When you think about all the challenges we face, it's often easy to be cynical, or even just give up. Remaining hopeful in a world where so much seems out of our control is an essential spiritual challenge.

That's why Passover, an important Jewish holiday — which begins at sundown Monday — holds significance for all of us. At its root is a lesson in hopefulness.

It's all in the story, familiar to practically everyone: The Israelites seem doomed, a nation of slaves pitted against the superpower of its day and the all-powerful Pharaoh.

First lesson in hope: Don't underestimate what a few committed people can do.

The revolution begins with Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh's orders to drown the newborn male Israelites. This is, as far as I can tell, the first recorded example of civil disobedience. Moses is less thoughtful in the beginning; he just acts, and his action — killing the Egyptian slave driver — results in his flight. He doesn't know from hope yet but he will soon learn, and a bush will teach him.

What about that burning bush? What does it teach us?

Everything is holy, even a lowly thorn bush. Who knows where help will come from?

What else about the bush? It burns, but is not consumed.

What an apt metaphor for the Jewish people — we've been through a lot, but we are still here. But it is also a symbol of anyone who has been tested by adversity and survived, perhaps even thrived in spite of it. Second lesson in hope: Each of us can find hope in our perseverance.

It takes Moses quite a while to believe in the promise of the future, to be the hope-filled leader he eventually becomes. But he does learn. Of course, it takes the Israelites even longer. Every step along the way they kvetch and complain.

And no wonder: It's hard to believe in hope. It's hard to be a hopeful person when life can seem so desperate.

Having grown up as slaves, the Israelites could not imagine being free. And even when they were free from Pharaoh, their fear drove them to other kinds of slavery, like idolatry — the golden calf — or nostalgia — "if only we were back in Egypt instead of wandering in the wilderness ..."

But the Exodus is "Hope 101" for the Israelites and for all of us. Think about it: What does it mean to be a slave? You have no control over your life. You are powerless to affect your destiny. You are at the whim of your master — whether that master be a job, an addiction, materialism, or even slavish devotion to an ideology.

We are all slaves to something, which is what makes this story of emancipation so potent, and why the Exodus continues to be the archetypal story of revolution in the West. It is brimming with hope: If a slave nation can prevail over a superpower, then each of us can loosen the bonds that enslave us, and the promise of the future can become real for all people everywhere.

Ultimately, hope is all about perspective. Gershon Gorenberg, a prominent Israeli historian and political commentator, writes, "A hopeful person sees three answers where others see one ... to hope is to operate with the logic of water, not the logic of rock." To leave the lockstep, linear realm of the logical and enter the domain of the imagination which, like water, "flows around barriers till it finds a way through."

"A leader," wrote Gorenberg, "is meant to be a master of hope, someone who finds a way, rather than explaining why history teaches there can't be one."

This is hard to remember sometimes. Lest we forget, we have the story of the Exodus and Passover to remind us that the straightjacket of history is really an illusion and that we are only truly limited by the extent of our vision and our courage.

<i>George Gittleman is rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.</i>