The Shared Dream

The order of Jewish holidays, listed in this week's reading, teaches us the fundamentals of our relationship with God

 

Jews who take the claims of Jewish tradition seriously are forced to live with an almost unbearable tension. Judaism claims that every single human being is created in the image of God and has infinite dignity and worth as a result. Each of us is, the Mishna tells us, not merely beloved by God but also capable of living in full consciousness of being loved. And yet history and the reality we inhabit often make a mockery of human dignity; human beings are oppressed and degraded in countless ways. Political regimes that rob us of freedom and basic dignities, illnesses that incapacitate and humiliate us, relationships that dehumanize us in excruciating ways--all conspire to make the idea that we are created in the image of God seem Pollyannaish at best and downright delusional at worst.

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Judaism does not deny this fundamental tension between the Torah's claims and history's realities. Instead, it puts a profound response into place: The covenant between God and Israel is about a faithful and passionate attempt to bring reality closer into line with God's aspirations for the world. When we speak of being "God's partners," we suggest that it is our deepest responsibility as Jews to help God create a world in which human dignity is real and (hence) the presence of God is much more obviously manifest. Every aspect of our lives has to reflect our unflagging commitment to the covenant and its goals.

The holiday cycle discussed in this week's Torah portion (Leviticus 23) can perhaps best be understood as an extended reflection on the nature of this covenant between God and the Jewish people. We begin with the Festival of Pesach--Passover--during which we commemorate and re-enact the most important experience the Jewish people have ever had: We were an abandoned people, enslaved and degraded for generation upon generation, utterly devoid of hope and the sense that things could be different.

But, despite despair, the status quo was dramatically overturned, and we were set free. This is the most important story we tell about the world. It reflects both our aspirations and our deepest commitments: God will not be satisfied, and history will not be complete, until all oppression and degradation have been rooted out and God's presence is tangibly felt in the world.

Taken by itself, the Exodus insight--that oppression is unacceptable to God and must be uprooted--is as vague as it is powerful. What are the concrete implications of being the bearers of the Exodus story? It is for answers to this question that we journey to Sinai and receive the Torah--an event that, according to the rabbis, took place at the time of the Festival of Shavuot--the Feast of Weeks (v. 21).

It is no exaggeration to say that the Torah is, at its core, an attempt to understand the implications of the Exodus experience. Again and again, the Bible makes demands upon us that are justified by the most basic truth about our life as a people: "You were slaves in the Land of Egypt" and "I am the Lord your God who took you out from the Land of Egypt." At this moment in the Jewish calendar, we are between Exodus and Sinai--that is, we have just left Egypt, and we are journeying toward Torah. On Shavuot, we will receive the Torah yet again and attempt through it to [realize?]enact the world of which we dream and of which Exodus is the ultimate harbinger.

But if Pesach is about the Exodus and Shavuot about Sinai, then what about Sukkot, the Festival of Booths (vv. 33-43)? What formative event in our history does this festival commemorate? Sukkot commemorates the sheer fidelity of living the covenant day after day, even--and especially--on days in which God does not split seas or reveal codes of law and ethics.

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