Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Redemption, The Jewish Mission Statement

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!‎

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