Hallel, the collection of psalms we recite on holidays, begins with Psalm 113. The psalm opens with some expected praises of God (this is Hallel, after all), and ultimately makes its way to this particular formulation (vv. 7-9):

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

He seats them with princes, with the princes of his people;

He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.

The narrative suggested by the Psalm is that of the Exodus: the lowly Israelites are taken from the lowest point (slavery) and brought to the highest point (becoming God’s people at Sinai). This is a normative traditional understanding of the Psalm, and would seem to be a key factor in its placement at the start of Hallel, since Hallel is recited at the seder, and the recitation of Hallel is rooted in the experience of the liberation from Egypt. In fact, this particular Psalm is recited as part of the Maggid section of the Seder–it precedes the meal–and is therefore understood to be the culmination of the Rabbis’ instruction to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise” (Pesachim 116a).

Yet there’s something very interesting in the formulation of these verses. Verse 7 makes sense: raising the poor, lifting the needy. But what about verse 8: What does the psalmist mean in saying that the poor is seated not only with princes, but with the princes of his people? This would imply that there were already princes among them. It could therefore refer to Moses (though he was a prince among the Egyptians). It could refer to the first-born or the elders among the Israelites.

In his Haggadah, Rabbi David Silber points to a more likely possibility. The word translated here as “prince” is the Hebrew term nadiv. This word suggests not so much the office or status of a noble, but rather the characteristic of nobility. It is linked to the term for generosity: nedavah (a free-will offering), or nediv-lev (one whose heart moves him to contribute).  Here the idea of nobility is bound up with what noble people do: they’re generous. It is not about station, but about behavior and character.

Thus to be “seated with the princes of his people” is perhaps a broader suggestion. Rabbi Silber points us to the first use of the term in the Torah, which comes at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Ex. 25:2): “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give,” kol ish asher yidvenu-libo. After Revelation, God creates the possibility for every Israelite to be generous through the joint project of building the Mishkan. Everyone can give. And in giving, everyone can be a person who gives–a nadiv, a noble.

There’s an important message here about collective belonging, one that can inform all of our group experiences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book The Home We Build Together, “A nation is built by building.” So are communities, companies, congregations, sports teams, and families. But there’s also an important message about the Exodus: the culmination of the Exodus is not the crossing of the sea, and not even the revelation of the Torah. The culmination of the Exodus is in the building of the Mishkan, in the empowerment of the powerless to be noble, to be generous, to contribute. That is why we sing Psalm 113 before our meal at the Seder, and it is why the last 15 chapters of the book of Exodus are devoted to the story of the Mishkan.

Shabbat shalom.

 

One of the keywords of Parshat Beshallach is really two words with the same root. The first is milchama, the Hebrew word for war. The second is lechem, which means bread.

The opening verses of the parasha set the stage for the final battle between God and the Egyptians: “When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle” (Ex. 13:17-18). This last clause, describing the Israelites as chamushim, ‘ready for battle,’ is extraneous–the text could read just as well without it. The commentators point to several possibilities for its inclusion: the verse explains how the Israelites were prepared for making war against Amalek (which will happen later in the parasha); or, famously, that the word chamushim indicates that only one-fifth (chomesh) of the people came out of Egypt.

But I would argue that the clause serves two additional purposes. First, it marks a fulfillment of Pharaoh’s original concern back in chapter 1 of Exodus: “‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country'” (1:9-10). While it sounded crazy at the time, it turns out Pharaoh was right: the Israelites have indeed left Egypt, and now they’re ready to do battle against him.

Second, the emphasis on milchama here presages Moses’s dramatic announcement to the people just before the sea is split: “The LORD will fight for you (yilachem lachem); and you will be silent” (14:14). It is not the Israelites who fight; rather it is God. And thus they sing, “Adonai ish milchama,” “The LORD is a man of war” (15:3). God is the one who does battle. The placement of milchama in this first half of the parasha is the culmination of the plagues: God not only does wonders, but God does battle against the Egyptian oppressor as well.

