2016-06-30
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.

Put still another way, Pesach is the core truth, Sinai the way toward it, and Sukkot is the celebration of our journey toward the final destination. As God bids us walk through the desert toward the Promised Land--and this should be taken both literally and metaphorically--we celebrate the responsibility of trying to live up to God's ideals even in the most barren of places, even when a redeemed world seems nowhere to be found.

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Beautifully, of these three festivals, it is Sukkot that the Torah describes as the ultimate Festival of Joy (v. 40). The deepest joy of covenantal living is not to be found when God enacts salvific dramas on a cosmic scale but rather when we attempt to embody the Torah and its ideals in the mundane, the day to day,--or in the face of abundant pain and the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of history.

Interestingly, our chapter does not tell us about Sukkot immediately after discussing Pesach and Shavuot. Like the liturgical year, it inserts Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe, between Shavuot and Sukkot (vv. 23-32). The order is striking: Why place the time of personal repentance and transformation between Sinai and covenantal commitment? The answer, I think, offers us one final critical insight into the nature of the covenant between God and Israel.

Our commitment to realize a world of which God approves, to embody those values that God holds dear, has the potential to be overwhelming and quite literally debilitating. Each of us is a fragile and vulnerable being, tempted by self-centeredness into turning away from the kind of life God asks from us. Looking that reality in the face, we might be lured into despair: How can I, selfish and sinful, do the work of the covenant?

Judaism responds to this very real question with the Days of Awe and the period of teshuvah (repentance). God does not expect me to be perfect or to avoid ever failing. God demands, rather, that each time I stray, I return, and that each time I fall down, I rise up again and renew my faith and commitment. In order to live the covenant in truth, I need to know that forgiveness is available to me for the ways in which I will fall short. In the words of the Talmudic sages, "The Torah was not given to ministering angels" but rather to flesh and blood human beings in a hot and barren desert. Sukkot follows on the heels of Yom Kippur because it is precisely in the moment following forgiveness that I can most deeply taste the joys of carrying God's dreams as a fragile servant in an often painfully difficult world.

Pesach teaches us the most critical truth we can aspire to know as Jews and as human beings--that oppression of all kinds, no matter how deeply entrenched, can and must be rooted out. Sinai gives us the blueprint: How should I respond to the memory of enslavement and liberation? The Days of Awe remind me that it is OK, even necessary, to be human in order to be covenanted to God. And Sukkot allows me to feel the joy of covenant, of daring to share a dream with God.

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