Passover and the Holy Fool
Every once in a while, as it does this year, Easter falls during the week of Passover. Significantly more unusual is that Easter also falls this year on April Fool’s Day. Last time that happened was in 1956. It won’t happen again until 2029.  Getting into the spirit of the day, the Devon News, a British paper, informs us that Pope Francis has canceled April Fools because it clashes with Easter. To make up for any disappointment, April Fools will be celebrated twice in 2019. 
Instead of canceling this day of revelry, Methodist minister Jeanne Torrence Finley suggests we take advantage of the confluence to explore the idea of the holy fool. Also known as the wise fool, the holy fool turns power on its head, reveals strength through gentleness, and shows us the wisdom that lies within foolishness. 
The Easter message has a bit of that foolish quality. After all, is it not a foolish thing to give up one’s life as if that showed strength?
Finley refers to Noel Paul Stookey’s song, “April Fool,” that likens Jesus to a wise and holy fool. Jesus’s message of love was unrealistic. Because he threatened the culture of greed and entitlement, one we can probably relate to today, Jesus lost his life. Yet his story tells of death vanquished, cruelty and aggression rendered powerless. Finley quotes Frederick Buechner who talked about “the laughter of faith” and “the divine comedy.” Even in the face of misery and death, on Easter we experience joy, because Jesus, the wise fool, has risen again. 
A Savior Is Born
Passover, the story of the Hebrew people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, also contains celebration and joy. It even contains elements of foolishness and wisdom.
At one time, so the story goes, a Pharaoh in Egypt reigned who was friendly toward the Hebrew people, and many of them settled there. They were fruitful, and they multiplied. After this Pharaoh died, a new ruler came to power who did not like these foreigners. He felt they were “far too numerous” (Exodus 1:9). He did not trust them. So he treated them harshly, but this cruelty was not enough to decrease their population. Therefore, he ordered the midwives of his nation to murder every boy born to a Hebrew woman.
At least two of the midwives did not do as Pharaoh decreed, instead letting a certain Hebrew boy survive. For three months, his mother raised him. Then, unable to hide him any longer, she set him adrift in a basket along the bank of the Nile. The boy was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him and named him Moses. As the story tells us, this is child who would grow up to free his people from Pharaoh’s oppression, yet he was raised in the ruler’s own household. God has a sense of humor.
God Calls Moses
It seems that God can also be a little slow. For years, His people cried out to him for relief, but He did nothing. He simply waited while Moses grew up, got himself in trouble by murdering an Egyptian, and fled to Midian. There, Moses got married, and his wife bore him a child.
While he was minding his own business, the Pharaoh died, and a new one took the throne. That’s when God finally appears to notice the misery of his enslaved people. In an almost comical scene, He goes to Midian and calls Moses to bring His people out of Egypt. He does this by appearing to Moses as a fire flickering inside a bush that does not burn up. The curious man peers at the bush and is startled to learn that the fire is God. After announcing Himself, God tells Moses that He has heard the groaning of the Hebrew people, so He’s going to rescue them by sending Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
As you might imagine, Moses is not thrilled with this idea, and he makes one excuse after another.
Who am I to do this? What if they ask me your name? What if they don’t believe me? But why me? I’m slow of speech and tongue.
With great patience, God answers each of Moses’ objections until, having no more excuses, the man begs God to send someone else.
It seems to me that arguing with God is a bit foolish, but perhaps there’s a wisdom in it, as well, for by playing dumb, Moses gets promises of help: his brother Aaron will speak for him, and God will be with him.
At last, Moses sets off for Egypt.
Here the story becomes grim. God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart, so the ruler refuses to release the Hebrew people from slavery in spite of Moses’ demands. Instead, Pharaoh and God get into a power struggle. I don’t imagine too many humans have won power struggles with God. Certainly, Pharaoh did not.
So I can’t think Pharaoh was being very smart. On the other hand, I’m not sure God was, either. When we use force to try and change a person, we often meet resistance. Pharaoh was a cruel, proud, and stubborn man. I’m not surprised that, even in the face of all the plagues God threw at his people, he didn’t yield.
Unfortunately, when God turned water to blood, sent a plague of frogs, gnats, flies, sickness, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness, Pharaoh didn’t get the worst of it. His people did. Yet God didn’t try strategy or discussion or even wiles to convince Pharaoh to release the slaves. Instead, He “hardened his heart.” He inflamed the king’s stubborn nature. Then, in one final act of cruelty, God struck down the firstborn of every person and animal in Egypt, except for those of the Hebrew people. The latter had been instructed to mark their door frames with blood. These homes God passed over, sparing those inside.
What Is Fair?
Was it fair of God to harm these children and animals? What had they done? Were the Egyptian people themselves responsible for Pharaoh’s obstinacy?
Life, of course, is not fair. Bystanders frequently experience more torment than their leaders. Does that make them innocent?
According to Gehser, a Jewish social justice movement mentioned in a paper by P. G. J. Meiring about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, just because we’re a bystander doesn’t mean we are not culpable. If our community has committed atrocities, then we are not innocent. Speaking specifically of apartheid, Meiring writes, “We accept that we all should have striven to prevent atrocities from occurring.” 
Whatever the atrocity, the concept is the same. Slavery, the genocide of Native people, the Holocaust, it does not matter. If we are not actively fighting against the oppression, we are complicit.
Does that mean the Egyptian people were responsible for the atrocities of their Pharaoh? Surely some of them were just as haughty, prejudiced, and cruel. Others, who might have felt compassion for the slaves, surely had no power to affect any real change. Indeed, the children slayed by God had no power at all.
