A sermon by: Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
1. Jews are Optimists!
It’s remarkable that Jews aren’t more pessimistic about their future.
In just the last two weeks, we have watched a horrific terror attack in kosher market in Paris, and then another one on a bus in Tel Aviv. In both cases, Jews were targeted because they were Jews. And these two horrors are merely footnotes on a long history of anti-Semitic attacks. And yet, despite thousands of years of persecution, the Jewish people continue on, unwilling to quit. Jewish optimism is one of the wonders of human history.
2. Exodus, Exodus and More Exodus
The key to Jewish optimism can be found in what is no less than a constant obsession in the Bible: the Exodus in Egypt. The anonymous 13th century author of the Sefer Hachinuch ponders the following question:
“למה זה יצוה אותנו השם יתברך לעשות כל אלה לזכרון אותו הנס, והלא בזכרון אחד יעלה הדבר במחשבתנו ולא ישכח מפי זרענו”
“…why did God command us to do all these (commandments) to commemorate that miracle, for with one commemoration we would raise our consciousness of this, and it would never be forgotten by our descendents…”
(His answer, which anticipates some of the psychological theories of the last century, is that man is conditioned by his behavior, and that our character is shaped by what we do.Now this is an important point, one that offers a new insight into the importance of mitzvoth in the Jewish tradition; but it is not sufficient to explain why there are so many mitzvot tied to the Exodus from Egypt.)
The Bible sees the Exodus as the basis for an enormous raft of commandments; not just the 20 or so commandments involved in the Pesach Seder, but multiple others, such as the redeeming the firstborn, Tefillin, Tzitzit, the orientation of the Jewish calendar, loving the stranger, and the Sabbath. Even belief in God, the first of the Ten Commandments, is connected to the Exodus. And of course, we are also commanded to remember the Exodus every single day.Why is it that so many commandments are tied to just one event in history? (Compare the Exodus to the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is connected to only one commandment!)
3. A Weird Explanation of 400 Years of Slavery
We can answer this question with a question.Where did the exile in Egypt come from? It is announced to Abraham, without explanation, in Genesis 15:13:
וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה
“Then the Lord said to him, “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.”
And dozens of commentators ask the simplest question: Why? Why are these yet unborn generations fated to endure the horrors of slavery?
A strange explanation is given by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (the “Nodah BeYehuda” – 8 October 1713 – 29 April 1793). In his introduction to his commentary on Pesachim he writes:
, וידוע שכל גלות מצרים היה תיקון לחטא אדם הראשון שאכל מעץ הדעת, וכן נאמר לאברהם אבינו בברית בין הבתרים [בראשית ט”ו, י”ג] ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך וגו’. אמר ידוע תדע, רמז לו שזה בעון עץ הדעת, ותדע אותיות דעת
“…One should know that the entire exile in Egypt is to fix the sin of Adam who ate from the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Bad)…”
So here is the theory; Abraham’s great, great, great grandchildren will be slaves, for a sin that occurred nearly 2,000 years before Abraham is born!!
At first glance, this sounds nonsensical. But it is actually extremely profound.
The Nodah BeYehuda’s lesson is this. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. They were the first exiles, living in a newly imperfect world. The tranquility of Eden had been shattered, and instead, sin, strife and death became the norm. Life had become a true “half-life”, an ongoing process of decay. Man was programmed to fail, and hope seemed impossible.
The exile in Egypt is a perfect example of the type of blind fate one could expect in this dystopian world. And in enduring centuries of slavery, the Jews learned firsthand how awful the post-Edenic world is. The fate of planet seemingly points in only one direction: downward. In the Egyptian exile, they saw how nasty, brutish and short life is, how unfair history can be, and how empty the soul can become.
And then came redemption.
It is no exaggeration to say that redemption is a revolution. It requires imagination, and seeing the possibilities that don’t yet exist. It requires resilience, to absorb defeat after defeat and still fight back. And it requires hope, the inner conviction that things can get better. At the Exodus, the slaves were able to overcome history.
4. The Blueprint for Healing a Broken World
Now we can understand why the Torah constantly reminds us of the Exodus. From the moment Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the world has been a broken place. The tragedy behind this brokenness is that it robs you of hope; if sin is in our nature and death is in our future, how much can you expect from life? The Exodus uncovers the possibility of redemption, the blueprint for healing a broken world.
In biblical and rabbinic literature, many things are compared to redemption, such as repentance, (Yoma 86b) charity, (Baba Batra 10a) and carrying on a legacy (Avot 6:6, and this is also the point of the Book of Ruth).
And this is why the Torah repeats the Exodus over and over again. It is a Jewish mission statement, that we can fix what is broken, for the core of all things spiritual is the willingness to redeem what is broken.
If it’s a failure, with repentance.
If it’s a defeat, with redemption.
And one faces the ultimate tragedy, mortality, with remembrance.
5. The Daily Call of Redemption
Having redemption as a mission statement is no small matter. Redemption is not just about upbeat optimism; rather, it demands that we wrestle with a broken world and make it better. An anecdote told by Rabbi Norman Lamm, describes it well. Lamm writes:
“Yigal Allon, the Vice Premier of Israel, told a story which is worthy of retelling, and with which we conclude our remarks. As a child in his native village near Mt. Tabor, he heard the famous Jewish legend about the Messiah sitting in the gates of Rome as a poor leper and waiting. He was disturbed by the story, and asked an old man the question that was bothering him: “What is the Messiah waiting for?”
His answer is something that each of us must consider very carefully and soberly.
”He is waiting — for you.””
Yes, redemption is our mission statement. And now the Messiah is waiting for us to follow through on it!