On Passover, I remember a humble rabbi and his incredible lesson

The essence of Passover, which begins Friday night, isn’t matzah (unleavened bread) or the four cups of wine at the seder meal. Those merely point to the real message: the importance of our humility in the face of God’s ability to work miracles.

I think of two old sayings: “When we take one step toward God, he takes 10 steps toward us;” and “God is a gentleman – he doesn’t go where he isn’t invited.”

The meaning? God can do the seemingly impossible, but only if we signal him that we’re open to his divine intervention in our lives.

The Exodus story depicts the Israelites in Egypt smearing their doorposts with lambs’ blood, so as to guide God not to kill the firstborns in their homes on the night of the 10th plague.

God certainly didn’t need people to remind him who lived where. But by marking their doorposts, the Israelites signaled to God that they wanted his protection. They invited him in.

Perhaps the biggest display of humility I’ve ever seen in a religious setting took place when I was studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva (a Jewish educational institution) 37 years ago this week, just prior to Passover.

At 6:30 p.m. every day, discussion in the communal study hall wound down because one of the rabbis would give a 15-minute sermon, prior to evening prayers and dinner.

Two nights before Passover, we students were surprised to see the mashgiach ruchanit (the rabbi concerned with the day-to-day welfare and spiritual needs of the students) preparing to give the sermon. He was knowledgeable about the Torah, but he didn’t have the reputation for great scholarship the rest of the rabbis enjoyed.

When 6:30 came, the rabbi stood there and we all went silent. He was silent as well, studying his notes. Gradually, we concluded that he wasn’t about to start speaking. So we went back to our studies.

Five minutes later, he waved a hand and there was silence.

“You didn’t travel thousands of miles to Israel,” he said, “to come hear me. You came here to study Talmud (a book of rabbinic teachings on Jewish law and tradition). So I decided that of the 15 minutes that they gave me, I would give you back five minutes. That way, you could do what you came here for.”

Have you ever heard of a speaker willingly giving up one third of his time, especially when he doesn’t get to speak in front of a big audience all that often?  I never have, except for that one time when the humble rabbi ceded five minutes so we could study longer.

I’ll be thinking of the old rabbi Friday night, when, like millions of Jews around the world, my family will gather together and celebrate Passover.

Remarkably, the name of Moses, the leader of the Jewish people who led them out of Egypt, appears nowhere in the haggadah (the prayer book over 1,600 years old that lays out the Exodus story and guides the seder).

The omission of Moses’ name symbolizes what great results are possible when we can pocket our pride and demonstrate humility. The Bible calls Moses the most humble of men, and the fact that he receives no credit in the haggadah for the Exodus from Egypt recalls that unique level of humility.

Matzah, also known as poor man’s bread, references that same concept. It’s said that since matzah lacks yeast, it demonstrates the humility that bread, which puffs itself up with pride at its own deliciousness, could never understand.

As for me personally, the humble rabbi’s talk – five minutes shorter than it could have been – is the living embodiment of the Passover message.

All of us – no matter what our religion, or if we have no religion at all – are in bondage to something.

We may be slaves to our thoughts, the demands of our lives, our careers or other things. Passover offers each of us the opportunity to reflect on where we let our own egos ensnare us.

The holiday reminds us that humility – and inviting God into our lives – is the key to liberation from whatever holds us back.