It also hearkens to the ending of the parasha, when Amalek comes and makes war, vayilachem, against Israel. Here the people do have to take matters into their own hands. But they are also still dependent on God, as victory requires that Moses hold up his arms for the duration of the war. The people are not entirely dependent on God, but God is still very much involved in their battles. The eternal war against Amalek will be one fought by Israel on God’s behalf.

In the middle of the parasha, we find the same root–lamed, chet, mem–but with a different meaning. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the bread (lechem) we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death'” (16:2-3). This complaint results in God providing manna, which is here referred to as lechem: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you'” (16:4). In fact, over the course of chapter 16, the word lechem appears eight times–signifying its centrality to the narrative.

The juxtaposition of these two words that look identical, lechem and milchama, bread and war, is striking. Hasidic thinkers, including the Kedushas Levi and Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, have picked up on the similarities in the words in order to understand the relationship between them more deeply. The latter explains that every time we eat, a battle takes place between the holy and the unholy. Our eating can become an act of sanctification, reflection, and improvement; or it can become an act of baseness, coarseness, and vulgarity. If we take the time to prepare, to focus, and to make our eating purposeful and intentional, we can make the act into one of holiness. But if we eat quickly, inhaling our food and failing to acknowledge its significance, then we are no more than animals satisfying our base desires.

We can make one more observation: the centerpiece of the story of the manna is Shabbat. The manna would appear six days a week, and on Friday a double portion would appear. On Shabbat there would be none–Friday’s had to suffice. Thinking of the wordplay between lechem and milchama, we can also consider that Shabbat is a time when we should be at peace, a time when our entire awareness–in food, clothing, behavior, and time itself–is no longer in a state of milchama, but in a state of lechem mishneh, a double portion of bread. On Shabbat we aim to live without the battles of the workweek, and instead transform them into a source of sustenance.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Parshat Vaera opens with a stirring speech from God. In response to Moses’s lament at the end of last week’s parasha, “Why have you brought misfortune on this people? Why did you send me?” (Ex. 5:22), God reminds Moses of the covenant with the patriarchs. And God movingly uses the sevenfold language of redemption, constituted by the phrases “I will release you,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you,” “I am the Lord,” “I will bring you,” and “I will give you”  (Ex. 6:6-8).

Just before God utters this famous passage, God tells Moses that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and established the covenant with them. This should be reason enough to redeem the people. But then God goes on to say, “And also I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (v. 5). The “also” here is problematic. Rashi reads it as referring not to an additional reason to redeem the people, but as connecting God’s mention of the covenant with the act of redemption: “Just as I have set up and confirmed the covenant so I must fulfill it. Therefore I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel.”

Nechama Leibowitz understands this passage to reflect her view that the covenant is a one-sided affair: an unconditional promise by God to the people. She therefore dismisses the reading of Ibn Ezra, who understands the “also” in this passage more plainly: “My decision to send you was also prompted by the fact that Israel repented and cried to Me.” As Leibowitz puts it, “There is nothing in this passage or in the revelation at the bush to suggest that Israel’s redemption was prompted by their good deeds and repentance.” Rather, the redemption from Egypt was solely an act of Divine grace.

The question of whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional is one that we have discussed before. While I agree with Leibowitz that the Exodus narrative is one-sided, and that Ibn Ezra’s claim of God responding to actual “repentance” by the people is implausible, I also hold the view that the covenant is simultaneously conditional and unconditional. That’s a paradoxical statement, of course. But, as my Rosh Yeshiva Steve Wald once put it, “It’s religion. It’s supposed to be spooky.”

God’s love for Israel is described variously as that of a parent and a spouse. The spousal relationship is ultimately a conditional, contractual one. We strive to make it unconditional, but at the end of the day the possibility always exists of dissolving the union through divorce–an act which itself can be overturned through the process of reconciliation. In some way the spousal relationship is always a back-and-forth of living as though love is unconditional while being aware of the underlying fact that it isn’t.

Parental love is more towards the unconditional side. “Be merciful like a father is merciful to his children,” we say during the High Holidays. The unconditional nature of parental love makes forgiveness and grace endlessly possible. Yet the challenge to parents is to relate to their children both with unconditional love and with expectations and conditions–this is the process of child-rearing, tza’ar gidul banim. Seeing the relationship of God and Israel in this way, God is infinitely merciful and graceful, but God also wants us to grow up.

