My D'var Torah at Beth Abraham on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 6, 2018.
Today we begin reading the most important book in human history -- Sefer Shmot, the book of Exodus.
This is the book that transformed what was possible in the world and what was imaginable in the world. You can divide human history and culture into before the book of Exodus and after the book of Exodus. You can divide world literature into before Exodus and after Exodus, and you can divide religion into before Exodus and after Exodus. No one had ever told a story like this, about the gods or the powers of the world, its peoples or its leaders.
The book of Exodus made it possible to change the world, and to tell other stories about change and hope and transformation. And we, the Jews, are the Exodus people -- people who not only experienced the Exodus from Egypt, but whose whole civilization is built out of this book we are reading here over the next ten weeks.
Genesis, which we just finished last week -- it’s not bad. A God who creates the universe with no more effort than speaking, who tracks people across the world from Mesopotamia to Egypt and talks to them, who identifies special individuals and sends them on missions and adventures -- Genesis is bringing some game.
But Genesis isn’t radically new. There are new things in it, but it’s full of the kinds of stories you could imagine in other cultures. And Genesis is still a book about the familiar world. It ends not with transformation, but with exile.Exodus announces itself as something different right away. You see it in the opening scenes, when women get out in front of men and even in front of God, taking charge of the transformation of the world where Genesis left off. The world of suffering and oppression. Midwives who talk back to power, an inventive mother, a courageous sister, Pharaoh’s own rebellious daughter -- they are the last line holding against total evil and the first to rise up.
And what a transformation takes place, from the first to the last chapter of Exodus.
Who could imagine this powerless people, whose babies were being tossed into the Nile, standing at a mountain hearing God speak to each and every one of them? In chapter 1, the Israelites are slaves who have to find their own straw to build cities of darkness to reinforce Pharaoh’s power. By the last chapter, they have given whatever they have in overflowing generosity, and they have built a Sanctuary so perfect that God’s presence immediately fills it and lights it up.
The book of Exodus changed forever how human beings conceive of God. Until Exodus, gods were parents and protectors and allies of kings and overlords, and specific lands. In Genesis, the God Who created heaven and earth seems to be mostly on high, at the top of a ladder of angels perhaps.
But in Exodus, God leaves our land and God comes down. Down to the Nile, to the lowest spot in the low valley of Egypt. Down from the sky into those waters of chaos and death that are carved, down, deep into the lowly Earth. God comes down to the lowest people, who are beaten and dehumanized, whose hands are muddy and blistered and broken, who are detached from their souls to the point where they can hardly do anything but groan, who can’t think beyond the terrible things happening to them now.
God has to fight for them, against a tyrant who everybody thinks is really the god. God has to fight for the Israelites’ awareness. God has to get next to them, down in the mud and in their slave camps, and next to the taskmasters too, just to get any of these people even to notice.
God has to frustrate the expectations of all those who think that gods only go with grandeur like Pharaoh has, the beauty and richness of his palace and his temple and his architecture, and the hosts who do his bidding.
The book of Exodus says: This is much harder work than creating the universe. As you read Exodus, it’s clear that redemption, rescuing these people, takes much longer than six days. And it is a much, more, difficult labor than the Genesis project of making the world.
And by coming down, God shows us that more is involved in being God than pure power -- more than just the abililty to make things and do things. The task of redemption requires commitment, and loyalty, and dedication. Rabbi Heschel called it divine pathos: God’s essence is that God hurts when people hurt. And God is enraged when people stand by and go along or do nothing.
So when people are enslaved, oppressed, suffering, the hurt is so large that God’s response to that is the largest thing that God ever does.What God does in Exodus by redeeming our people is the only thing big enough to justify the idea that God is great. God’s true nature, the gadol-ness, the greatness that we associate with the notion of God -- it isn’t manifest until God comes down, as far from Heaven as possible, into Egypt.
The book of Exodus changed forever what it means to be a leader on behalf of God. In previous stories, in other Middle Eastern societies, leaders were blessed by the gods from the beginning and show off divine powers at a human level. Or they were heroes with magical powers or immortality.
Moses is different. Moses isn’t the son of God. He actually the one who ran away for decades even when he felt responsible for what he saw.
Moses at the burning bush doesn’t remotely see himself as a hero, as a leader. He doesn’t have any of the basic credibilities of a leader or a hero -- he can hardly speak, he does not inspire. As soon as Moses experiences his revelation at the burning bush, he argues that he can’t do what God wants. This resistance against leading is easily the longest conversation between anyone in whole Torah.
At almost every key moment in Exodus, Moses is shown not to be a god, but simply to be a human vessel, an instrument for divine energy and purpose. Moses teaches that anyone can become this, regardless of origins or personality or specific qualities and talents.
The book of Exodus redefined forever what it means to have laws and religious practices. In other societies, religion helped cement the social order and taught people how to be servants for the needs of the gods.
The law code of Hamurrabi in Babylonia, for instance, starts off with the investigation and punishments around murder. The law code in Exodus, right after the Ten Commandments, puts the laws of murder and assault second. The first law is about how to set free the slaves in our own society.
This teaches us that every law and every practice is not simply to serve God but to imitate God. We are God-like, the book of Exodus says, whenever we follow the law, live the law. When we bring about more freedom in our world, or pay our workers a fair wage on time, or watch out for the stranger because we know what it’s like to be the stranger -- Exodus reminds us that we are being like the God who liberated us from the house of slavery.
And the way we pray and the rituals that structure our day and week are Exodus rituals. We sing the Song of the Exodus morning and night, every day. When we rest on Shabbat, we affirm that we are not slave laborers anymore. When we give tzedakah, we are told that this is the opposite of hardening our hearts to people who live in our community and our world.
And our sacred spaces are celebrations of the Exodus. The whole last section of the book of Exodus is about how slave builders became builders of a Sanctuary to the God who frees slaves. It’s about making physically permanent the transformation from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from hopelessness to possibility. As permanent as any pyramid or mummy.
And of course, Pesach. God says: The moment of liberation is going to be there, always. We bring it back at least once a year in an elaborate way. So that every time you are oppressed by another Pharaoh, by armies of enemies, by illusion or illness or depression, you will know that I come down, I come there, as low as you are or as low as things go. No matter how much mud or blood or tears as there may be. I can’t stop those things from happening, God says, but I can and will be there and fight for you to notice Me, to see me fighting there with you.If a religion is made up of ideas about God and rituals and sacred places -- then the book of Exodus changed religion forever. Not just Judaism, but every religion that ever learned about the book of Exodus.
And the book of Exodus changed history, and the possibilities of history. After Exodus, human beings could know that oppressive power might be strong, but it’s never an equilibrium. Each time the Jews have found ourselves against an unshakeable enemy or an unmovable evil -- we have read Exodus and told the stories and prayed Exodus and observed Exodus -- and eventually overcame.
And other peoples have read the book of Exodus and the stories and histories inspired by it, and the same things have happened. The book of Exodus created and continues to create hope, to prove that hope is not absurd in our world.
We are Exodus people. Charged to keep reading and teaching this book, and to define our lives as responding to this book. We take it in, and we broadcast it out. That is what it means to be a Jew -- to live in the light of the most important book ever written.