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The God Squad: Religious holidays enliven us

As readers of this column know, it is my custom to try to see the universal meanings in religious holidays. In the past, I have urged those spiritual seekers who are not Christians to try to find a way to rejoice at the hopefulness of Christmas and the power of sacrifice at Easter. At the root of my love for and work with Father Tom Hartman is my belief that we can learn from holidays not our own without having to celebrate them.

My own journey to God is a Jewish journey, but it has been enriched and guided, informed and uplifted by the spiritual gifts of Christianity in particular, but also by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. So here are some of my lessons from Passover as this year’s observance ends Saturday:

The universal spiritual lessons of Passover are seen throughout the Haggada, which is the text for the home liturgy of the Passover meal called the Seder, but nowhere better than in this biblical passage from Exodus 13:8-10:

“And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the Lord’s law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt. Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.”

The first universal lesson is the last verse: “Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.” Our physical location on planet Earth is located by determining our latitude and longitude. Our spiritual location is determined by our holidays. During Passover, I know that Jews all over the world are doing what I am doing. And I know that also at this day of the Jewish calendar – the evening of the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan – in years past Jews did then what I am doing now. A link is created through space and time by just knowing this that locates me and bonds me to both the Jewish people and to Judaism.

This power of holidays and the rituals associated with them accounts for their presence in every culture and in every age. Their truth and power is also seen in secular holidays such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving. We are social animals, and our sacred times provide us with a matrix for our communal joy at being a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

The second universal lesson of Passover is that the greatest stories draw us into them.

Religious stories are not about people in the past, but about us right now. This is because sacred time is not the same thing as historical time. History is about what happened and then ended. Religion is about what happened and is still happening when we tell the story and believe in its power to transform us and implicate us. No work of fiction or history can do that to us.

I love “Moby-Dick,” but I am never commanded to see myself as Captain Ahab hunting the great white whale. But I am commanded to see myself as having left Egypt. That is the difference between the Bible and secular fiction or history. In some ways, the story of Exodus reaches out from my wine-stained Haggada and pulls me in. I am always the reader of “Moby-Dick,” but every Passover, I am a participant in the Exodus from Egypt in ways that are more than metaphor and less than history. Tom told me that this is how he felt taking Communion. He was a part of God’s essence and God’s sacrifice, and God’s love when he drank the wine and ate the wafer. The fact that religious stories and the rituals and holidays they inspire have such power to move us is extraordinary and one of the clearest signs that, although the sacred texts were inscribed by people, they were written in our hearts by the hand of God.