Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Exodus Is True

Somewhat recently, I've begun subscribing to the weekly d'var torah from the Ziegler School - the West Coast Rabbinical School of the Conservative Movement. There is some really wonderful teaching that comes through that list, so if you're interested in a short, thoughtful bit of weekly Torah, send an e-mail to with "SUBSCRIBE Torah" in the message body.

Anyway, I mention that because of this week's d'var torah. As you know, if you read this blog at all, I don't believe that much of anything in the Torah is literal fact. But, that doesn't mean that it isn't true in a different and, I'd argue, higher sense. This week, Rabbi Ed Feinstein reminds us all of why it's so important to know -- truly, deeply know -- that the Exodus was, and is, true:

We are Witnesses
Torah Reading:  Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
Haftarah Reading:  Judges 4:4 - 5:31
The Nazis took my uncle Henry at the very beginning of the war. He survived more than five years as a slave. Young and strong, he was a carpenter, and they needed carpenters. At first, they moved him from camp to camp, including a stay at Pleshow, where Schindler's list was born, and finally, Auschwitz. A slave laborer, he helped build the camp. When the Allies advanced, he was taken on the infamous Death March from Poland into Germany. He was liberated by the American army in 1945. 
For as long as I can remember, my uncle never spoke about these experiences. We knew that he had been in the camps from the numbers on his arm and from his peculiar personal habits ... the way he slept so still, as if he were still hiding. But he would never reveal to any of us where he'd been, what he'd seen, what he knew.
When their children were grown, my aunt returned to school. She took a course in Jewish literature. Among the books assigned was Elie Wiesel's Night Wiesel's account of his time at Auschwitz. She left the book on the coffee table in the living room, and my uncle picked it up one afternoon and began to read. He knew all the characters and places in the book. He had witnessed every event Wiesel described. Later in the semester, Wiesel came to lecture at the university and my aunt and uncle went to hear him. Following the lecture, they approached Wiesel. They discussed people and places and moments my uncle hadn't recalled in more than 40 years. For nearly two hours, they stood together in the deserted lecture hall. Finally, Wiesel looked into my uncle's eyes and asked him, "Have you told your children?" My uncle sheepishly replied that he had not, he could not. Wiesel admonished him, "You must! If you do not, they will never really believe it happened! Be a witness!"
At a Passover meal, some months later, he sat us down, and for more than three hours, told us his story: The deportation, the brutal separation from his family, the camps, the cruelty, the brutal march through the Polish winter, and finally, the liberation. When at last he finished, we sat in silence for some time. When we gathered the courage, we asked him why he'd waited all these years to share this. He looked at us with an embarrassed expression, "How could you understand? You grew up here, in freedom and safety. You don't know hunger or fear or hate. And why would I want you to know that? I've spent my life protecting you from that nightmare." So why tell us now? "Because Wiesel is right. If you don't hear it from me, you'll never really believe that it happened, you will never believe it was real. It's time for me to be a witness." 
Uncle Henry taught me to understand the Exodus. I can imagine a generation of ex slaves caught in his dilemma: How can I describe realities you can't possibly imagine? You know nothing of slavery, of degradation, of fear and hatred. And how much do I want you to know? But if I don't tell you, you'll never believe it was real. If you don't hear it from me, it will remain impersonal, theoretical, abstract history. You must know that these things happened, and that I was there. I tell you this story so that my memories may become your own. You too must become witnesses. 
We are instructed: "B'chol dor va'dor In every generation, a person must see him/herself as if he or she were redeemed from Egypt." (Mishna Pesachim 10) This is a radical demand. It isn't enough just to remember or commemorate or celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. We have to be there personally and feel it. We must become witnesses to these events. Collective history must become personal memory, and memory must become testimony. Only as witnesses to the harsh brutality of slavery will we be consumed with the divine demand for justice. And only as witnesses to liberation, will we truly believe that redemption is possible. That moment of liberation will forever keep us from surrendering in the face of the world's severe brokenness. 
Evil is real, we have felt its cruelty. And redemption is also real, we have sung its song. When the sea split, our history turned transparent. We perceived God's presence and God's purposes in human history. We are witnesses. 
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 4, 2013


In this week's Torah portion, God calls to Moses, and begins the process of freeing our people from Egyptian slavery*. When God first talks to Moses, God says, "I have seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry..." (Exodus 3:7)

* It's a really good story. Someone should make a movie out of it, or something.

