Friday, January 27, 2012


When I would teach high school Jewish Studies classes, I would usually give them an assignment around Pesach time: rent Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt, and after watching them, tell me what they got wrong vis-à-vis the text of the Exodus narrative in the Torah.

It’s a fun little assignment, and the responses it generates are interesting, as a teacher. Prince of Egypt is the harder one for most students, because it’s a better movie, and incorporates much more directly from Torah and from traditional midrashim and commentaries. But what always surprised me is the thing that most students missed, which to me was the most egregious failing of the film. Maybe you’ll recall: the final plague, the “destroyer” moving through Egypt, striking down firstborn, the Israelites, protected, trembling in their dark houses.... Yeah, there’s the problem: where’s the matzah? During the tenth plague, we weren’t trembling in the dark in our protected houses: we were having the first Pesach seder.

Part of what I cherish about this section of the Exodus narrative-- which we see in this week’s parashah, Bo-- is that it does something quintessentially, paradigmatically Jewish. Right as the tenth plague is about to occur, at the dramatic climax of the first act of the Exodus story (the second act being the part about kri’at yam suf, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the third act being the part about getting the Torah at Sinai), the narrative pauses so that God can have Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher Moses) instruct the people in the basic laws of the Jewish calendar and proper Seder observance.

I love that. I love it because there is something so Jewish, so hamische (homey), about this attitude. That God would say to Moshe, “Listen, dude, I’m gonna send in the destroyer, this plague is gonna be a mind-blower, one for the ages. It’s gonna be so heavy duty.... BTW, make sure you know how to calculate the months, so that you know when all the chagim (holidays) are going to be. The first one’s going to be Pesach: let me give you the details of how to observe it.”

It’s that attitude that really exemplifies our tradition: Something cosmically momentous has occurred, something that should inspire us forever-- but since inspiration can’t be codified and demanded, here’s the tachlis (pragmatic forms) for creating a situation that, if done right, may cause inspiration by reminding you of what occurred and how to connect to it.

That presumption, that the minutiae of ritual and ethical observance are not distinct from revelation and miracle, they proceed directly from revelation and miracle-- and do so not after long separation from the fact, but davka right smack in the middle of the fact...that, my friends, is the heart of the Jewish tradition.

I like to imagine the first Seder, happening while the tenth plague was going on, as a bunch of us gathered around the fireplace, eating roast lamb, matzah, and maror, simultaneously stunned at the advent of our freedom after so long, and bemused at the detailed commandments we now have to keep. I presume that the original Seder involved just as many questions as modern Sedarim do-- maybe that was also the night that originated “Two Jews, three opinions.”

But all jokes aside, what I love about this instance is that it demonstrates the nature of our tradition as one really made to be used by people in their everyday lives. Yes, there are a lot of details in the mitzvot, but they’re there for good reason. And that reason is not, as some have said, “Because God said so,” (which, when I hear it, always sounds like “Because God said so, so shut up.”) but rather because the tradition-- and because God (with whom we author the tradition)-- understands that a person cannot live their life in a perpetual state of revelation, or high spiritual elevation. That’s just not how we function. Nobody exists in a perpetual I-Thou moment. So we need a framework of mitzvot to give us a system of spiritual discipline, to be a daily mnemonic aid, so that we are constantly reminding ourselves of who we are, who we were, and Who made us what we are; so that we can constantly renew, as Heschel put it, our “radical amazement” at life in the universe, at life with one another; so that we create situations, using ritual, that help us re-enact the revelations and miracles that shaped us, so that they continue to shape us.

The Haggadah reminds us of this very thing, midrashically riffing off verses from Parashat Bo:

בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו, כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים, שנאמר: והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר: בעבור זה עשה ה' לי, בצאתי ממצרים. לא את אבותינו בלבד, גאל הקדוש ברוך הוא, אלא אף אותנו גאל עמהם, שנאמר: ואותנו הוציא משם, למען הביא אתנו, לתת לנו את הארץ אשר נשבע לאבתינו
In every generation, a person must view themselves as if they themselves came forth out of Egypt.   As it is said, “And you shall tell your child at that time, saying, ‘It is because of what Hashem did for me when I was brought forth out of Egypt.’” Not were our ancestors alone redeemed by the Holy One Blessed Be He, but we ourselves were redeemed along with them, as it is said, “And He brought us forth from there, so that he could bring us here, to give to us the land which He had sworn to our ancestors.”

Such an expectation could not reasonably be supported in a vacuum. Time creates distance. Stories evolve if left unfixed. Revelation cannot be passed on verbally. But with ritual-- both of action and of language-- we create guides to aid us in fixing stories and erasing the distance of passing time, and circumstances to pass on the experience of revelation as much as such a thing can be passed on. The mitzvot of our tradition are potent with understanding of how humanity really functions.

And I love them for it. I value it every day, and every time I read this parashah, and even every time I get annoyed with movie versions of the Exodus for their not getting it right. This understanding in our mitzvot is what gives our people vitality, the life of the millennia, and is a great part of what makes Torah so precious as a way of life: it knows us, sometimes even more than we know it.


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