What would you say is the defining event of the Book of Shemot/Exodus? The Ten Plagues? The Parting of the Red Sea? The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? The building of the Tabernacle/Mishkan?
The Sforno (16th Century, Italy) says "None of the Above." He has a radically different perspective on this Book, which he sees as a cautionary tale on the future of the Jewish People. From his introduction to the Book of Shemot:
And it is related in Gcd's Second Book, that the Seed of Israel then began to violate the covenant of their forefathers in Egypt, as the prophet Ezekiel attests when he says, "...and they rebelled against me, and no longer desired to listen to Me, no one throwing away the abominations of his eyes, no one abandoning the Egyptian idolatries...[and I/Gcd resolved]...to pour out My wrath upon them, and to vent My anger on them in the Land of Egypt to work them with rigor." Until a small portion of them did teshuvah and prayed, and a messenger [Moses] came before them and saved them.The Sforno sees all the events we mentioned above in this context. Divine salvation from the ruinous famine led to relief for the clan of Jacob and relocation to Goshen; the Israelites became numerous and comfortable in Egypt, and once the generation of the twelve sons died, the old ways were quickly forgotten; punishment came in the form of enslavement to the Egyptians, until a core group did teshuvah and triggered Divine mercy and salvation, aka the Exodus from Egypt.
We can call it the Salvation Cycle:
Divine Salvation Leads to
Relief Leads to
Affluence/Complacency Leads to
Backsliding Leads to
Punishment/Enslavement/Exile Leads to
Teshuvah Leads to
Divine Salvation.This is the grand leitmotif of all of Jewish History. Ma'aseh Avot Siman L'Banim: The events in the lives of our ancestors create precedents which we see played out in our own lives.
Fast forward to America, 2015: Hundreds of thousands of Jewish families left Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, thus being spared the fate of European Jewry in the flames of the crematoria. After relocating to America, the Jews became numerous and comfortable in their new land, and once the generation of religious Bubbies and Zaydes died out, the old Jewish ways were quickly forgotten.
In this, the final spin of the Salvation Cycle, punishment now comes in the form of suicide-by-happy-pills. Judaism in America is dying out, but not because of murder or enslavement by Roman Legionnaires or Czars or Hitlers or any other external oppressor. This go 'round we are more like opium addicts, buzzed out and in a really good place, too high to realize that the opium is really poison: shutting down our organs, destroying our minds, and deadening our spirits.
But those who are wise enough to learn the lessons of Jewish history recognize the pattern. It is said that a problem identified is a problem half solved, and we certainly know how to solve this one - we've done it over and over again for well on 4,000 years.
Indeed, there is hope for American Jewry: Teshuvah - a return to what the Sforno calls the Brit Avot, the Covenant of Our Ancestors: Deepening our connection to Gcd through Torah study and performing mitzvot. Keeping the Shabbat. Keeping Kosher. Keeping the Laws of Family Purity. Educating our children in Torah.
But how to get there from here?
I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, for bringing to my attention an recent newspaper article by Dr. Steven Cohen entitled, Lessons Learned from Orthodoxy's Dramatic Growth (New York Jewish Week, November 29, 2015). In it, he examines the root causes for the imperviousness of the Orthodox to what I have described above as the "Happy Pills":
The “secret” of Orthodox retention and expansion can be summarized by a five-letter acronym: PRICE. That is, they exhibit extraordinary Passion about Jewish norms and purpose. They perform numerous religious Rituals. They maintain high rates of Informal association (more spouses, friends, and neighbors who are Jewish). They engaged in Community — be it in synagogues, organizations, charities, or political-like activity. And they undertake Educational activities, be it learning groups for themselves or sending their children to day school, overnight camps or to Israel for a very influential gap year.
Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews. [emphasis mine]The Salvation Cycle doesn't care if you call yourself Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Teshuvah applies to everybody, because despite these divisive labels, despite what the High Priests of Pluralism would have you believe, there is but One Gcd, One Torah, and One Jewish People.
As far back as 1933 Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook wrote:
The Jewish people have become divided into two camps, through the categorization of Jews as Charedi (religious) and Chofshi (secular). These are new terms, which were not used in the past. Of course, not everyone is identical, especially in spiritual matters; but there was never a specific term to describe each faction. In this respect, we can certainly say that previous generations were superior to ours.I call upon every single congregational rabbi of every "denomination"; I call upon every local Jewish Federation, in this community and in every American community, to take a principled stand for Teshuvah.
By emphasizing this categorization, we obstruct the path toward improvement and growth in both camps. Those who feel that they belong to the religious camp look down upon the secular camp. If they think about teshuvah and improvement, they immediately cast their eyes in the direction of the secularists, devoid of Torah and mitzvot. They are confident that full repentance is required by the irreligious, not by them.
The secular Jews, on the other hand, are convinced that any notion of penitence is a religious concept, completely irrelevant to their lives.
It would be better if we would all concentrate on examining our own defects, and judge others generously. It could very well be that others have treasure-troves of merits, hidden from sight. We should recognize that there exists in each camp a latent force leading toward goodness. Each camp has much to improve upon, and could learn much from the positive traits of the other camp.
Let us be known to each other by one name — Klal Yisrael.
To survive we must shake off our spiritual torpor, we must push harder, reach for a new goal. It's OK to sweat a little; to raise the bar in performing mitzvot, to stretch and struggle to reach the next milestone in Torah study.
It is a matter of simple self-preservation that we must return to the standards of normative halachah in a way that is compatible with modernity, and in a way that preserves intellectual integrity and joie de vivre. It can be done and it must be done.
Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone and pay the "PRICE" necessary to ensure the perpetuation of Judaism as an organic and living faith system in your family? Or do we just continue passing around the opium bowl?
[For an earlier blog post on this Parasha, click HERE.]