Saturday, 13 Jun 2009

Written by Rabbi Sheila Shulman

‘It was not enough to get the Israelites out of Egypt; it was necessary to get Egypt out of the Israelites.’ That’s one of those little gems, with no context and no precise attribution, that appear as commentary in various Haggadot. I’ve been meaning to look it up for years. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out to be a comment, in one or another collection of midrashim, on God’s declaration, which follows closely upon this reading, that the generation who came out of Egypt will die in the wilderness during the forty years while the next generation, who did not know slavery, grows up. It was certainly the first thing I thought of when I read today’s text.

The people, we should remember, are at the very borders of the ‘promised land’. In the course of the Exodus itself, and in their two years of wandering thus far, they have been in God’s presence, they have witnessed miracles, they have been nurtured with food and water. It’s even said, in some of the more extravagant midrashim, that their clothes did not wear out. They have been given, so to speak, a workable constitution. Even if the numbers in the census are hyperbolical, they seem able to muster a decent fighting force. Their leaders are strong. Whatever we make of the politics of the situation, never mind the theology, the people are not in a bad position. Though they may be in shock, from so much newness.

Whether it’s shock, or the ingrained constrictions of slavery, the mitzraim they carry in their hearts and nerves, none of what they have experienced seems to make any difference. They’ve learned nothing. Or rather, they’ve unlearned nothing. Or both. Sometimes you have to unlearn a lot of stuff in order to learn another lot, especially in times of rapid and profound change.  That’s certainly what the Israelites were faced with. Four hundred years of slavery, or something like ten generations—even if it was ‘only’ forced labour—can go a long way toward enforcing the understanding that you’re powerless, dependent, atomized, that your life isn’t worth much, and that nothing is worth taking a risk for because you’ll probably just get clobbered. And then sudden freedom, an apparently empty wilderness, a volcanic eruption, all kinds of weird signs and portents, and a leader, no doubt mad, who hears voices, disappears up a mountain for weeks on end, and comes back saying he’s been talking with God. Yes, well….

Here is a modern, and infinitely more modest, version of precipitation into the unknown, with subsequent skewed perceptions, though without the fireworks and without the visionary leader (unless you count Roosevelt). My mother came to America, from some shtetl in the Ukraine, as a small child. Her childhood was impoverished, and she had to go to work much too soon. On the other hand, while her life was not particularly ‘successful’ or ‘fulfilled’, she was a citizen, which counted a lot for her generation; she was white; she was steadily employed—for peanuts, but still. We lived in Brooklyn, surrounded by other Jews and a scattering of Italian Catholics. She was, in effect, and relatively speaking, safe.

But she never for a moment felt safe. Or rather, she could not learn that she was safe, more or less. To the end of her life, whenever a brown envelope (in America that meant official government post of some sort) arrived in the letter box, she’d go deathly pale, shake, fidget with it for a long time before she opened it, and say over and over again in unmistakably anxious tones ‘What do they want from me?’ And she could never, ever believe that anything good could happen, or that anything could be different, except to be worse. Sound familiar? In a somewhat muted form, that anxiety, and that expectation that things could only get worse, did not, of course, stop with her.

But to return to the Israelites (not a very big jump, really), and their precipitate upheaval into the unknown, which is what real change is about—facing the unknown, that is. How could they, with their history, have had anything but what Henry James called ‘the imagination of disaster’ when they thought about the future, about what might be coming next? Only, really, by unlearning what they ‘knew’ from their time in Egypt. But that was their experience; how could they deny it, or not trust it? On the other hand, all this other stuff had also happened. So, apparently, there’s experience, and there’s experience. There’s their time in Egypt, and then there were the extraordinary events they participated in, or were witness to, from the moment of the Exodus, events were also, indubitably, ‘experience’, though presumably of a different order—less assimilable, at the very least—than that which had been ground into them, into bone and consciousness, for all their lives, and the lives of their forbears before them.

There, at the borders of the land, the Israelites face a real dilemma, perhaps the realest one any of us ever faces: what, in reality, is our experience? If we look clearly at it, and find it contradictory, which story of our life do we end up telling ourselves? The one that allows ‘root-room’ for courage, for hope, for vision, or the one that does not? Of course, most of us muddle along most of the time, not particularly aware of contradiction, somewhere between the two. But crunch points do come, and they are often times of serious change, where it becomes imperative to choose. And that choice is intimately bound up with the narratives we live in, both the Jewish one, and the story we tell ourselves about our own life.

This narrative, for example, makes it terribly clear that the people cannot ‘inherit’ the land (however we understand that) until and unless they decide, until and unless they choose to change their understanding of their own experience. That means, in effect, deciding what to unlearn, so as to be able, eventually, to choose what to trust. There’s a lot of talk about learning, and so there should be. But there’s not nearly enough talk about unlearning, which so often has to happen first. For the generation of the Exodus, it was a risk to many. And for us, is unlearning also a risk too many?

The question operates on as many levels as you care to name: spiritual, political, communal, psychological. What do we, each of us in our different ways, have to unlearn, in order to make room for the learning we really need, the learning that will enable us to know that the vision of the ‘promised land’ is not about a place where we can go, but a human world we have to make, a human world we can make, a human world we have no choice but to make, because the alternative is one or another Egypt.

Rabbi Sheila Shulman

June 2009

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.