There is a beautiful midrash that accompanies the moment the Ten Commandments are given to Moses atop Mount Sinai. “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). It’s the Hebrew which draws the rabbis’ creative and exegetical impulses. והלוחת מעשה אלוהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלוהים הוא חרות על הלוחת
By changing one vowel in the Hebrew word for graven, or carved in stone, which the tablets most certainly were, the word חרות can be read not as “graven” but as “freedom.” This renders the end of the passage thus: “And freedom was on the tablets.”
For the rabbis, adherence to a moral law was a necessary corollary to having been freed from slavery. The opposite of the degradation of slavery in Egypt, in other words, is not total freedom to do what one chooses but rather the freedom and responsibility of living in a civil society. The chaos, brutality and idolatry inherent in Pharaoh’s scheme was to break the will of the Israelites, deny their desire to serve God and create a dystopian world in which Pharaoh was worshipped and obeyed. For ancient Israel, this was anathema. Worship another human? Impossible. After all, look at the price. The killing of Israelite males; oppression and work with no pay; no time off; no Sabbath rest; and the attempted obliteration of a unique Jewish identity. One of the most inspiring aspects of the story, which Jewish tradition has preserved and passed down through generations, has been the sheer force of will to non-violently resist oppression.
Why did God save the Jews from slavery? Because even through the oppression, they continued to give their children Hebrew names. How did Moses know he was a Jew? His mother secretly sang him Hebrew lullabies when she was hired by Pharaoh’s daughter to be his wet-nurse. In other words, as the interpretive tradition makes clear, culture can be preserved in remarkable ways, in sustaining ways, in redemptive ways, when we resist dehumanization by the very system of oppression that slavery is designed to be.
In the American context, we recognize this in a number of remarkable slave narratives that have been preserved and published: Solomon Northrup, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass are among the most well-known individuals whose stories of survival are beacons of hope; human dignity triumphing over the idolatrous evil of the institution of slavery. And FD, the most prolific of all former slaves, struggled mightily with the morality of violent resistance. When John Brown, the radical abolitionist, tried to recruit Douglass to help in the raid on Harpers Ferry, Douglass refused violence. But it was an agonizing choice and one he returned to and questioned in later stages of his life. Moses, after all, killed an Egyptian taskmaster and fled into the Midian desert. It was there he discovered the Burning Bush and met God. And it was God who commanded Moses to return, not to fight, but to argue with words for the freedom of his people. And it was the site of the Burning Bush, Horeb, that would be the very same mountain range (Sinai) which Moses would climb to receive the Law after winning the Jews their freedom.
For generations, Jews followed the Law through the agency of the priestly sacrifices. As an analogy, this was one manifestation of our judicial system. Moses and other non-priestly leaders were often called upon to adjudicate matters of dispute and the Torah makes very clear that in the case of three judges a majority opinion is what binds the people to a decision. God can’t intervene all the time, Moses learned; and so he received the law of self-rule. A kind of proto-democracy, as it were. And when one was required to pay one’s debt for sin or breaking the law, one would bring a sacrifice as a kind of formal recognition of guilt and acceptance of responsibility for having breached the law.
It was a fairly basic system and it held as long as there was an institution—the Temple—and a caste of servants—the Priesthood—to carry it out. And as we have noted before, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, a new adaptation was in place. Learning, Prayer and Deeds of Loving Kindness became the new sacrificial system. The rabbinic court replaced the priests and the prophets and for nearly 1700 years, Jewish communities were subjected to the rulings of their rabbis. Until Napolean changed everything.
When the bright sun of reason dawned and the French Enlightenment swept over civilization, the Jews were emancipated again from the confinement of second-class citizenship and invited into European societies that were consciously remaking themselves as post-monarchical states and into democracies. A Jew, as Napolean put it rather succinctly, could be a French citizen of Jewish faith. The notion of the Jewish people was problematic for Enlightenment thinking (and ultimately a foreshadowing of Zionism), but what fundamentally changed was the radical notion that still adheres today and forever transformed Jewish life. When Jews lived in the shtetls, or in the Pale of Settlement, in segregated areas away from equal participation in European life, they were granted a degree of self-rule among themselves. In these societies, rabbis enforced their decisions by means of excommunication. A rabbinic court could meet and if it so decided, could banish someone from a community. You break Jewish law, you lead others astray, you don’t grant a divorce to your wife, or in the case of Benedict Spinoza, you suggest that man, not God, wrote the Bible—you can be excommunicated.
But when you are a Jewish citizen of France or Holland or Germany or America or any free nation, the rabbinical court loses all power over you. You answer to the state, to the civil society in which you are an equal participant. This is the new paradigm of Jewishness that applies to most communities with the exception, ironically enough, of Israel. One of the ongoing challenges of democracy in the Jewish state has to do with the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis to conduct the business of Judaism like weddings, funerals and conversions (they cannot). Another challenge has to do with the application of equal rights for Arab or Palestinian citizens of Israel, those who are Muslim or Christian living within a Jewish state. Since Israel is still without a constitution, both of these matters remain unresolved and make for endlessly interesting, and at times frustrating, even maddening, discourse.
In democratic societies, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” There is a covenant of sorts written into the law that presumes we won’t always get it right in our civil societies, but we are obligated to keep trying. What is it that Rabbi Tarfon said? “You are not obligated to complete the task; neither are you free to desist.” What enjoins us to our neighbors is the shared effort, the attempts over time, to polish the stones of law with our unceasing efforts.
When I served Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and we celebrated our 150th anniversary in 2012, I used to say at various gatherings, “When this synagogue was established, women couldn’t vote and African Americans were slaves. But today the President of the United States is an African American.” Martin Luther King, and now Bryan Stevenson say, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” We owe it to ourselves to remember that.
All these seemingly disparate ideas come to mind when reading this week’s parshah, Shemini. In one of the Torah’s most disturbing incidents, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, are killed by Divine fire for offering their own sacrifices out of order, in contravention of the law of sacrifice. The rabbis are quick to note the context. That Nadav and Avihu’s sacrifice was brought on the “eighth day” after the seven day celebration and consecration of the priesthood. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the “seven day week symbolizes a complete unit, and an eighth day represents starting over at a new level,” albeit a dangerous one. And the rabbis in the Talmud note that whereas the seven days are akin to the Creation story, the eighth day represents the obligation to live in the real world. This is what made Nadav and Avihu’s act so egregious: they refused to leave the veil of protection in their spiritual “Garden of Eden” and instead arrogated to themselves a kind of righteousness that was not only unmerited but transgressive, indulgent and idolatrous. Again Rabbi Hirsch on why God may have punished Aaron’s sons: “The more a person stands out among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show indulgence when that person does wrong.”
Biblical, rabbinic and civil societies all share the mandate that leaders ought to be held to a higher standard, ought to be incorruptible, because doing wrong is fundamentally a threat to the rule of law which, at its core, is meant to safeguard and protect, not undermine or crush our freedom in its application.
Covenants, whether religious or democratic, are fragile things. They require humility and vigilance in order to thrive with integrity.
With elections looming in Israel and the 2020 U.S. presidential campaigns already gaining traction, it would serve us well as citizens and as Jews to be reminded that there is no perfect solution for a problem or challenge; that there is more that unites us than divides us; and that when we step out into the enlightened areas of life, when we engrave our laws with freedom and justice and love, we offer hope for a better future for all.