While the Exodus narrative here emphasizes the patriarchal, fatherly nature of God’s unconditional and unilateral love for Israel, the ambiguity of the phrase “and also,” which leads to Ibn Ezra’s statement about the people’s repentance or turning back to God, is a reminder that a relationship is never completely one-sided. Israel has to be ready to leave. The fact that they groan under their labors is a significant fact–because it means they have recognized they’ve reached rock-bottom. God takes note, and the Exodus begins.

Shabbat shalom.

The story of Shemot is a story of miracles. There are the miracles of the plagues. There are the miracles that God does for Moses in order to convince him to lead the people out of Egypt. But it many ways, the story of yetziat mitzrayim hinges on two miracles of a more human sort.

The first miracle is that of Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues baby Moshe from the Nile and raises him as a son. “And she opened the basket and saw the child, and behold the lad was crying. Vatachmol alav, And she had mercy on him, and said, ‘This is a child of the Hebrews’” (Ex. 2:6). This is actually a miraculous moment. Here the daughter of Pharaoh, who has decreed that every male Israelite child is to be thrown into the Nile, violates her father’s decree. Where her father had ordered that the boys be thrown into the Nile, Bat-Paro draws Moses baby out—and this becomes the basis of his name: “ki min hamayim mishitihu, for I drew forth form the water” (2:10).

What is so remarkable about Bat-Paro’s action is that, in spite of her awareness of just who Moses is and what the law requires, her empathy and compassion take precedence. To appreciate the magnitude this act, we need to look at the only other time in the Torah when the word chemla, compassion, is used. In Deuteronomy ch. 13, the Torah commands that “when one of your brothers… or one of your kinsmen who is like family to you comes to you in secret saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you nor your ancestors have known… lo tachmol alav, Show now mercy to him.” Instead, you are to put him to death.

In this case, our compassion is normal. The Torah recognizes that our tendency would be to show mercy on a family member—and therefore the Torah has to tell us specifically that we need to submerge our compassion. In the case of Bat-Paro, it is precisely the inverse: here is a child of the Hebrews, someone she should leave to die in the Nile! Miraculously, when she opens the ark, she senses the presence of the shechina, the divine presence, and her mercy is awakened. Without this moment, Moses never comes to be. It is a critical moment in the narrative, one of the great miracles of the Exodus.

A second “minor” miracle of the Exodus story also involves a moment of recognition: “And Moses was a shepherd… And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire from the bush. And he saw, and behold, the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed? And God saw that he turned aside to look, and called out to him, ‘Moses, Moses,’ and he said, ‘Here I am’” (Ex. 3:1-4).

What is so remarkable? If we read closely, we see that Moses’s turning aside to look is not to be taken for granted. He sees the bush, and then he decides to act: “I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed?” Moses here demonstrates another small but powerful miracle, the miracle of curiosity. He could have kept on walking. He could have come up with some explanation in his mind. But instead he decides to turn and look. And when he does, God calls out to him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like Bat-Paro, Moses here enacts a small but essential miracle of the Exodus story: If he doesn’t turn aside to look, the rest of the story doesn’t happen. No matter how much firepower God will ultimately display in freeing the Israelites, these two small moments are themselves essential miracles in the narrative of liberation from slavery.

For us, these minor miracles of Bat-Paro and Moshe are perhaps the most important. We live in an age when public miracles like those of the Ten Plagues are hidden from view. But all of us have the capacity to show mercy and compassion. All of us have the ability to see the essential humanity of people in pain—whether or not they are our own children, or even those of our people. All of us have the power to turn aside and look, to be curious, to inquire, and to take action. When we do so, we bring the shechina into the world.

The liberation from Egypt is certainly the work of God. But as Bat-Paro and Moshe remind us, seemingly small human actions are no less important in the story. May we learn from their example.

Shabbat shalom.