But when Meiring makes this statement about bystanders, he is less interested in assigning blame than in asking who needs to be reconciled. Who needs to seek forgiveness?
His answer is that all of us do, not only those who make or enforce unfair laws or commit crimes against humanity, but also those who watch, those whose fear keeps them silent, and even those who try to protect others and fail.  Perhaps that make the Egyptian people’s real crime the refusal to acknowledge their failings and ask God for forgiveness.
Tsehuvah and Mending the World
Meiring discusses an important Jewish concept called teshuvah, which means to repent or turn. No matter how ethically we believe we have behaved, teshuvah asks us to examine, and even re-examine, our motives, thoughts, and actions. Where did we fall short? Where did we err? Did we behave with more grace and mercy than the those who caused direct harm? How do we hold ourselves to a higher ethical standard next time? Even when we are the victim, teshuvah calls us to respond with justice and peace. 
How do we do this? Well, one thing we don’t do is celebrate when our enemy falls. But how many of us can do that? When we have been abused and tormented, rage and impotence burn within us. To see our enemy destroyed can fill us with satisfaction. Yet that satisfaction is often short-lived. After all, it does not change the past and only creates more ugliness in the present.
Edmon Rodman traveled to Egypt where he had the opportunity to examine a wall of hieroglyphics. On that wall he noticed some cartouches. These markings encircle names of individuals who are, in this way, identified as royals. The cartouches can be placed on a tomb or made into amulets and laid over the body of the dead.
While gazing at these drawings, Rodman thought of all those murdered babies, those first-born children and animals in Egypt, and he understood in a new way the Seder custom of removing a drop of wine from each cup before drinking. That custom showed, he said, “that we were not rejoicing over our enemy’s loss.” 
A New Societal Order
But perhaps the deaths of the firstborn need not be understood literally. Perhaps, instead, the act symbolized a change in social structure that may have occurred. Ari Kahn explains that in ancient Egyptian society, the firstborn children controlled their families, servants, and businesses. The younger siblings had no choice but to obey the eldest. Within such a hierarchical system, Kahn suggests, slavery can flourish because it gives the younger siblings someone to dominate.
By killing the firstborn of every household, God upset the entire Egyptian social structure. In effect, He was saying that oppressive autocracy was no longer acceptable. In God’s world, a new system was being born, one in which leadership depended not on birth order, but on virtue, wisdom, and skill. 
Indeed, the entire Passover service is a call to a new way of being. According to Ismar Schorsch, Passover summons Jews to go into the world to repair its brokenness. The many prayers spoken during the Seder are a way of asking God “to give us but one more year to try again,” to make a difference. 
As the story tells us, God chose these Hebrew slaves as his own. What a foolish and wise thing, to upset the accepted social order by entering into loving, covenantal relationship with the weakest and most reviled of humans. Though imperfect and angry, at times spiteful and even inhumane, this wandering tribe learned that God expected them to live according to a higher law, one which called them to be peaceful, just, and true to one another and to their god.
Accepting Our Responsibility for Teshuvah and for Mending the World
Today, Jews call themselves to this highest good by remembering the Passover story. As it says in the Haggadah, today’s Jews are to imagine themselves as slaves in Egypt right now. What could that mean? What slavery do we experience here, today?
Some of us, even now, are literally slaves. Yet a figurative slavery also exists. “According to tradition,” Ellen Willis writes, “Egypt represents materialism, hedonism, amorality.” This brokenness is itself a kind of slavery. Reliving the Exodus encourages us to watch for such bondage in our own lives and to turn back to God when we find we have become enslaved. 
Yes, the story is gruesome. I find it hard to justify this God’s cruelty at times, especially when He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in the first place. Though I am not convinced we can always survive without destroying our enemies, so perhaps the plagues were necessary, that doesn’t mean we should be happy about such deaths.
So how can we respond? First, we must accept responsibility for the brokenness of our current world. Even if we are victims, reconciliation is impossible if we refuse to turn back, to repent, to become involved. We are all needed, for without us, the world will never heal.
In faith and fondness,
- See http://www.ministrymatters.com/worship/entry/8888/easter-and-april-fools.
- “April Fool’s Day 2018 Cancelled Because of Clash with Easter,” DevonLive, https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/april-fools-day-2018-cancelled-983604, March 21, 2018, accessed 3/27/18.
- Finley, Jeanne Torrence, “Easter and April Fools,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/worship/entry/8888/easter-and-april-fools, March 27, 2018, accessed 3/27/18.
- Meiring, P. G. J., “Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Jewish Voices and Perspectives,” Verbum Et Ecclesia, Vol. 25 (2), October 6, 2004, 546-567, https://verbumetecclesia.org.za/index.php/ve/article/view/288/233, accessed 3/26/18, 561.
- Ibid 560.
- Ibid 561.
- Rodman, Edmon J., “Passover: Time Traveling from L.A. to Ancient Egypt to the Seder,” The Jewish News of Northern California, March 22, 2013, https://www.jweekly.com/2013/03/22/passover-time-traveling-from-l-a-to-ancient-egypt-to-the-seder/, accessed 3/27/18.
- Kahn, Ari, “Why First-borns Killed?,” Ask the Rabbi, aish.com, http://www.aish.com/atr/Why_First-borns_Killed.html, accessed 3/27/18.
- Schorsch, Ismar, “Passover and Easter” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/easter-and-passover/, accessed 3/27/18.
- Willis, Ellen, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” Rolling Stone, April 21, 1977, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/next-year-in-jerusalem-19770421, accessed 3/27/18.