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Reaffirming our Commitment to Three Founding Pillars

01/04/2024 09:43:37 AM


Rabbi Micah Peltz

While I hope that your new year is off to a great start, I imagine that, like me, you are feeling some ambivalence as we enter 2024.  Israel’s war against Hamas weighs heavily on us, as we continue to do what we can to support our friends and family there.  The precipitous rise in antisemitism in our own country and around the world is also very much on our minds.  While most of us have never experienced a time like this, the truth is that what we are living through is closer to the experiences that our people have faced throughout history.  How do we navigate such a time?  There is no simple answer to this question, but recommitting ourselves to what has allowed our people endure for centuries can help.  For this reason, beginning to read the book of Exodus on this first Shabbat of 2024 seems perfectly timed.  

In his new commentary, scholar Leon Kass sees this second book of the Torah as the quintessential text for Jewish peoplehood.  That’s because it is in this book that we find the three pillars on which the nation of Israel was founded.  Pillars that have propped up our people for generations, and continue to have the potential to do so for us today.  Kass writes that the first pillar is a shared historical narrative.  This is the story from slavery to freedom that we tell every year in our weekly Torah reading of Exodus as well as around our Passover tables.  This story binds us through our challenging past and also our steadfast hope for a better future.  As we read in the Passover Haggadah, in every generation we have faced antisemitism and persecution, and yet we are still here, a thriving people.  To paraphrase a once popular song, we might get knocked down, but we get up again, and no one has ever been able to keep us down.  And they won’t today.  The second pillar that Kass points to that originates in Exodus is mitzvot, commandments.  Exodus contains a comprehensive set of civil and moral laws.  These mitzvot are meant to guide our everyday life and to shape our national character.  Lately, one of the best examples of this I can point to is the mitzvah of tzedakah.  So many of us felt compelled, and still feel compelled, to give tzedakah to support our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Doing this mitzvah has made a tangible difference in Israeli’s lives and it has enabled us to make some measure of difference in such an overwhelming situation.  Mitzvot point us in the direction of holiness.  Finally, at the end of the book of Exodus, we read about the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle.  For Kass, this represents the third pillar of our people, namely “addressing the human soul’s deep yet undisciplined longings for connection with the divine.”  The rituals of the mishkan, just like the rituals we practice today in our synagogue and in our homes, provide opportunities for God to dwell with us.  We all try to slow down a world that moves so fast.  We are also trying to find meaning in the midst of a culture that worships so many temporary and ultimately meaningless things, like celebrity and status.  Deep down we know that there is more to life than this, our souls cry out for it, and we must create moments in space and time for connection.  We do this when we sit at our Shabbat tables and in our sanctuary, when pray and gather together.  In these spaces we disconnect from our devices so we can connect with one another, as well as with something greater than ourselves.  These three foundational pillars of our people that Kass sees in the book of Exodus continue to sustain us in a chaotic world today.  Our shared history broadens our perspective on the world and gives us hope for a better future.  Our mitzvot provide us with tangible things we can do to bring more holiness into the world.

Building a mishkan allows us to value the creation of moments in time and space that draw us closer to God.  We pray that 2024 will be a better year, but we do not know what exactly it will hold.  But we do know what will help us through whatever we encounter this year.  When we reaffirm our commitment to these three founding pillars, we know that we are not alone.  We are part of a great people, with a great history, that has contributed so much good to the world.  May we continue on in this tradition, as we read again the book of Exodus, and move on into the new year. 

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784