When you think about all the challenges we face, it's often easy to be cynical, or even just give up. Remaining hopeful in a world where so much seems out of our control is an essential spiritual challenge.
That's why Passover, an important Jewish holiday — which begins at sundown Monday — holds significance for all of us. At its root is a lesson in hopefulness.
It's all in the story, familiar to practically everyone: The Israelites seem doomed, a nation of slaves pitted against the superpower of its day and the all-powerful Pharaoh.
First lesson in hope: Don't underestimate what a few committed people can do.
The revolution begins with Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh's orders to drown the newborn male Israelites. This is, as far as I can tell, the first recorded example of civil disobedience. Moses is less thoughtful in the beginning; he just acts, and his action — killing the Egyptian slave driver — results in his flight. He doesn't know from hope yet but he will soon learn, and a bush will teach him.
What about that burning bush? What does it teach us?
Everything is holy, even a lowly thorn bush. Who knows where help will come from?
What else about the bush? It burns, but is not consumed.
What an apt metaphor for the Jewish people — we've been through a lot, but we are still here. But it is also a symbol of anyone who has been tested by adversity and survived, perhaps even thrived in spite of it. Second lesson in hope: Each of us can find hope in our perseverance.
It takes Moses quite a while to believe in the promise of the future, to be the hope-filled leader he eventually becomes. But he does learn. Of course, it takes the Israelites even longer. Every step along the way they kvetch and complain.
And no wonder: It's hard to believe in hope. It's hard to be a hopeful person when life can seem so desperate.
Having grown up as slaves, the Israelites could not imagine being free. And even when they were free from Pharaoh, their fear drove them to other kinds of slavery, like idolatry — the golden calf — or nostalgia — “if only we were back in Egypt instead of wandering in the wilderness ...”