Jewish life is thriving. Jewish life is diminishing. The facts vary from place to place and depend on your perspective and experience – and on whether you measure Jewish life by narrow Jewish status definitions, or acknowledge that Jewish life comes in many different guises.
Jewish life in all its forms is rooted in a commitment to live as Jews, wherever we reside; a commitment that is expressed in myriad ways that encompass a spectrum of religious affiliations and multi-various secular, humanist and cultural expressions.
So, what nourishes this commitment that takes so many different forms? There will be as many answers to this question as there are Jews – in fact, there will be more answers than there are Jews – let’s not forget, ‘two Jews, three opinions’ ….
My answer is two-fold. Commitment to Jewish life is nourished by the ethical values first articulated in the Torah about the primacy of justice, equity, compassion and love in the social structure and in our dealings with one another. It is also nourished by the powerful Jewish story that began with our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, who chose to leave their land, their kindred and their home to go on a journey towards new horizons (Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-5)
We are a journeying people. Our oldest name, Ivrim, ‘Hebrews’, is based on the Hebrew root letters, Ayin Beit Reish, to cross over. We are a people always on the move; forever crossing borders.
The journey that began with our ancestors and the promise of a wondrous future for their descendants is interrupted by the descent into slavery. Significantly, that chapter of the Jewish story doesn’t dwell on the hundreds of years spent in servitude, but rather focuses on the great liberation, the Exodus from Egypt and the journey that followed; a liberation orchestrated by an all-powerful God, who lifted Israel out of Egypt on Eagle’s wings (Exodus 19: 4).
This week’s Torah portion, Va-eira opens with a forthright statement about God’s intention to liberate the descendants of the ancestors. The immediate setting is the encounter between the Eternal and Moses at the burning bush, which concludes the preceding parashah, the first portion of the Book of Exodus/Sh’mot. The promise to liberate the slaves is expressed in four phrases, later commemorated, in turn, by each of the four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1). We read (Exodus 6: 6-7a):
And I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt;
and I will deliver you from their bondage;
and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements;
and I will take you as My people.
Note that the Eternal One is presented with these majestic words as a great Liberator acting on the liberated, who are to play no part in their liberation. Note also that the four promises of redemption end at verse 7a, with, ‘and I will take you as My people’. The second half of the verse is not included in the four promises of redemption. This is because although it is expressed as an action of God, it isn’t. We read: ‘And I will be to you for a God’ (6:7b) – v’hayyiti lachem leilohim. The assertion of the repeated, ‘I will…’ formula sounds awkward here – and it is misleading. A more straightforward formulation would be: ‘And you will take Me for your God’ – V’lakachta Oti leilohim.
So, there is a crucial contingent element in the process of the Eternal One’s liberation of the slaves. If the liberated had not consented to be God’s people, that would have been the end of the story of the Jewish people. As it was, when Moses returned to Egypt with the message of Divine liberation, the slaves weren’t impressed. We read (6:9b): ‘But they would not listen to Moses because of shortness of spirit – kotzer ru’ach – and because of hard bondage.’
The slaves needed some convincing. In the end, the plagues did their job of persuading them, and so we find at the end of parashat Mishpatim which concludes the Sinai chapter of the story, that the rabble of ex-slaves, encompassing the erev rav, ‘the mixed multitude’ (Bo, Exodus 12:38) along with the descendants of Jacob/Israel, consented to the covenant with God. We read: ‘He [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken, we will do and we will listen’ – na’aseh v’nishma, (Ex. 24:7).
The Book of Deuteronomy records that at the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the descendants of the slaves consented to the covenant (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29: 9 -14). After the exiles returned from Babylon, the Book of Nehemiah records that all the people gathered together in Jerusalem in the seventh month to hear the Ezra read ‘the book of the teaching of Moses’ (Seifer Torat Moshe) from early morning until midday. He then blessed the people who responded with the words, ‘Amen, Amen’ (7:73b-8).
Throughout the ages, the continuation of the Jewish story has depended on a reassertion of communal consent in every generation. In the modern era, with the exception of the ultraorthodox, most Jews live lives liberated from the shackles of authoritarian communal control. And so, the consent that keeps the Jewish story going has devolved upon individuals. Liberal Judaism emphasises the principle of ‘informed choice’. Nevertheless, by definition, the power to choose Jewish life is also the power to choose not to live a Jewish life. Today and into the future, the choices made by individuals will largely determine whether or not the Jewish story continues.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue