Claiming Our Spiritual Freedom

Emor By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 14, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

The laws of the Torah are rooted in the exodus from Egypt. The event justifies God’s claim on Israel’s fealty. Redemption brings with it a social contract. The linkage is affirmed often by relating a set of legal injunctions with the historical assertion that it was God who freed Israel from bondage. The Ten Commandments are resoundingly introduced with the declaration that “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

We met the same validation in last week’s parashah where a lofty code of personal conduct incumbent on every Israelite culminates by invoking the exodus: “I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19: 36b-37). And so too in our parashah, the opening legal corpus which sets cultic standards for the priests who serve in the shrine closes by joining law to narrative: “You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord” (22:31-33).

The recurring linkage caught the imagination of the medieval mystics and gave rise to an inspired display of biblical exegesis. The literary setting is the circle of disciples around the master of Kabbalah, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. The youngest in the group, Rabbi Yose, turns to him gravely. “I have a question that troubles me deeply, but I fear to ask it, for I might well be punished if I do. Yet if I don’t, it will continue to haunt me.” Rabbi Shimon granted him permission. Whereupon, Rabbi Yose asked why God felt obliged to remind Israel repeatedly that it was God who had extricated it from Egypt? Had God not promised Abraham to do precisely that? “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” (Genesis 15:13-14). So what is the point, asked Rabbi Yose, of affirming what we already know? God was bound to fulfill what God had avowed to Abraham.

Rabbi Shimon replied that what God had promised was only to redeem Israel from its physical, but not its spiritual, subjugation. “Indeed, in Egypt Israel had strayed into idolatry and become thoroughly defiled, sinking through forty-nine gates of pollution. But the Holy One also freed them from their subjugation to these powers and guided them through forty-nine gates of wisdom. To Abraham, God had stipulated only to take them out of Egypt. But in truth God actually rendered them an act of pure goodness and loving kindness. And that is why we find in the Torah mention of the exodus from Egypt exactly fifty times, to show the world the grace that God had showered on Israel. Moreover, beginning with the second day of Passover we count not only seven weeks but also forty-nine days to commemorate Israel’s passage from impurity to purity” (Zohar Hadash,Yitro, at beginning).

The first thing to notice about this deft and deep sample of mystical midrash is that it posits a decidedly negative view of our ancestors in Egypt. From the Haggadah, we are accustomed to think of them as entirely virtuous. They went to Egypt under duress, had no intention of staying, and as their numbers grew, kept their identity. But the Zohar, building on Ezekiel (chap. 20) and other midrashim (see Rashi on Exodus 10:20 and 13:19), thought otherwise. Physical degradation eroded the defenses of the spirit and Israel soon found itself mired in the abominations of Egypt. Redemption came by virtue of God’s grace rather than Israel’s worthiness. The motif suggests a Christian provenance. According to Augustine, if gratia (grace) is not given gratis, it simply isn’t gratia. Israel’s waywardness had stripped it of all merit. At work in the exodus is not so much the remembrance of divine obligation as an outpouring of divine grace freely given. Thus the oft-repeated proclamation of God as author of the exodus, is meant to stress the unappreciated glory of God’s unmerited love.

Second, the Zohar’s reconceptualization transmutes a single event into a gradual process. Redemption did not turn slaves into saints. That is why, says the Zohar elsewhere, we do not recite a fullHallel for the last six days of Passover, to symbolize the unfinished state of the emancipation process (Zohar, Emor, 97a). Physical freedom is not the same as spiritual purity. The revelation at Mount Sinai had to await Israel’s ascent through forty-nine gates of wisdom, and only then was it ready to enter a covenant with God that would imbue freedom with holiness.

Finally, our midrash invests the ritual of counting the omer with ultimate significance. Myth has the capacity to invigorate and elevate religious praxis. To link Shavu’ot with Passover and revelation to redemption, enables us to scale the heights our ancestors once scaled in their ascent toward spiritual perfection. Each day of the omer reminds us that meaningfulness does not come with material well being. As we blend past and present in an unadorned ritual of enumeration, we mount yet another effort to reach for wholeness in our lives.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.