The great commentator Sforno thinks that the Hebrew word "oni," which is being translated as "affliction" is really a form of the world "aniyei* -- the poor." He then spins it out a bit and imagines that "the poor" refers to the righteous of the generation who have been praying on behalf of the people.

* The Hebrew of the Torah doesn't have vowels, which allows for a lot of word playing, where the commentators can substitute similar words for what seems to be the plain meaning.

It's a bit strange, if you're not used to the way in which Rabbis love to twist and play with the text. But, the point (for now) is that (according to Sforno) God is saying that this is the time to act, because some people have been praying for others.

It offers a tantalizing suggestion. Many have asked why God let us stay enslaved for 400 years? Why did God wait so long to save us? Maybe the reason was that, during that whole time, we were crying out because of our own suffering. That all of our prayers were about asking God to save us. Maybe God refused to act until someone, anyone, starting worrying more about his or her neighbor than him or herself?

Maybe the message is that redemption will come precisely when we stop worrying about our own troubles, as valid as they may be, and start worrying about other people's troubles, instead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Flood Didn't Flood

I hate to break it to you, but Noah’s Flood is not a real thing.
I love an article that starts that way. At the risk of being unkind, it really amazes me that we live in a world in which a large number of people believe that the story of The Flood is literally, historically true.

It's easy to believe, at least in theory, the miracles in the Bible. I don't believe them, mind you. At least, not literally. But, they aren't hard to believe, at all, if you believe in a literal, active, omnipotent God. For that kind of God, splitting the Red Sea, making a bush burn without being consumed, or even raising the dead shouldn't be hard at all. There is no inherent reason that those stories have to be false. But, Noah's ark? Noah's Ark seems different.

To believe the full story of Noah, you have to do more than believe that God got angry with all humanity. That God decided to wipe us all out with a flood. That God spoke to a man, and commanded him to build an ark. No, you've got to believe, as well, that a man (perhaps with the help of his family) was able to build an ark which was large enough to hold two (or, according to some parts of the text, 14) of every land animal and bird in the world. And, not just the animals, of course, but also their food (of course, I guess it's possible that God suspended the laws of hunger for the duration, as well). How big do you suppose the ark was, supposedly? Well, the Torah actually tells us that it was about 140 m long, 25 m wide, and 45 m high. I wonder — is it harder to believe that a person, back then, could build such a thing, or that even an ark that large is up to the task of housing a pair (or 7!) of every animal on earth?

I know I'm not going to convince anyone who is not already convinced, but logic screams out that the story of Noah's Ark cannot possibly be literally true. And, by the way, science also screams out that a worldwide, cataclysmic flood also has no basis in scientific history:
A third misconception is that a Black Sea flood could ever be “worldwide.” The idea that it could is inextricably linked to “flood geology,” the fake-science backbone of creationism...
Let me state for the record: many archaeologists and geologists have discovered evidence for many different floods, some of them large, or sudden, or both. But they all have end points, high water marks if you will. They certainly did not cover the entire earth. (Sorry, creationists.)
The end of the article, in almost offhanded way, reveals what the story might really mean:
Yes, the Bible’s flood myth can be successfully linked to documented Sumerian and Babylonian mythology in several respects...But the whole moral lesson of the Bible’s Noah’s Ark story—that God punished humanity for our wicked deeds—has no place these earlier tellings. The Babylonian weather god Enlil tried to flood out mankind because all our noise was keeping him awake.
Lots of ancient people came up with idea of a furious God destroying everything in sight. Our innovation, it seems, was in acknowledging that our own actions might have some relevance here. That we, through our refusal to behave like decent people, might be the sowers of the seeds of our own destruction.

You don't have to think that was literally true to understand that there is still a lesson there which we desperately need to learn. We can't control much, at all. But we sure seem to have the ability to make our world, large and small, uninhabitable.

I just wish that people would stop looking for the damn boat. We've got more important things to do, and to talk about.