THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This week, our Torah Commentary consists of my Kol Nidre sermon, Remembering the Exodus as a First Step. Next week, we shall send out my Yom Kippur Morning sermon, Israel: The Issues and Not the Conflict.
I never knew if the comment was serious or tongue-in-cheek, but one of my friends in Florida once complained, “Every time I come to services, we’re always fighting the Egyptians.” At first I thought of the old joke where the fellow complains to the priest, “Every time I come to church, all you talk about is Christmas!” But then I realized that we do reference the Exodus from Egypt a whole lot.
In both morning and evening services, the third paragraph of the Shema mentions it, as does the blessing which follows and has as its climax Mi Chamocha, a song taken from the Shirat Hayam that our ancestors sang after crossing the Red Sea. In the traditional morning service, they sing this entire Biblical poem every day. The Friday evening Kiddush tells us of the Sabbath’s three main themes: the Creation of the World, our relationship with God, and the Exodus from Egypt.
And, of course, there is whole festival of Passover—with the Seders and many of the special prayers in its worship services: they are all dedicated to remembering and ritually reliving the Exodus. In Psalm 114— which is part of the Hallel psalms we recite at the Seder and throughout Passover and Sukkot and Shavuot and Chanukah, and at every Rosh Chodesh, we recount the miracle of the Exodus. Yetzi’at Mitzrayim is also a frequent theme in our weekly Torah portions. It occupies the first twenty chapters of Exodus, and it is frequently mentioned by God and Moses throughout the Torah. So, I guess my friend was right: we are constantly talking about the Egyptians and how God helped us in our miraculous escape from their oppression.
Why? I am sure that there are many answers historical, liturgical, and theological, but try this one on for size. Our continual remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt is similar to the way people in Twelve Step programs are supposed to continually remember that they are addicts. Alcoholism and other addictions are not diseases which can be healed. Once an addict, always an addict, and the Twelve Step theory teaches that continually remembering one’s addiction is literally the first step in not drinking or indulging.
Could there be a Jewish psychic disease against which we need to be constantly on guard? The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, also means narrowness. This probably has an ancient geographical origin: habitable Egypt is an extremely narrow country—basically the Nile River and the irrigatable section on either side where people can live. However, the spiritual interpretation is that Mitzrayim speaks of narrowness in general. God helped us escape from Egyptian slavery or narrowness, and our spiritual disease is that we might just revert back into narrowness: narrowness of thinking and of spirit. Consider the following three ways that we need to beware.
First, we need to be on guard against the narrowness of despair. The world is full of problems, and our lives can be beset with difficulties. However, possibilities for meaningfulness and joy are present regardless of the finitude we face every day. I am not suggesting that we ignore our problems. Problems are real, and suffering is real. Nonetheless, there are possibilities of goodness that await. Think of the strength of the human spirit that can cope with great struggles. Think of the examples of appreciation or grace or kindness that can persist even in the darkest of nights. And, think of the eternality—the infinity—of God, who is the source of our healing, our strength, and our everlasting life. God can protect us, help us find meaning in the face of our finitude, and embrace us forever when we are gathered to our ancestors. The world can be Mitzrayim, narrowness, but there are also the expansiveness of hope that surrounds us and the meaningfulness that can transcend the limits of our lives.
Second, we need to beware the narrowness of exclusivity. We all strive for excellence, and we all feel special loyalty to our families or our congregations or our nation. Loyalty is good. Excellence is good. However, we need to keep these good things in check lest our exuberance becomes snobbishness or xenophobia. A core teaching of our faith is that all human beings are created in the image of God; we all come from the same ancestors. Respect for all beings—within and without our tribal groups—is a mitzvah of the highest order. Our appreciation and respect for all others should be expansive and aware of the presence of God in every person and the delight that God finds in human variety.
Third, we need to beware the narrowness of our theological thinking. The lessons we learned when we were young are valuable, but also limited. They reflect the kind of things we could understand at those younger developmental stages. Growing up affords us more knowledge and more perception, and it is important that our theological thinking be conducted on an adult level. Moreover, the texts of our Tradition are often written in poetic language or in non-sophisticated language—the language that ancient desert-dwelling nomads could understand. As a result, our sacred texts often reflect a mythic conception of reality. They contain truth, but they can also fool us into thinking in anthropomorphic and limited terms of a reality that is by definition infinite. The totality of God is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend or even define. So, if we ever think that we know exactly what God is, then we are inevitably incorrect. Limiting God deprives us of the wonder of an apperception of the infinite—of a relationship with the expansiveness that is the very essence of existence. As much as we love the words of Scripture and prayer that our Tradition uses, let us realize that they are tools to expand our awareness and appreciation—and not to narrow them. They can help us open our hearts to the wonder of the Eternal and to fill our spirits with awe.
When I first studied Twelve Step Programs and began to work with alcoholics and chemically dependent individuals, there was a harshness to the approach that I found unsettling. In one case, a sponsor kept referring to the patient as a drunk. After several discussions with him, I questioned this derogatory term. Isn’t there a nicer, more polite way to refer to him? Alcoholic? Chemically dependent person? Person with a chemical dependence? “No,” explained the very experienced sponsor. “I, too, am a drunk, and I am telling you that nice words obscure the real damage that a drinking alcoholic can do, both to him/herself and to others. Nice words make the horror of chemical dependence nicer and somehow less ominous, and that is not a helpful or a kind thing to do.” The foremost thought in the drunk’s mind has got to be his/her identification as a drunk—a drunk who leaves destruction in his/her wake when drinking. Self-identification is critical to the improvement that hopefully will come.
Likewise, the fact that we, as Jews, always carry Mitzrayim/narrowness with us is an important realization. We have been in the narrow places. We have suffered there. The fact that we are not there anymore is a miracle, a miracle based on the presence of God and of God’s morality and wisdom in our lives. Parroting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, we should say, “Hi, I’m David, and I’m susceptible to narrowness.” Perhaps this is a way to understand our continuing focus on Egypt and the Exodus: we need to remind ourselves of a place we do not want to go.
If we follow the AA paradigm, there is, of course, also the reliance on a higher power. The AA phrasing is deliberately ambiguous for two purposes. First, they do not want religious differences to prevent alcoholics from gathering together and fighting the addiction that is an equal-opportunity oppressor. Second, they do not want the vagaries and variations of theological discourse to get in the way. Much the same can be said for the approach that modern Liberal Judaism takes when it comes to God. As I said before, there is an expansiveness to the possibilities of understanding the Infinite. Some may read our liturgy and sacred texts literally, while others may see them as poetic or metaphorical literature. The point is that our various thoughts on the nature of God should not be an impediment to the spiritual work we gather to do. We come here to encounter the Divine—singly in our own theological considerations and communally for the energy and camaraderie of our heritage.
I believe that a basic element of the human condition is the way we go back and forth between faith and doubt, between a sense of community and alienation, between optimism and despair, and between narrowness and an expansive view of the world. Equanimity and purpose require that we learn to balance ourselves.
We are finite, but we can also touch eternity. Our faith and the story of the Exodus come to remind us that, even in the face of our limitations, there is goodness at the heart of life. Let me close with this thought from the late Rabbi Chaim Stern (Gates of Prayer, page 210):
“We worship the power that unites all the universe into one great harmony. That oneness, however, is not yet. We see imperfection, disorder, and evil all about us. But before our eyes is a vision of perfection, order, and goodness: these too we have known in some measure. There is evil enough to break the heart, good enough to exalt the soul. Our people has experienced untold suffering and wondrous redemptions; we await a redemption more lasting, and more splendid, than any of the past.”