Our Jewish Stories

October 7th-12th: Yom Kippur
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
For our Torah Commentary at this season, we shall be publishing Rabbi Ostrich’s Yom Tov sermons. This is from Rosh Hashanah Morning: Our Jewish Stories

 לשנה טובה תכתבו

May you be written for a good year in the Book of Life. The Book of Life: an ancient metaphor for the judgment that occurs on the awesome Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment. As we read in our Machzor:
“This is the Day of Judgment! Even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You. As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny. 

About 1000 years ago, Bachya ibn Pakuda approached this idea from a slightly different angle when he said, “Days are like scrolls: write on them only what you want remembered.” Thus does our Tradition tread a double path, teaching that our fates are a combination of what God writes and what we write. We are active participants in our own stories. And, since the communal or tribal aspect of Judaism is certainly at play, we are also active participants in the Jewish story.

Much of our ambivalence about Judaism and Jewish Identity—which we all have to various degrees—involves the way we feel a part of some Jewish stories and not a part of others. This is on our minds every time we study a Jewish story. Do we see ourselves as part of the story? How does it reflect our Jewish Identities?

One often hears the Torah characterized as The Law, but this is only a partial description. While there are legal aspects, the meta-message of the Torah and the Bible is a dialectic—a conversation—between Heaven and Earth. God offers a Heavenly vision, but the translation to Earthly reality is never exact, and there are lots different experiences and opinions about how to get God’s mission accomplished. As Israeli thinker Micah Goodman puts it: the Bible is a continuing critique of the Jewish people, both encouraging Jewish religion and criticizing Jewish religion.

To see this dialectic—this “coaching”—at play, let us consider two stories, one well-known and one rather obscure.

The well-known story is from Deuteronomy 5, where Moses is reviewing the history of the Israelites in a series of farewell lectures. When he gets to the Revelation at Mount Sinai, rather than simply repeat God’s words, he gives an interpretation. In other words, the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments is slightly different from Deuteronomy’s interpretive version. The Sabbath commandment is a good example. In Exodus God says:
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For, in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

However, when Moses reviews it, he begins: “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

God in Exodus says זכור / Remember; Moses in Deuteronomy says שמור / Observe. Whatever sermonic reasoning we or the Tradition could imagine for this change, the fact is that Moses seems to be interpreting rather than repeating. He is taking part in the conversation between Heaven and Earth.

Then, when Moses gives the reason for the Sabbath Day, he does not repeats God’s “For, in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day...”
Instead, Moses explains the purpose as follows: “So that your male and female servant may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Tying Shabbat to the Israelites’ experience of oppression in Egypt, Moses looks back on his and his people’s experience and says, “I was liberated; I can liberate others. God is a liberator; if I want to be like God, then I need to be a liberator, too.” He responds to his blessings with moral resolve—with what we call today a commitment to Tikkun Olam.

Contrast this to the story of King Josiah who reigned over Judah back in the 600s BCE. We’ll be reading his story not from the Book of Second Kings, but from the Book of Second Chronicles. Though the Biblical Books of Kings and Chronicles cover the same historical period, they were written by different factions with different views of Jewish history. While Josiah is nothing but praiseworthy in Kings, he comes in for some subtle criticism in Chronicles.

The biggest event in King Josiah’s life was a renovation of the Temple around 622 BCE and an ancient scroll that was “found” in an old storeroom. The “ancient scroll” initiated a number of religious reforms—among them a wholesale purging of regional worship sites and a different way of observing Passover. According to the scroll, Passover had not been observed properly for a long time, but Josiah followed the instructions in the scroll and had a spectacular Passover. We read from Second Chronicles 35.16: “The entire service of the Lord was arranged well that day, keeping the Passover and making the burnt offerings on the altar of the Lord, according to the command of King Josiah. All the Israelites present kept the Passover at that time, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days. Since the time of the Prophet Samuel, no Passover like that one had ever been kept in Israel; none of the kings of Israel had kept a Passover like the one kept by Josiah and the priests and the Levites and all Judah and Israel there present and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. That Passover was kept in the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah.”

This all sounds wonderful, but, after this spiritual highpoint, with Josiah and his people feeling especially close to God, his confidence and religious fervor leads to a disaster. The text continues:
“After all this furbishing of the Temple by Josiah, King Necho of Egypt came up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went out against him.”

At this point in Jewish history, roughly 620 BCE, the tiny kingdom of Judah was right in the middle of two enormous and fighting empires, the Egyptians to the south and west, and the Mesopotamians to the north and east. The other little Jewish kingdom, Israel, had been destroyed by Mesopotamia some 70 years before, and the position of Josiah’s Judah was quite precarious. Why did Josiah get involved in this battle of the titans? Let’s continue with the text:
“(The Egyptian king Necho) sent messengers to Josiah, saying, ‘What have I to do with you, King of Judah? I do not march against you this day but against the kingdom that wars with me, and it is God’s will that I hurry. Refrain, then, from interfering with God who is with me, that He not destroy you.’ But Josiah would not let him alone; instead he donned his armor to fight against him, heedless of Necho’s words from the mouth of God; and he came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. Archers shot King Josiah, and the king said to his servants, ‘Get me away from here, for I am badly wounded.’ His servants carried him out of his chariot and put him in the wagon of his second-in-command, and conveyed him to Jerusalem. There he died, and was buried in the grave of his fathers, and all Judah and Jerusalem went into mourning over Josiah...”
What possessed Josiah to make such a risky move? How could he possibly stand against Egypt? How much help could he have been to the giant empire of Mesopotamia? What was he thinking?

Realizing that the Bible is not just a history book and is not just a set of laws, realizing that the Bible is a critique of the Jewish people, both encouraging and criticizing our Jewish religion, we should also ask the following question: Why does the Book of Chronicles put these two stories—the story of the properly observed Passover and the story of Josiah’s poorly conceived and ultimately disastrous military campaign—next to each other?

The Israeli thinker I mentioned before, Micah Goodman, suggests that the Bible puts them together to connect the exhilaration Josiah felt at Passover with his absurd military confidence? Whereas Moses considered the Passover story and responded: “I was liberated; I can liberate others;” Josiah filled himself with the Passover story and said: “I was saved by God from Egypt; I’ll be saved by God no matter what I do.” He thought he was pursuing a holy course and doing God’s work, but it was his ego rather than God’s will—and he was not saved. Chronicles is trying to teach us a lesson.

Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, taught that Torah is a great power; it accentuates our qualities. When he said, “Torah makes what we already are greater,” he meant that Torah can make our good qualities better and our bad qualities worse. In Josiah’s case, observance intensified his feelings of righteousness, and he felt invincible. Was this the only conclusion possible from his observance and closeness to God?

An antidote to self-righteousness or religious fervor comes in the Midrash where we learn “Common sense was created before the Torah,” which is interpreted as “Common sense takes precedence over the Torah.” (Leviticus Rabba 9.3)  In other words, knowing how intoxicating religion can be, our Tradition warns us that a sense of closeness to God is no reason to go running into disaster.

Earlier I used the word ambivalence and suggested that all of us experience some level of ambivalence about our Jewish Identities—about how we fit into the Jewish story. The point of this comparison between Moses and Josiah—and the fact that it is included in the Bible and in the Rabbinic literature—is to show how loyalty to the Jewish story or process does not mean unthinking and unwavering acceptance of every word of Torah. Indeed, the Torah and the Bible themselves discuss how to regard our sacred stories—offering both criticism and encouragement as we work on our individual and tribal narratives.

לשנה טובה תכתבו

May you write good years for yourselves, for our community, and for our people.