I am writing about the core narratives in Judaism and Christianity as reflected in Psalms 105:26-45 and Acts 2:22-24 respectively. I am comparing and contrasting these scriptures. To me, they are simplistic yet complex in nature as they explain the underlying narrative of each religion.
Thank you for exploring these questions, and especially, for your service to our country.
Your question deserves a nice Jewish answer - so I have one for you: yes and no.
To explain my answer, I first need to define what I mean by the Exodus, and how I understand your question. The story of the Exodus from Egypt begins with Exodus 1:1 and ends with the last verse of Deuteronomy - and contains everything in the middle. As you thought, that narrative is the central and defining narrative of Jewish tradition.
In your question, you describe the Exodus as "God's plan for the redemption of his people." That is not the way I generally think about it. Yes, the text specifically says that this is all according to God's plan. However, for me, it is more about our experience (in which God of course is the driving force) of moving from Egyptian slavery through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness towards the Promised Land. In other words, my response is less theological and more humanistic (although I am not a humanist, but a religious Jew). I do not think that the Exodus went the way God planned, because we Israelites had a way of stubbornly getting in our own way over and again. So, for example, in Psalm 105 there is a reference to God providing quail - but that happened two times, and the second was actually a punishment for how we complained that we were tired of manna and had better food in Egypt - so that the quail came until it was coming out of our nostrils (Num. 11:1-20).
What I am trying to express is that the Exodus, as the primary narrative of the Jewish people is less about God's plans and more about the nexus where we and God meet. It is about God's extraordinary generosity, and reliability. It is about remembering that we have humble origins, that our successes are tied to God, and that in turn helps to remind us to be humble, to look after each other (and not just other Jews BTW), and most especially those who are most vulnerable in our community. It connects us to God intimately and profoundly, and it connects us to each other. As the genetic descendants of the Israelites, it is also our family story and we read it as such.
Before I ramble on any further, let me try to reel this in with a more concise frame. The story of the Exodus (as I define it), is in my opinion the central and defining narrative of Jewish tradition - everything else that follows is in some way connected to this story. However, the Exodus itself is predicated on another, more theological frame, which is the covenant between Israel and God, as first expressed by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Exodus is definitive because it demonstrates God's fulfillment of the covenantal promise and reminds us to make sure to do our part. However, it is one moment in time, and the story is repeated in one way or another in each generation. My teacher Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes that Jewish spirituality can be summed up as the repeating cycle of exile and return. The Exodus was the first great return from exile, and most dramatic. Yet for us as individuals and as a people, this is a recurring experience. In other words, it is not just that the Exodus is what we build everything on, but rather something we are still experiencing.
I hope this helps. Good luck with the paper!
Rabbi Gary Pokras
For sixteen years, I've been using the same 2x4s to build our family sukkah. Over time they have weathered and warped, so much so that for the past few years our sukkah has started to bend and list. When the wind blows,. we know it, and this has been a particularly windy Sukkot! The rabbis call Sukkot 'zeman simchateinu' - the time of our rejoicing. We are supposed to enjoy our time in the sukkah, sharing the experience with friends and family. When the weather gets too wet we are required to go back inside our homes, because who likes being cold and wet?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches two things that we can learn from our time in the sukkah . First, the sukkah is a temporary and fragile structure. When we are in it, we are far more exposed to the elements than when we are inside our homes. The sukkah reminds us of the precious fragility of life. Second, we are to specifically make this a time of joy, because while this life may be fragile, it is all we have and it won't last forever. So why not make the best of it?
I love his insight. We spend most of our time living as if we are anything but fragile, and it's easy to understand why. Everything we have, everything we are, can disappear in a moment - even our very lives. If we dwell on our fragility, then we might be overcome with terrible anxiety. Yet, we have a choice. We can react to our many vulnerabilities with fear, or by trying to ignore them; or we can accept our fragility and celebrate the miracles that each new moment brings.
Here in Buffalo, we had an unusually cold and rainy week, and it severely limited our ability to spend time in our sukkah. There was a little window for a short visit on Friday and today, thank God, is beautiful! No matter how we might plan, we are not always in control, and with our wood warping a little more from each day in the rain, we have to make the most of what we have, both material and time.
Tonight we will celebrate Simchat Torah - the joy of Torah. On Simchat Torah we end and begin the annual cycle of reading Torah with dancing and with exuberant joy. Why is Simchat Torah attached to the conclusion of Sukkot? What possible connection could there be between living in a sukkah and celebrating the annual cycle of Torah? The sukkah is temporary, but the Torah is enduring. As we celebrate Simchat Torah let's remember that the sukkah may disappear, our lives may be fragile, but Torah (and God) are always with us, providing us with support and guiding us along the way. I like the sound of that, don't you?
