WHAT IS THIS?
A Not-so-Simple Question for Nissan 5767
By Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Yedidya Center for Spiritual Direction
I've been thinking lately about the supposedly simple question of the so-called "simple child." When I read the newspaper, listen to the news, read the latest flow of enraged e-mail messages in my inbox I, too, sometimes want to ask, "What is this?" What is happening to our world? Why is there so much hate? Why does war continue to rage in shattered regions throughout the world, when the eventual shape of diplomatic solutions is already clear to all? Why is there so much injustice, while people and nations of privilege fail to intervene in decisive ways? I want to ask simply, "What is going on here in our world?"
The story of Yetzi'at Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt) must provide the answer for how we as a people are to respond to what ails our world, for it is our central story as a people, defining our collective identity, our values and our commitments. The message of this narrative could not be more clear: we are a people which knows the soul of the stranger, the marginalized and the persecuted. We must instinctively work for justice for the afflicted – be they individuals, communities, nations, or the earth herself.
Yet, as I move around the Jewish community, too often it seems that the Sho'ah (The Holocaust) has replaced the Exodus from Egypt as the foundational narrative of our people. We tend to see most issues through the lens of the Sho'ah: does a particular candidate, organization or course of action seem to be good for the Jews' physical survival and good for Israel's physical safety? The Holocaust experience colors much of our thinking, our priority-setting and our decision-making, even determining which "facts" we can believe and which we must reject. Collectively, we see the world as survivors and perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for our life as a people still unfolds under the Sho'ah's dark shadow. Like victims of individual trauma who must undergo a long and complex healing process before they can be liberated from the victim's mindset, we as a people, only 60 years after the colossal horror of the Sho'ah, are still subject to the tyranny of memory.
Of course, we must never forget. The Torah – millennia before Hitler - is very clear about this, when it tells us "to remember and not forget" the murderous intentions of Amalek as we left Egypt. But the attack by Amalek did not supersede the Exodus as our people's core narrative. The Torah does not make the mitzvah, "Remember; do not forget" into its central decree. It does not instruct us to always remember to hate the Egyptians who enslaved us. Rather, it is the command not to forget the soul of the stranger that is repeated no less than 36 times throughout the Torah. We must defend ourselves against attack, but we must not forget what God most wants of us: that we live the lessons of the Exodus, serving as agents of God's redemptive power in our own time.
So I wonder: what is this, that the Exodus story has become secondary to Holocaust memory as the central facet of our national identity? Is it time to begin to pray for healing, so that we may again be the people that God called us to be?
May the God who freed us from bondage, taking us from slavery to freedom, bring our people one step closer to healing, that we may fully rededicate ourselves to God's redeeming work in the world.