The concluding words of Parshat Vayechi give me goosebumps every year: “And they put Joseph in a coffin in Egypt.” The Book of Genesis ends with the birth of the Children of Israel as a nation–first called the Tribes of Israel in Gen. 49:28–but it happens not in the Land of Israel, but in Egypt. This not only produces a dramatic sense of foreboding at what is to come, but a powerful statement about the nature of Jewish identity: exile is part of our DNA.

This is of course woven into the covenant with Abraham itself: “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there” (Gen. 15:13). The exile to Egypt, the formation of the people in a strange land, is not an accident of history. It is part of God’s plan all along.

This is by no means to say that we are meant to stay in exile, as is made clear a few verses later: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (15:16). But it means that the people of Israel are shaped by our experience out of our homeland, and it informs our understanding of what it means to be at home. Home in the exile is always provisional, always tentative, always colored by a yearning to be truly at home–in our own language, our own culture, our own place. But home in the homeland is likewise informed by the experience of exile and Exodus: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt”–left Egypt, that is, to go to Sinai and the land of Canaan. Thus being at home in Israel carries with it a similar sense of fragility, a provisional quality, a sense that this is not necessarily permanent, an awareness that we also come from somewhere else.

I have been spending much of my time in recent months reading for my dissertation. My focus has been on the development of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s (and specifically the role of the university in that development). And one of the things that strikes me in my reading is that among the things at stake in the disagreements between people like Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Aharon Lichtenstein, or between Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, is in their understanding of how the wisdom we can learn in exile is to be understood and internalized. While all Modern Orthodox thinkers see some possibility for bringing together Torah and secular learning, it seems to me that the camps in this debate disagree on whether that integration can happen only on the individual level, or on the communal or institutional level as well. The more conservative view in this conversation sees possibilities for individual Jews to bring together yeshiva learning and secular learning; the more ambitious view sees whole institutions–schools, universities, publications, etc.–as potentially embodying the synthesis.

My dissertation will likely pick up on some of these themes. But as I think about the parasha this week, and about the experience of Israel in exile, I have the questions on my mind. No less a figure than Moshe Rabbeinu is reared in the palace of Pharaoh. He carries an Egyptian name all his life. On an individual level, Moses figures out some form of synthesis between Torah and the non-Jewish wisdom around him. But to what extent does the People of Israel carry these influences as well? And at what point do they lose their Egyptianness and become fully integrated into a Torah worldview?

I do not yet have answers to these questions, but as we read Parshat Vayechi, I think it pays to reflect on them.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Pikudei (Ex. 38:21-40:38) brings us to the end of the construction of the Mishkan, and the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. Many commentators, myself included, seem to have difficulty finding new things to talk about at this point. Look in a traditional printing of the Torah with commentary and you’ll find longer-than-usual sections of the actual Torah text, because the comments are so abbreviated. And for good reason: We’re recapitulating what we’ve been talking about more or less for the last five weeks.

We can point out the beauty of repetition (I usually invoke a quotation from Vladimir Jankelevitch at this point; see this post, for instance). Or we can talk about the serene calm of the end of Exodus, as the cloud of God’s glory descends on the Mishkan.

Reading Parshat Pikudei again this year, I find myself drawn to the linguistic parallels between the erection of the Mishkan and the account of Creation in Genesis 1-2:3. Consider:

“And Moses saw all the work, and behold they had done it just as God had commanded—they did it. And Moses blessed them.” (Ex. 39:43)

Compare Gen. 1:31: “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good,” followed, of course, by Gen. 2:3: “And God blessed the seventh day.”

And:

“And Moses erected the courtyard around the Mishkan and the altar, and he placed the curtain over the gate to the courtyard. And Moses completed (veychal Moshe) the work.” (Ex. 40:33)

Compare Gen. 2:1-2: “The heavens and the earth were finished (vayechulu), and all their host. And on the seventh day God completed God’s work (vayechal Elohim).”

As these verses suggest, Moses and the Israelites reciprocate the actions of God. In their creation of the Mishkan, a home for God on earth, they evoke God’s creation of the earth itself, a home for them. As Shabbat frames the work of Creation, it likewise frames the work of building the Mishkan (cf. Ex. 35:1-3). Building the Mishkan, creating a home for God on earth, is the paradigmatic response to our creation in God’s image.

