Out of Egypt: What Do Moses & Obama Teach us about Passover?

by Maya Bernstein

Last Sunday, on a warm, sunny day in San Francisco, UpStart joined 30 educators, artists, and thinkers, and 350 Jews in their 20s and 30s at BJE’s 4th annual Young Adult Feast of Jewish Learning. The event continues to attract the Bay Area’s Jewish young adult community, even when the competition is 75 degree weather and some of the most beautiful hiking in the world. Participants chose from a menu of classes on Jewish perspectives on issues ranging from dating to Maimonides, cooking to klezmer, and Israeli poetry to yoga, taught by many of the Bay Area’s most exciting Jewish thinkers.

UpStart’s session, “How to Change the World: What Do Moses and Obama Have in Common?” focused on change-processes. We explored questions such as: what are the characteristics of change-makers? How do we define social entrepreneurship and innovation? And, ultimately, is innovation a Jewish value?

With a nod to John McCain’s sarcastic ad comparing Obama to Moses, and with an attempt to put politics aside, we explored the similarities and differences between these two individuals who led impactful change-processes. Moses awakened the people from the slumber of slavery and led the People of Israel out of Egypt, and Obama awakened the people from apathy and inspired citizen action, hope and responsibility.

Participants raised creative comparisons, noting interesting similarities between the men, such as the fact that both were raised in cultures different from the ones they ultimately embraced – Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace, and Obama with his white grandparents – and the powerful role that language and speech played for both men. Ultimately, we used this discussion as a springboard to define overarching characteristics of those leading change-processes:

  • A clear and ethical vision
  • Flexibility and a willingness to be creative in achieving that vision
  • Community-involvement and empowerment of others
  • An embrace of risk-taking
  • Constant questioning and evaluation of purpose
  • Humility and a willingness to admit mistakes and reevaluate
  • An awareness and respect of the past; the “new” might be a radical break from what has been, but it takes into account the lessons provided by the past

Innovation is an inherently Jewish value, and an invaluable part of the ongoing process that has allowed Judaism to survive and continue to thrive after thousands of years. The characteristics of change-makers are part and parcel of the Halakhic process. This process grants authority to every individual to grapple with the texts and tenets of Judaism, and grants the community the authority to change the way the Torah is interpreted. Judaism is engaged in an ongoing process of change, one which values tradition and scholarship of the past, and which mandates creative thinking, an awareness of the present, and a concern for the future.

With Passover coming, we are reminded that communal transformation is inherently connected to personal transformation. The Haggadah quotes a famous Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim of the Babylonian Talmud that states: In every generation, one is obligated to see one’s self as if one has left Egypt. The word “Egypt” in Hebrew is “mitzrayim,” which literally means “a narrow place.” The purpose of the Seder ritual is to personalize the Exodus – to think, individually and communally, about the transitions we have made, and continue to make, from places that are narrow and confining, to places of openness and potential. Passover reminds us how easy it is to get stuck in patterns of behavior, and obligates us to think like social entrepreneurs and act as change-makers, identifying new opportunities, pursuing them, and forging a new reality that ensures a better future.

Starting with ourselves, and taking one step at a time, we indeed have the ability, and, as Jews, the mandate, to change the world for the better. In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

“Wherever you stand, take one step further. That is my message. My dream is that it will be fulfilled and people will do it. When one person takes one step ahead, it is personal – when a million people take one step ahead, then the earth shakes”

Wishing you a liberating and fulfilling Passover holiday. And remember – UpStart is here to help you move an idea for Jewish engagement from a “narrow place” to a place of possibility. Pesach Sameach!

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives for UpStart Bay Area.