A brief thought for Pesach, based on ideas which will hopefully be further developed, iy”H:
There are dozens of ways to tell the Pesach story on seder night. But most agree that however it’s told, the story should feel “hands on.” Indeed, from one perspective, the Pesach story might best be told as a story that’s all about the “hands”—the “hands,” and the “arms.” And this, in three parts:
Most notably, there is the “arm of God.” On the seder night, we repeat over and again how Hashem led b’nei Yisrael out of Egypt with a “זרועה נטויה”—an “outstretched arm.” It is one of the central motifs of the Passover story, both in the Torah and in the hagadah. Yet this is actually Pesach’s second “arm.”
For, in the original account of the exodus, it is not Hashem’s arm which precipitates the redemption. It is, rather, the arm of Pharaoh’s daughter. “ותשלח את אמתה,” the Torah tells us—upon seeing baby Moshe drifting through the Nile in a basket, Pharaoh’s daughter casts out her arm to bring him into safety. This is the Passover story’s first “outstretched arm.”
Its third belongs to Moshe and to b’nei Yisrael. Upon leaving Egypt, b’nei Yisrael march triumphantly towards the sea “ביד רמה”—with their arms raised in a display of their strength. But when they behold the Egyptians trailing them in hot pursuit, the people lose their faith; a similar crisis ensues later on, when Amalek attacks, and b’nei Yisrael wonder openly “whether God is in our midst or not?” So, in both cases, Moshe responds with an “outstretched arm” of his own: he “stretches his hand,” “ויט את ידו,” out to Hashem over the sea, and he “raises his arm,” “ירים משה ידו,” out to Hashem during the battle with Amalek—extending it so far, in fact, that it appears to reach Hashem’s throne itself: “יד על כס י-ה כי” (though, to be sure, the standard interpretation is that the “hand” in this verse is actually God’s).
Either way, what we discover is that at all its critical junctures, the process of b’nei Yisrael’s redemption from Egypt is achieved through the act of “stretching one’s arm”—that is, of extending oneself for others whom one would not naturally reach out to. First it is a human who reaches out to another human: Pharaoh’s daughter reaches out to baby Moshe, despite his belonging to the nation upon whom her own father has declared war. Then God reciprocates, by reaching out to humanity in kind: He shatters the natural order which He has put in place, by actively intervening in human affairs, so as to assist those humans in reaching the redemption they are groping towards. And, finally, it is humanity who reaches out to God. Though man’s nature is to rely on “כחי ועצם ידי,” the “might and strength of my own hand,” Moshe teaches his people to redirect that gesture, to orient it towards Hashem, and to recognize thereby that redemption comes about only by reaching out to Hashem above.
So it was during yetzias mitzrayim, and so it remains for us, as we strive to break forth from our own metzarim—to break forth from whatever “narrow straits” we happen to face ourselves, as individuals, and also as a collective. If we wish to pave the path of redemption, if we aspire to transcend our own constraints, then we too must be willing to transcend ourselves; to extend ourselves; to reach out to others who need us, or whom we might need, even when it is difficult or uncomfortable; to allow Hashem to reach us, even if it feels like a relationship with Him is something that does not touch us; and, indeed, to actively reach out to Hashem as well—even when He seems out of reach.