A new symbolism for the lulav and etrog: what if these four species of Israel represented the four largest streams of Judaism? If so, then on Sukkot all Jews - Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist - all are symbolically gathered together as one family. Why not? We all worship the same God and study the same Torah - we are all b'nei Yisrael. Sure we each understand and live Judaism in our own different ways, but wouldn't be great if on Sukkot we were reminded with every shake of the lulav that, in the end, we are all in the same booth?
(Based on my Erev Shabbat sermon about parashat Ha'azinu delivered on 9/25/15)
This Shabbat, poised as we are between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we read Ha'azinu, Moses' final speech before he dies. Ha'azinu is Biblical poetry at its best, and in the fourth verse Moses triumphantly proclaims:
The Rock! - His deeds are perfect,
The poetry, especially in the original Hebrew, is sublime; yet the content of this verse is challenging. If God's deeds are perfect and God's ways are just, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? How can a just God tolerate such injustice! Rabbinic commentators provide a number of possible answers, most of which fall into one of two 'buckets.' The first group takes the approach of theological humility: how could mere humans understand what God understands? We cannot but have a narrower view, and what may seem unjust in the moment may be necessary for the ultimate establishment of some greater justice. It's very hard to argue against this position, because we don't know what we don't know, no matter how much we may think otherwise.
That said, a significant number of commentators take a very different approach. They ask, why blame God for our troubles? The world is broken because we, humanity, have broken it! So it is up to us, not to God, to set things right.
I don't usually do this, but for some reason I logged onto Facebook just before heading down to the synagogue this evening. And what did I find? A post from a colleague and classmate of mine, Rabbi Joseph Meszler, who serves a congregation not far from Boston. What caught my eye was a photograph he shared unlike any I had seen before. Apparently, Rabbi Meszler went into Boston and purchased some signs from homeless people. You know, the kind that ask for help. He purchased them so that he could bring them back and hang them in their congregational sukkah.
Wow! This really took my breath away.
During Sukkot we are commanded to live in our sukkah, a fragile, temporary structure that evokes our wandering through the Wilderness. It is simultaneously a time of joy (Yom Kippur is behind us and we are on our way to the Promised Land), and a reminder of the fragility of life. Until this year, I framed sukkot as a farming or nature holiday, our chance to reconnect with Creation. I also focused on how generous God is to give us a world with absolutely everything we need not only to live, but to thrive. I continue to understand sukkot in both of these ways, but this year we can add another beautiful layer of understanding - one with practical implications!
The intersection of Ha'azinu and Rabbi Meszler's sukkah post reminds us that there are many people in our midst for whom life in a sukkah would represent a step up. Each sukkah we enter should serve as a reminder that we are not secure until all of us are secure, and that the Promised Land is not just about geography.
Here in Buffalo, I can think of a half-dozen organizations that provide support to the homeless, all within walking distance of our synagogue. Jewish Family Services, right here in this building, operates a refugee resettlement program and needs help setting up apartments. Wherever we live, we are surrounded by opportunities to make a difference, and we are all capable of more than we realize. This sukkot as we shake the lulav in our sukkah we will symbolically orient our hearts, backbones, lips and eyes towards God. May we be shaken as well. Let's take on one additional commitment to help fight homelessness or hunger or poverty, or to help settle a refugee. Let's start this week. before the end of sukkot, but let's continue after the festival ends. Let's not just symbolically orient ourselves towards God, let's live our values.
Hag Sameach! May this sukkot be filled with meaningful acts of loving kindness, so that we can truly celebrate with joy.
For at least five years, our Western New York Jewish community has gathered on the evening of Selichot to worship and study together. The study section consists of a panel of rabbis, led by a moderator, who asks a series of questions based on a theme selected for that year. This year, I was honored to sit on a panel with Rabbi Perry Netter (conservative) and Rabbi Netaniel Cadle (orthodox) moderated by Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein (reconstructionist). Our theme was the sound of the shofar, and we were asked to describe what the shofar means to us, and if the sound changes as we move through the different sections of the shofar service.
These are incredibly thoughtful questions, and they provoked us to dig deep. I was moved by what my colleagues shared, and want to share some of their insights with you (along with a few of my own). However, that will come later. First I would ask you the question: What does the sound of the shofar mean to you? What do you hear when the shofar blasts?
