Follow the light: Key to Jewish survival is optimism

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)   

And G-d spoke to Moses and said unto him, I am the Lord, and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as Almighty G-d [El Shaddai], but My name YHVH [Four-letter Name of G-d] I have not made known to them.  (Exodus 6:2–3)

What is the secret of Jewish eternity? If medical opinion is beginning to maintain that one of the most important variables in achieving longevity is an optimistic outlook on life, one of the most unique and important messages that Judaism gave to the world is the optimistic notion of world redemption.

Our Western culture is formed by the Greco-Roman civilization and by what is generally known as the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. The Greeks saw the world and life in a cyclical pattern of endless repetition without purpose or end-game: the myth of Sisyphus who is doomed to take the boulder up and down the mountain endlessly; the tragedy of Oedipus who suffers the sins of his parents and whose children are doomed to repeat the very crimes committed by their forbears; Shakespeare’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow beats on this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time” and “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that world and history are linear rather than cyclical, progressing towards repair and redemption, the prophetic notion of eventual human perfection at a time when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war any more” (Is. 2:4). I would maintain that what has kept us going despite exile, persecution and pogrom is this fundamental belief that what we do counts and that eventually we will succeed in perfecting the world in the Kingship of G-d.

This revolutionary optimistic concept is built around the name of G-d revealed at the beginning of this Torah portion: “And G-d spoke to Moses, and said to him I am the Lord [YHVH]” (Ex. 6:2). The Bible goes on to say that our patriarchs only knew of the name “Almighty G-d” (El Shaddai), but this generation of Moses will be privileged to know the new name of G-d, the Lord (YHVH). And it is specifically within the context of this new revelation of the name that G-d confirms the establishment of the covenant, the entry of Israel the people into Israel the land, and the exodus from slavery and oppression to freedom and redemption.

What does this new revealed name have to do with redemption? In the previous Torah portion we read of the dialogue between G-d and Moses that is the beginning of the explanation. The Almighty reveals Himself to Moses in a burning bush, and bestows upon him the mission of taking the Jews out of Egypt (Ex. 3:10). Moses asks for G-d’s name, which is another way of asking for a working definition of G-d which he could communicate to the Israelites. G-d said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (Ex. 3:14), which is best translated, “I will be what I will be.” What kind of name is this? It seems to be vague, not at all defined, and very much open-ended. Moreover, the verb form around which this phrase is built is identical to the verb form of the newly revealed name of G-d, both of them coming from the verb to be (H Y H).

In order to complete the elements of our puzzle, we must invoke the very first commandment which G-d will give the newly formed Jewish people: ‘This renewal of the moon shall be for you the beginning of the months…’ (Exodus 12:1)

The Israelites are commanded to search the darkened sky for the new moon, the light which emerges each month from the blackened heavens devoid of light. The Zohar, in explaining the importance of the moon and our celebration of its renewal each month with Psalms of praise (Hallel), explains: The Jewish nation is compared to the moon. Just as the moon wanes and seems to have completely disappeared into darkness only to be renewed and reborn, so will the Jewish people often appear to have been overwhelmed by the forces of darkness and evil only to reemerge as a nation reborn in a march towards redemption.

Thus did the Babylonian Talmud emerge from the destruction of the Second Temple and the reborn State of Israel emerge from the tragedy of the Holocaust. From this perspective, the message of the moon is a message of ultimate optimism. The Almighty G-d Himself guarantees not only survival but also salvation. The paradigm for the optimistic and life-affirming pattern of exile and redemption is our experience of slavery in and exodus out of Egypt – and the fundamental change in Egyptian society and world mentality wrought by that exodus.

And let us pay special attention to the words of this first commandment: “This renewal of the moon shall be for you the beginning of the months…” The Hebrew phrase “for you” seems superfluous. Its meaning, however, as explained by the sages of the Talmud, makes it central and pivotal to the world as the Bible sees it.

Our G-d is not only the G-d of creation, El Shaddai, the G-d who set limits on each element as He set boundaries on the heavens and the earth, the sands and the seas, mineral, vegetable, animal and human life and activity; He is also the G-d of history, “who will be what He will be,” and who has a built- in plan for the world which includes its ultimate betterment and even perfection. And if creation was an act of One, Events in history are the result of partnership between the divine and human beings, G-d, Israel and world. Hence in the marking of the renewal of the month, which is really the marking of historical time, the Lord clearly tells His people that time is in their hands to do with what they will. If indeed how many years we may have to live depends on many factors aside from ourselves, what we do with the time at our disposal depends mostly on us.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Orthodox) is Chief Rabbi  of Efrat, Israel.

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