Minutes of Torah

A central theme of the Pesach story, of course, is the movement from slavery to freedom. Rarely discussed, however, is the role of courage in propelling and sustaining that journey.

Let’s consider what courage means.  In understanding the source of this character trait, we can resort to two language traditions that many of us can assert.

The word “courage” in English comes from the Latin “cor,” which means “heart.” In a culture that often glorifies a kind of courage that seems muscular and aggressive, the roots of the English word point our attention instead to our deepest source of strength — our hearts.

The word for courage in Hebrew is “ometz,” which shares its root with the word “effort”. In Hebrew, courage is thus associated with the ability and willingness to act or at least, to try.

Our ancestors needed some blend of “heart-strength,” and the willingness to act, to move from slavery to freedom. At first glance, the story of the Exodus does not appear to invoke the courage of the Israelites. We are told multiple times that God led our ancestors out of Egypt, including numerous miracles: the ten plagues, splitting the sea, and fighting Amalek and others on the Israelites’ behalf to bring them into freedom.

Upon closer inspection, however, we see many points along the journey when the Israelites had to claim the freedom that was being offered to them. They had to listen to Moses and Aaron and put blood on their doorposts. They had to pack their unleavened bread on their backs, leave everything they knew and make a run for the promise of freedom they could not possibly understand. They had to keep moving when the Egyptians were in hot pursuit. They had to plunge into the sea under a promise that God would find them dry land on which to cross.

And within these miraculous events, there is a little-noted exchange between God, Moses and the Israelites, that is at the heart of the Exodus story and our lives.

When the Israelites are fleeing Egypt, they panic seeing the Egyptian army advancing behind them and the sea in front of them, and no apparent way out. Moses tells them not to be afraid and that once again, God will save them.  It may seem like we’re at the abyss, but calm down, everything will be OK. But after they have calmed down, God implores to move, to take action!

We, too, need to have courage in our own lives when we see that we are not in control. We don’t always know or see the way out of our “dangerous straits”.  At those times, we must take a breath and be still and collect ourselves and find the path to extricate ourselves from the danger.  This resort to our “heart-strength” first, then allows us to move into action.

As with all Jewish values, the character trait of courage is found on a spectrum. On one extreme are those who have no courage to try something new, to raise their hands to ask a question, to venture into the unknown. These people might struggle to find fulfillment in life. On the other extreme are those who know no fear; and yet strangely enough, because they never feel like they are pushing their own boundaries, are inhibiting their own growth.

The ideal, of course, is to find the balance: Having enough courage to take a first step; but not so much courage that we fail to feel accomplished, learn, and grow. And indeed, it is the extremes, taken in order, that perhaps fulfils the objective of “courage.” By first resorting to our “heart-strength”, we can find that still place to determine what it is that then allows us to act in ways that are brave and wise.

A therapist friend once explained to me as to how people change: People think the courageous part of therapy is summoning the will to change, but, the hardest thing is accepting what is true in our hearts and minds and histories –- employing the “heart-strength.” It is only with the courage to accept what is there, can you then find the wisdom of knowing how to change. 

To find the courage to make a change in your lives — in behavior or thought — one needs to kindly, face the full truth of what one is experiencing, an act that is filled with trepidation.  But once you understand it for what it is and how it acts in your life, you can exploit the “courage” experienced in that process of understanding, to make the alterations needed to make the meaningful changes in your life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

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