One of the keys to this motion is the idea of pause and recognition. As Clevon Little memorably says in the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles, “We have done it. Now let us see what we have done.” (Perhaps the most dramatic moment in an otherwise farcical movie.) as Rashi suggests in his comment on Genesis 2:2, our work isn’t completed until we rest from it, until we step back and appreciate the things we have created. Until we do so, we are still inside it, still claimed by it, still dependent on it. When we break from our work and behold it, we stand outside, we contextualize it within a larger story, and we appreciate it.

But we also lose something in the process. Anyone who has ever been involved in creating something great knows the sad feeling that comes when the creating is about to end, when a new phase is about to begin. It’s akin to the reluctance we have to finish a good novel: there is a letting go, a break that occurs. So too with building the Mishkan: there is something here that compels us to want the building to continue, to extend the inspiring moment of everyone coming together to do something great. We feel a loss as we end this part of the story.

I would suggest that this dialectic, of accomplishment and loss, the fullness and emptiness that informs our lives, is very much what the Torah aims to evoke in us as it concludes the Book of Exodus. As we observed last week, the Torah’s narrative of freedom and nation-building is far from a one-dimensional story, but is rather full of complexity and nuance. This week we can say that, likewise, its narrative of human work and identity, of fulfillment and longing, is amazingly rich and sophisticated. It is as fresh today as it was three thousand years ago.

Shabbat shalom.

 

When the Book of Exodus is discussed in popular literature, theater and film, the focus of the story tends to be on the first half of the book: the liberation from slavery, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea. Despite its name, Cecil B. DeMille’s movie The Ten Commandments only spends its final minutes on the revelation at Sinai. Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron focuses on the sin of the Golden Calf.

But what no one spends much time on are the “boring” parts of the second half of Exodus: the laws of Parshat Mishpatim (chs. 21-24) and the details of the Mishkan in Teruma, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel and Pekudei (chs. 25-31 and 35-40), which together form 35 percent of the book. These less narrative parts of Exodus, naturally, do not lend themselves to books and movies, which are rooted in the movements of dramatic action. Yet the failure to engage with these sections of Exodus gives many people a false impression of the Torah’s message.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written in The Home We Build Together, the story of liberation is not enough to build a nation. “A nation is built by building,” he writes. While people can be let loose from oppressive forces, it is only through the common act of creating something shared that they become a people with a covenantal sense of self. Thus the laws of Mishpatim and the long chapters of building the Mishkan can be understood as the fulfillment of the liberation of the first half of Exodus: it is not enough to be set free; the next step is to build a society together—arrangements of property, physical space, and moral order; mutual assumptions of responsibility; and a common sense of the commons.

Parshat Vayakhel is highly inspiring, not in the way of an epic motion picture, but in the mode of a great documentary. Read 35:20-29, and you can’t help but be inspired by the image of “all the Israelite men and women” voluntarily contributing whatever they have in order to make the Mishkan. The Torah repeats the word kol, all, 15 times within chapter 35, forming a drumbeat of popular energy which is nothing short of stirring. In fact, we find, they bring so much material that the builders have to tell them to stop.

Yet this is also the people who worshipped a golden calf just in last week’s Torah reading! How can the inspiring image of the people lovingly contributing out of common sense of covenant jibe with the one of debauchery we read about a week ago? Here again, the Torah offers us an honest portrait: the children of Israel are capable of great achievement and of great failing. The protestors in Tahrir Square who toppled a dictator through non-violent protests also assaulted journalists. You can’t tell the whole story without telling the whole story.

The use of the Exodus story as an archetype for revolution is one of the enduring contributions of the Jewish people to human history. Yet the second half of Exodus must be read alongside the first in order for the lessons to be fully learned. Liberation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. After the oppressor has been thrown off, a people must be brought together. The Torah’s means of nation-building is for the people to build the nation. Let us hope that the movements of liberation we are witnessing in our own time can learn from the second half of Exodus as much as the first.