What do you see when you look in the mirror? We each have our own default tendencies. Some of us naturally search for our faults and imperfections, often with a hypercritical eye, while others of us would rather admire ourselves, and gloss over the rest. Sometimes we vacillate between the two, depending on our mood, or how we are perceiving our lives.
The Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, is really about self-reflection. Throughout the month we are presented with a spiritual mirror, and given the urgent task of placing our souls in front of the glass to look at who we really are. We are taught that we write the narrative of our lives with our choices and actions, especially those that impact our relationships with each other and with God. Who we really are is the sum of what we do.
I would like to suggest that when we look in the mirror, we embrace the totality of who we are. We need to acknowledge the choices that we regret, and learn from them so as to do better in the year to come. We need to find our imperfections and work to improve ourselves. Yet we also need to remember that as human beings, we will always be imperfect, and that's also OK. We need to remember that we are far more than the sum of our mistakes, for we do much good in the world, or at least we try.
If we are going to be honest with ourselves, which in my opinion is the only way to grow spiritually as human beings, then we must look past our default tendencies for self-reflection. So for those of us who focus on admiring ourselves, let's make sure to pay attention to where and how we can grow and improve. Or to put it a little differently, let's strive to recognize that our time here is limited, and is a gift from God. We have the ability to shape how we move through the time that remains in meaningful and life-affirming ways, all we have to do is act. On the other hand, those of us who tend towards self-criticism can look into the mirror with a little more self-compassion, and remind ourselves that what we see is the very image of God. We can embrace ourselves, and celebrate the greatness that shines from within.
What will you see the next time you look in the mirror? And how will your reflection inspire you to act?
A coincidence? Perhaps.
Early Sunday morning, I will jump out of bed and drive the last short leg on my way to pick up my son from URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish sleep-away camp in the Pocono Mountains. I can't wait to see him, and on the drive back home, to hear all about his experiences at camp. Sure, we were able to access a few photos online, and yes, he did send a handful of cryptic post cards our way, but there is something really special about the trip back home. Then there is the actual homecoming, when we will be reunited as a family. It goes without saying that we will joke about how filthy his stuff from camp is, send him straight to the shower and do our annual sort of post-camp clothing into two piles: laundry and furnace. We will also hold him close and cherish this time before the school year begins again.
The coincidence, is that this Sunday is also the beginning Elul, a new month in the Hebrew calendar. Elul is the month in which we prepare for the High Holy Days and begin the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is often mistranslated to mean 'repentance' but what it really means is 'return.' Each year we are given the opportunity to reflect, look for the ways we have wandered away from our spiritual home (meaning Judaism) and do our best to return to the path. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches that all of Jewish spirituality is the repeating cycle of exile and return, exile and return.
When my son returns home, everything will not only feel more right, it will be more right. When we collectively return home during the Holy Days, then the same can be true for all of us. However, the journey back takes time. The trip from Camp Harlam to Buffalo is only about five hours. The trip back from our spiritual wanderings takes much more time, which is why we have the whole month of Elul. There are no shortcuts, but the way forward is open and clear, and home is just around the bend.
Yesterday I received a synagogue voice message from a woman named Rose, who found a Starbucks card in front of a supermarket with my name on it. She explained that she knew how valuable these cards are, because she has one herself. As I was the only Gary Pokras she could find, she asked me to let her know if the card was indeed mine.
What a wonderful act of kindness! This lovely human being went way out of her way to help a total stranger.
As it turns out, the card was mine. I called her back, and left her a message of gratitude, letting her know that I would be happy to meet at her workplace so that she would not have to go any further effort to return it to me. This morning I received another message from her. It was already in the mail. You see, she was leaving for a week's vacation and did not want me to have to wait.
There was a time when is was fashionable to talk about random acts of kindness. A whole movement developed out of this concept, encouraging us to look for random and unexpected opportunities to do a kind deed. It felt great to perform these random acts, but do you know what feels even better? Daily acts of kindness. Do we really think that "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is about occasional or random behavior?
Rose was not doing a random act. She was clearly operating from a deeper place. If we could all do the same, if we could all go out of our way to act with kindness and compassion every single day, then we would truly be bringing the Levitical commandment to life, loving each other as ourselves. Compared to most of our experience, THAT would be ... unexpected.
Va'Etchanan is a real 'block buster' Torah portion, in that it contains both the reprise of the Ten Commandments and the Shema - our most profound statement of faith. In this video for Rosner's Domain, Shmuel Rosner asks a wonderful question from the parasha: can we really be commanded to love God?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras