Sukkot 5775 – Getting Out Of Our Narratives

כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

The mitsvah to dwell in sukkot for seven days comes Vayikra 23:42, part of the greater description of the holiday of Sukkot in verses 33-43, probably the largest description of Sukkot in the Torah. It’s also the only such description that includes a reason for the mitsvah to dwell in sukkot. “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in sukkot in order to mimic and recreate the experience of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. This experience that is characterized mainly by two trends, Bnei Yisrael complaining about not suffering due to their not being in Egypt any more, and ‘א providing Bnei Yisrael with sustenance throughout their journeys in the wilderness.

Throughout their travels in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly complain that they wish they could return to Egypt, or that things were better in Egypt. The first time is just after the splitting of the sea. “If only we had died by the hand of ‘א in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we ate bread to satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly through starvation” (Shemot 16:3). This is the first of many times such a complaint occurs due to a lack of food or water. A totally different motivation for such a complaint appears in Bamidbar 16, in the rebellion of Dathan and Aviram. “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13). This complaint is not about a lack of food, but about Moshe being unsuitable as a leader. They go so far as to call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase otherwise only used to refer to the Land of Israel. Seeing as their experience in Egypt was one of crushing labor and abject slavery, it is difficult to understand why they would desire so strongly to go back to it. However, this becomes a little clearer when understood in light of the post-modern concept of a narrative.

The word “narrative” refers to a story, but in the post-modern sense it refers more particularly to the stories by which people define their lives. These stories give a context within which the events and occurrences of their lives can be understood. It gives people a framework within which to choose what course of action they should pursue. The historical perspective of Tanakh, from the beginning of Creation in Sefer Bereishit to the messianic visions of the prophets, is a narrative within which Bnei Yisrael understand the meaning of the events that happen to them. This is perhaps the greatest function of the prophets, telling Bnei Yisrael that the major events they undergo, such as the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, are not random event, but are part of a larger story and make sense when viewed as such. One of the most notable effects of the loss of prophecy has been a disconnect from Tanakh’s historical narrative. Without a prophet, Bnei Yisrael had no way of knowing with certainty the significance of any occurrence, but can only try and fit it into the context of Tanakh’s historical vision.

Returning to Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, their complaints about no longer being in Egypt can be understood in terms of a loss of narrative. In Egypt, they knew what story they were participating in, even if it was an unpleasant one. They knew who was in charge and why, they knew where their food and water came from, and they knew what they were supposed to do when. Then ‘א took them out of Egypt, and they knew none of those things. When they didn’t have food, they complained that they once knew where their food came from, and when they felt they had been lead badly, they challenged the source of the authority of their leader. They had lost their Egypt-Narrative and until they would enter the Land of Israel, they were a little lost.

The second typifier of Bnei Yisrael’s wilderness experience was that they were totally sustained by ‘א. When they needed food, he gave them Manna (Shemot 16:4-5) and Quail (Shemot 16:12-15). Their leadership was sent by ‘א, and when they doubted this, they were reminded via miracles (Bamidbar 16:28; 17:16-26). Their garments were miraculously sustained by ‘א, neither wearing out nor being outgrown (Devarim 8:4). Even their living-spaces were given to them by ‘א (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael’s entire wilderness experience was defined by the way they lived their lives cradled in the hand of ‘א.

On sukkot Bnei Yisrael were thrust out of our normal, everyday, narratives and pushed into the wilderness. Every year, as they were gathering in their harvest (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13), Bnei Yisrael were reminded that they do not survive by their produce alone, but by the word of ‘א (Devarim 8:3). Sukkot is a week where we step out of our normal stories, our routines and procedures, and remember the truth that these stories obscure, that we are not independent, that our stories are conditional and dependent, that the lives we build were built with the power that ‘א gives us (Devarim 8:17-18).

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[2] While they received the Torah long before they entered the Land of Israel, many if not most of the mitsvot apply only when in the Land of Israel (never mind the opinion of Ramban that the mitsvot only apply inside the Land of Israel). Receiving the Torah did help Bnei Yisrael’s mindset somewhat, but that is part of a different discussion.

[3] The exact nature of the “sukkot” that ‘א caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in is subject to Rabbinic debate, with R’ Eliezer understanding them as booths such as Bnei Yisrael build today, and with R’ Akiva understanding them as the Clouds of Glory. For an excellent discussion of how R’ Akiva’s view fits with peshat, and of the symbolism behind both views, see this essay by R’ Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubinstein.

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Parashat Beshalah – On Who We Were and Who We Can Be

א’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד

Parashat Beshalach is composed of 116 pesukim that split neatly into two groups of 58. In the first, which might be best titled ‘Miracles’, Bnei Yisrael are guided through the desert by miraculous pillars of cloud and fire and are saved from Egypt by ‘א’s miraculous intervention at the dead sea (Shemot 13:17-15:21). The second section, let’s call it ‘Complaints’, consists of Bnei Yisrael complaining to Moshe twice about lack of water and once about lack of food, their failure to uphold any of the requirements of the manna, and the battle with Amalek (15:22-17:17).

Miracles establishes the new status quo in the desert, wherein all of the people’s needs are cared for in a miraculous fashion. They are guided not by a human leader, but by pillars of cloud or fire that moved on their own. Despite this, the people still feared Paroah (14:10) and could not fight back when they were attacked at the Sea of Reeds, and so ‘א  fought for them, destroying the Egyptian army, and leading to the people fearing ‘א instead, and this is capped by the singular use in Tanakh of the root “have faith in” by a nation, “the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.”[1] (14:31). This would seem to represent a great changeover in the mindset of the people after they leave Egypt. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

In direct contradiction to the trust of 14:31, Complaints depicts a situation of complaining and doubting. The complaints betray not only a strange desire to return to Egypt, but also a complete lack of trust in ‘א and in Moshe His servant. What explains this strange contradiction? The answer lies in the unifying factor between the complaints of Bnei Yisrael after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and their singular complaint prior to it.

The main thrust of their complaint before the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds is that they would rather have been slaves in Egypt. This formulation, and others like it, characterize all of the complains found in parashat Beshalach, but this one is particularly poignant because of one fact: Bnei Yisrael could have fought back. The torah specifically states that they left Egypt armed, and yet they don’t even try fight back. Not only do they not attempt to fight back, they don’t even ask ‘א to fight for them. The Ibn Ezra explains this problem with a deep psychological insight. He says that Bnei Yisrael were still stuck in their mindset as slaves to Egypt, and as slaves they could not possibly imagine the possibility of successfully fighting their masters. Slaves rarely succeed in armed rebellion. This “slave mindset” is the reason that they did not fight back[2], but it in itself is just one manifestation of a more basic issue: Bnei Yisrael are still thinking like they’re in Egypt.

This “Egypt-mindset” becomes obvious from a close reading of the text. The desire to be back in Egypt is an obvious example. More interesting is the parallel between “the people feared the Lord”(14:31) and “the people feared Paroah”(14:10). 14:31 is seem on the surface like a statement of praise for Bnei Yisrael, that they have achieved this new level of trust in ‘א. But this parallel highlight a subtly devastating problem in their relationship with ‘א. They’re relating to Him in the same manner they related to Paroah.  That’s why Bnei Yisrael emphasize all the things they had in Egypt and why the lack of those things cause them to question the presence and attentiveness of their new master. They don’t get that leaving Egypt didn’t mean trading one master for another. Leaving Egypt was meant to be a paradigm shift, and Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the message.

Several powerful midrashim highlight this idea.[3] The Mekhilta explains “And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea” (15:22) to mean that Moshe had to force Bnei Yisrael to move on from the sea, that Bnei Yisrael just wanted to go back to Egypt. The Midrash says that when Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian army wiped out in the Sea they took it to mean that they could return to Egypt without fearing for their freedom and worship idols there, which was why Moshe had to make them move on. Perhaps most strikingly, the Midrash Rabbah says that despite all of the miracles that had been, and would yet be, done for Bnei Yisrael, they brought the “idol of Michah” with them as they crossed the bottom of the sea. This is a reference to Shoftim 17-18 which depicts the creating and worshiping of this idol. As it had not been created at the time of the Splitting of the Sea, the midrash obviously intends not the idol itself but rather the idea it represents, that of Bnei Yisrael making a fundamental mistake in how they conceive of their relationship[4] with ‘א. Bnei Yisrael are may have physically left Egypt, but they brought their misconceptions with them.

The strongest indicator of this misconception is found in a seemingly innocuous line in the Song at the Sea. Shemot 16:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.” This phrase has since been reproduced all over the Jewish liturgy. However, much of its meaning is lost in the subtlety of Ancient Hebrew grammar. This phrase is technically in Future-tense, and so would literally mean not that ‘א reigns “now-and-forever” but rather that ‘א will in the future reign forever and ever. This is of course theologically untenable, but the vagaries of Ancient Hebrew grammar enabled commentators to explain it as “now-and-forever.”[5] The Mekhilta, however, understands this line literally, and sees there the ultimate corruption of Yetziat Mitsraim.[6] Essentially, this line places redemption now in the present, but in the future. Could there be any more powerful statement about the mindset of Bnei Yisrael?

This Galut Mindset has many ramifications. Most obvious but perhaps least significant, is just a matter of wanting to be in Galut. Being in Galut make one want to be in Galut, something that makes it very hard to leave. Rashi (Bereishit 47:28) actually puts the start of Galut Mitzrayim at Beraishit 47:27-28, the end of Parashat Vayigash and the beginning of Parashat Vayehi. The lack of a separation between the two Parshiyot is unique in the Torah, and cause the redundancy of the phrases “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt”(27) and “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt”(28) to be quite obvious. Galut only starts when they going from “dwelling” in Egypt to “living” there. In that sense, your mindset is at least as important as your location, which is why leaving Egypt doesn’t stop Bnei Yisrael from wanting to be there. The first step to leaving Galut is wanting to.

The second ramification of this idea is a function of how we live our lives on a daily basis. Is Redemption happening now, or are we still waiting for it? This issue is far from theoretical. Redemption makes certain demands of us, not just in terms of where we choose to live but also in terms of how we choose to live. Galut is a consequence of incorrect behavior, and Geulah means that we need to make sure we don’t bring Galut upon ourselves yet again. Our actions ought to reflect Redemption, regardless of where we live.

Lastly, a matter of vision and purpose. How we think of ourselves and our past dictates how we think of others and our future, and thinking about the future in terms of the past is both harmfully and unnecessarily limiting[7]. In Galut we have come to think of ourselves as “Hated Amongst the Nations,” something that was certainly true once, but is not necessarily so any longer[8]. The sense of persecution and isolation we have acquired in Galut colors how we see everything. Halakha in the Galut has been very defensive and isolationist, separating us more and more from the rest of ‘א’s children[9]. This need not be so. There have been enough more open and accepting Halakhic-decisors throughout Jewish history, the Meiri being a prime example, for Bnei Yisrael today to be able to interact with the Nations of the World in an open and Halakhic manner[10]. Beyond Halakha, the Redemption is a matter of eschatology[11]. Throughout the prophetic literature we find many different possibilities in terms of what the future redemption will look like. Many books discuss a war with the nations, either with them attacking Bnei Yisrael, with ‘א exacting vengeance on them for their crimes, or something in between. But there are also prophets for whom no such war will occur, where the End of History is depicted not as a age of Dominance but as an era of Harmony, where Bnei Yisrael enable the nations to live in the presence of ‘א. These are all potential eschatological visions. All are embraced by the last pair of Maimonides Principles of Faith. So which do we believe in? What future are we hoping for? Feeling like we are hated has many Jews hoping for the destruction of the nations. But ultimately this is an obscuration of Bnei Yisrael’s goal as a Light unto the Nations. We cannot be a Kingdom of Priests if there are none to aid in the service of ‘א. We cannot experience Redemption if our idea of Redemption is actually more reflective of Galut.

 

[1] Translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Rav Yehuda Amital, Z”TL, used this mindset as an explanation for ‘א taking the jewish people on a different path than the Road of the Land of the Philistines.

[3] All the midrashim in this paragraph are brought from their quotation in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalah (Hebrew)

[4] “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[5] See Onkelos, Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye Ad loc.

[6] Quoted in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[7] For an examples of this one need look no further than the paintings we make depicting the future. The Old City of Jerusalem is full to the brim with paintings depicting the Temple Mount with neither the Dome of the Rock nor the Al-Akhsa mosque atop it, clearly an eschatological depiction, and yet there is no Beit HaMikdash; Bnei Yisrael gather at the Western Wall, Or worse yet, sometimes the pictures do depict the Bet HaMikdash atop the Temple Mount, but Bnei Yisrael still gather at the Wall! Paintings like these are something only a Galut-mindset could create.

[8] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book, “Future Tense,” discusses this issue at length.

[9] Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, The Halakha: Its Power and Its Purpose (Hebrew)

[10] For those concerned that the Meiri is a minority opinion, I refer you to Mishna Eduyot 1:4, “Why do we mention the words of the individual alongside the words of the majority even though the law follows the majority? In case Beit Din should choose to rely on his words.”

[11] A fancy word meaning “religious thought about the end-times”.