Shabbat shalom.

One of the most influential theorists of religion in the twentieth century is the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In a 1966 essay called “Religion as a Cultural System,” Geertz (famously, to those of us who study this stuff from an academic point of view) proposed this definition of religion:

Religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

You may want to read the definition over again, and maybe one more time after that. An essential element of Geertz’s approach is that religion, like language, is a symbolic activity. Geertz is a symbolic anthropologist, and he follows in the tradition of earlier structuralist thinkers who saw human life as fundamentally about making meaning of nature and experience. So Geertz’s definition of religion sees the elements of religious life as symbolic, suggesting something beyond themselves. What makes religious symbols so unique–different from, say, a billboard we might see on the highway–is that they feel particularly immanent or real to us. The connections we have with them, the associations they arouse, are uniquely rich.

Geertz’s approach is very useful for many of us today, who see religious activity as fundamentally about meaning. When we read the original commandments of Passover in Parshat Bo this week, in particular the words, “And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I went out of Egypt'” (Exodus 13:8, an approach like Geertz’s makes a lot of sense. Indeed, it seems perfectly aligned with the words and practice as outlined in the Mishnah and the Haggadah, namely that when we say these words we point to the shank bone (in memory of the Paschal sacrifice), making the symbolic food meaningful. As I have written in many other places, the Haggadah invites us to play with history, to recognize that we are in the time and space that we live in, but to imagine ourselves into another time and place. And, at Passover, we aim to do this just as Geertz says: with such an ‘aura of factuality’ that it seems ‘uniquely realistic.’ In other words, our imagination should be so powerful that we can really feel ourselves leaving Egypt.

One of the important critiques of Geertz, however, comes from a contemporary anthropologist named Talal Asad. Asad’s major point is that not everyone engages in practices deemed religious because they’re searching for meaning. In Geertz’s formulation, the quest for meaning is primary (it’s what all human beings try to do), and religion happens to provide a powerful vehicle for meaning. But if other avenues were more promising, people would choose those. Asad points out that many people in the world aren’t necessarily looking for meaning—they’re simply doing what they do, and the motivations for doing so can be extremely varied. As Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist influenced by Asad writes, “Tradition… is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted.” In other words, it’s not that I’m looking for meaning, and that doing the seder provides me with meaning. Rather I am a Jew, and doing the seder is what Jews do. When I enact the seder, I am doing nothing less (and nothing more) than being a Jew.

There is something important and deeply resonant in this critique. In my work in Hillel, I often find that we focus on the word “meaningful.” We feel a need to make everything meaningful, which leads us to want to make meaning explicit, to teach and tell folks, “Here’s what this ritual means.” But I have often felt that perhaps the word we should be equally if not more focused on is “memorable.” We should be helping people engage in memorable Jewish experiences. Memory is a different creature than meaning. It’s something we inhabit, something a bit more porous. Meaning posits that we stand outside of our experience and analyze it; memory opens up to the possibility that we fuse with our experience, or that it fuses with us. It is more elastic, and it can even incorporate meaning.

I have long been preoccupied with Rabban Gamaliel’s statement in the Mishnah, which we repeat at the Seder: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt.” To me, the key word in this formulation has always been “as if,” which acknowledges our historical distance from the events of the Exodus and also invites us to get as close to them as we can. To me this one Hebrew word, k’ilu, “as if,” marks what Clifford Geertz and Talal Asad spend hundreds of pages unpacking.

Shabbat shalom.

Some of us with young children are blessed with the opportunity to be wide awake and preparing breakfast on a Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. Such is my life. For the uninitiated: At that hour, NPR in Chicago airs funky documentaries on a program called Re:Sound, part of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. This is the stuff that will one day become Ira Glass, but which is today oftentimes just out there, in both senses of the phrase.

Lo and behold, this morning (or yesterday morning, by the time many of you read this), they’re airing a documentary interviewing what sounded like a bunch of American World War II vets. I tuned in mid-way through. They’re telling their stories about their ship being stopped, something about the British and the French and the Germans. I wasn’t paying much attention. I was more focused on brewing my coffee. But then my ears perked up, as they mentioned they were on a ship full of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. Slowly but surely, it turned out they were telling the story of the ship Exodus 1947, made famous by Leon Uris and Paul Newman. So of course they got my attention.

