I believed that the Soviet Union was dead and gone; I even thought that war between the nations of Europe was a thing of the past. I was certain that people carrying giant placards depicting the face of Stalin in Red Square during political rallies in the past twenty years were hopelessly anachronistic. I was sure that the rise of a new generation would bury the bad old ways beyond reclaiming.
The news of the last few weeks has surprised me. The ghost of the Cold War and all its related horrors – racism, persecution of minorities, and trampling of individuality – is not dead. As William Faulkner famously said, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.“
How long does it take to make a clean break with the past? When do you know that you will never go back to Egypt? As anyone knows who has ever made a big change in life, the one thing that crossing a barrier teaches you for sure is that once breached, most can be breached again. And maybe it’s a natural thing – it is, after all, the path one knows best, having followed it with one’s own will. Backsliding is a human norm – the most difficult of all our self-made prisons to escape.
The parashat hashavua for the middle of Pesakh is a special reading, out of our normal Torah reading cycle: Exodus 33.12-34.26, followed by Numbers 28.19-25. In the first reading we are reminded of our very first backsliding. Following the great Escape from Egypt, we crossed the Sea and committed ourselves utterly to a new and better way of living; and within three months of that great crossing, we crossed back over. We did not actually, physically return to Egypt, but we did in our hearts. We repudiated Moshe, we built a calf-god made of gold, and we killed those who tried to stop us.
It took a state of war, and a lot of suffering and death, to bring the Israelite people back to the path of commitment we had begun. Most of our own personal backsliding is less widely destructive, though it can be no less personally catastrophic. An addict once recovered goes back to the addiction; a woman freed of an abusive relationship returns; promises we’ve made to ourselves and others to live more meaningfully starting NOW recede into last week’s sunnier horizon.
On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh, the outer world is crying out to us as loudly as possible with this message and this question: what does it take for you to make a clean break with the past and become your best self? And what is the cost – to yourself, to your community, to the world – if you do not?