Living Practice: Not “How” but “Why”

Beshallah By :  Ute Steyer Posted On Jan 9, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’” (Exod. 13:17)


In this week’s parashah, God decides to lead the people via a detour instead of the more direct way along the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. The book of Exodus gives the reason that the people might be overcome by fear when confronted with hardships and turn back. A midrash in Exodus Rabbah (20:11) tells us why that might be: the northern route was littered with bleached bones of a group of Israelites from the tribe of Ephraim, who had attempted to leave Egypt 30 years earlier and failed. If the Israelites were to see those bones, they would surely lose confidence in the endeavor and turn back, therefore it would be better to lead the people “derekh yam suf” via the Sea of Reeds. Conveniently, although not mentioned, by selecting this route, the people would have no choice but to continue: with the miracle of the splitting of the sea and the subsequent return of the waters that drown Pharaoh’s chariots, the way back to Egypt would be cut off. Once on the other side, all that the Israelites could do would be to grumble and complain (“we should never have left”), but literally “turning back” would be impossible, since everybody knew that the waters of the Sea of Reeds had closed again and passage back to Egypt was cut off. 


Of course, we know that the Israelites were not that idealistic people who just waited to follow Moses and live a life dedicated to serving God. But sometimes we forget and believe that the generations before us were somehow “more Jewish,” and modernity is a slippery slope that slowly but surely will destroy the Jewish people. We know that the text of the Torah is full of examples of Israelites who did not live up to expectations. So too, here: God knew already how much grumbling to expect in the years to come. Clearly, God was a good judge of character. We even find an indication of that in the text (verse 18):


(יח) וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:


“But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.”


How one understands this depends on the interpretation of the word hamushim, which is translated into English as “armed,” and which makes complete sense in the context of the narrative. This is also the interpretation that Rashi offers, but he adds a characteristic davar acher (alternative reading), in which he says that hamushim can also be interpreted literally as “one in five.” He says that only “one in five” Israelites went out to follow Moses in the Exodus, and that four out of five Israelites in Egypt did not want to leave: “Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means ‘divided by five,’ [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness.” 


Rashi draws this idea from Shemot Rabbah, which he quotes in his commentary on Exodus10:22.“Because there were among the Israelites in that generation wicked people who did not want to leave [Egypt]. They died during the three days of darkness.” The midrash actually says that there were those among the Israelites people who had achieved privileged positions with respected names in Egyptian society. Hence four-fifths of the Israelites chose not to follow Moses—in other words, the absolute majority. If Rashi and the midrash are right, they put their fingers on something we all too often overlook: the Israelites of the Bible, like Jews today and throughout history, are not necessarily an idealistic and fiercely nationalistic tribe. The majority was and is happy and content to live in its respective mainstream cultures and to build successful lives—Egyptian, Persian, Spanish, German, or American. Over the course of history, some Jews have assimilated into their majority cultures, while others have found ways of remaining connected to the Jewish people. 


And yes, only one-fifth of the people chose to follow Moses—but Rashi also tells us that they were accompanied by a “mixed multitude,” as mentioned in Exodus 12:38. That multitude consisted of people of different ethnic origins who decided to follow the Israelites and who eventually became part of the nation of Israel and received the commandments at Sinai. 


So, can we then simply lean back and say, “okay, we lose some and we gain some”? After all, most people pursue similar ethical values. Why shouldn’t one be able to choose which spiritual path to follow or none at all? Remarkably, the Pew Research Center survey of US Jews published in 2013, which has triggered much debate, tells us that 94 percent of those polled say that they are proud to be Jewish, even though only some 20 percent say they identify as Jewishly observant. The majority identify as Jewish based on culture and ethnicity, or Judaism as a civilization. Mordecai Kaplan would have been proud. When asked what is important in being Jewish, 74 percent answered remembering the Holocaust, 69 percent leading a moral life, 56 percent social justice, and 49 percent intellectual curiosity. But one need not be Jewish in order to be dedicated to social justice, remember the Holocaust, lead a moral life, or be intellectually curious. 


Instead of asking how to remain Jewish (a question much discussed in the wake of the Pew report), we should ask why. This question wasn’t asked through most of Jewish history, but with modern society’s emphasis on choice, it is a crucial precursor to any discussion about the “how.”


A traditional answer to “why remain Jewish” would be “asher bahar banu mikol ha’amim” (because You have chosen us from amongst the nations)—but chosenness is a difficult concept for contemporary society, to both Jews and non-Jews alike, without sounding elitist and racist. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks therefore suggested “the dignity of difference” as the “why.”Throughout history, Jews have opposed attempts to impose singularity, and defended the right to be different—something the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes as universalizing particularity in his book Difficult Freedom. The right to be different, the right to hold on to one’s particularity in conversation with the universal, is the foundation for acceptance and democracy. The values of a democratic society, such as leading a moral life and fighting for social justice, are important for both Jews and non-Jews alike. But experience shows that idealism and charisma can only create dedication for a cause up to a certain point. If these values are not rooted in something deeper, enthusiasm will wane, and a cause will be abandoned for something else. For generations of Jews, a commitment to causes was rooted in an understanding that such causes are intrinsic Jewish mitzvot as well as expressions of spirituality. If theological beliefs and practical actions are linked, they have the potential of becoming what Michael Fishbane, in his book Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, calls “fissures” that can disrupt our daily routines and awaken us to the presence of the transcendent.


This notion is not radically new; it can be found in our classical texts. In Leviticus, we read repeatedly, “va’asitem otam” (you shall do them), referring to the commandments, meaning that one should put one’s beliefs into practice. The Meshech Chochma, in his commentary on Bemidbar 15:40, argues that this can also be read as “va’asitem atem” (you shall be transformed). 


The moments of rapture that Fishbane calls “fissures” awaken us from the daily routines of life, ritual, and mitzvot, and occasionally create new moments of reborn mindfulness. Here Judaism offers a way of engaging with tradition that leads to a form of ethical and spiritual self-cultivation, and in which an ancient tradition is transformed into “meditative reflection and reflective action” (Sacred Attunement). Then, this Jewish tradition becomes living practice with relevance beyond Jews and the Jewish community—a perfect example of Levinas’s notion of universalizing particularity.



The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.