The story is worth listening to. (Here it is.) What I found particularly interesting, however, was the short interview afterwards with the creator of the documentary. Specifically, he wound up dwelling on the question of whether or not any of these young men were aware of what they were getting into when they signed up. Most of them claim they were, but one of them says the others are mis-remembering, that in fact none of them knew that they were going to be attempting to run a British blockade and be part of a story that would turn the tide of history. The producer reflects on the way in which we tell our stories, and how our narratives don’t always jibe with history, even though they are true to us now.

One reaction is to point out the poetic symmetry between this moment of mis-remembering and the more famous conversation around the fallibility of Holocaust testimonies, which Daniel Mendelsohn explored in his book Lost. What does it mean, and what does it matter, to say that this kind of thing is counter-factual? It doesn’t do a great deal to the story itself, but it tells us a tremendous amount about the human psyche. At the same time, it calls into question our notions of objective historical truth in ways that may be troubling.

Related to this is the broader question of the relative value of history and memory, a timely question as Passover fast approaches. In his seminal book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi makes this very distinction (he was an emininent historian at Columbia), arguing that it is memory and not history that preserves the Jewish people. I have reflected on this before in relation to the Exodus (from Egypt, that is): the historical question (did the Exodus really happen?) is not nearly as meaningful as What can we learn from the story of the Exodus? As anyone who has read the book of Exodus knows, it is an account full of gaps and questions–the stuff of midrash. And as anyone who has read the Passover Haggadah knows, we don’t even read the story of the Exodus at the seder! Instead we cut straight to the gaps and questions and midrash. (As the Mishnah tells us: “One begins in shame and ends in praise. And one expounds–creates midrash–on the passage [from Deuteronomy 26] ‘My ancestor was a wandering Aramean’ until its conclusion.”)

We are too close to the events of Exodus 1947 to stop being interested in the facts. They matter too much for present-day politics. But as the producer of the episode said, he aimed to sidestep those questions for the purposes of this story, and instead chose to focus on the enduring human questions within the story as it is told by its participants. This is an essential move for a twenty-first century consciousness–for those of us drawn to religous narrative and all of us striving to be human.

The Torah portion of Mishpatim represents a striking change from everything we have read in the Torah up until this point. With few exceptions, the Torah up until now has focused exclusively on telling a story. But beginning with Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah will begin to focus on law. In fact, there are no less than 55 different laws related in this Torah portion, with entire sections of the Talmud based on the verses we read this week.

This focus on law is one of the key distinguishing features of Judaism. (Parenthetically, it is one of the things that makes Judaism more akin to Islam than to Christianity, as both Judaism and Islam create widely-deployed legal systems–halakha and sharia, respectively–through textual exegesis.) Even among those movements within Judaism that reject a strict approach to halakha, the emphasis on legal thinking remains important.

Why law?

The short answer is that Judaism holds that details matter. It’s not enough to have good intentions. Rather, according to the Torah, our actions are ultimately more important. While good intentions can help to mitigate the severity of bad actions, in the end it’s the deed, and not the thought, that counts.

But more than this, law is the mechanism by which we make our beliefs real. Just last week we read about the Revelation at Sinai. The encounter with God is perhaps the show-stopping scene in the entire Torah. And yet we don’t stop the show there. We keep reading, because it’s not enough for us simply to have had an experience of the divine. The Torah mandates that we take the energy and power of that moment and repair and redeem the world. That’s work. It means being meticulous and thorough in all aspects of our lives, something brought about through a legal system.

We don’t always measure up, of course. For me this week, like any week, has involved apologies for ways in which I failed to perfect the details. Yet the Torah’s point in this effusion of law just after the theophany at Sinai is to inspire us to keep going, to always seek improvement in the minutia of our daily actions. Through that thoroughness we can bring about a repaired and redeemed world.

Shabbat shalom.