ask ourselves, where did these tambourines come from? Why did these women pack tambourines, pack musical instruments in the midst of an exodus, when there wasn't even 'time for the bread to rise'? They knew that there would come a time to dance and sing. The only way out of the tight spot is to expect the best, to hope for a better future and to actively prepare, knowing it will be so.''
Passover traditionally is a time when families and friends strive to be together around the seder table for the ritual meal and annual retelling of the Exodus story. Economic circumstances will make it harder for many this year. The United Jewish Communities and Jewish Federations system, which helps the needy, has created a Passover fundraising video offering "an unflinching yet optimistic message.'' It asks viewers to "open their hearts — and wallets — to those suffering the fallout of the economic crisis.''
Passover challenges everyone to reflect on the true meaning of freedom, said Rabbi Alter Korf of the Chabad Center of Greater St. Petersburg.
"Passover is a historical event, but it is something we continue to experience. Being free is an ongoing phenomenon. If we think about freedom in the true sense and think about what we're enslaved to today, people in America and around the world are enslaved by their own fears,'' Korf said.
"Breaking free would be to feel that I can move forward. For some people, it might be looking for a job and not believing that there are no jobs. For some people, it means trying to turn a profit when people say there are no profits to be made. So we should not be giving in to our fears. Freedom is not about geography. Freedom is the state of mind that you're in.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.