Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Rabbi Gary Pokras
The defining narrative of the Jewish people is the Exodus from Egypt – how God redeemed us with an outstretched hand and led us through the Wilderness towards the Promised Land. That story, arguably, begins at the Burning Bush with this verse:
God said: I Myself have heard the groans of the Israelites, as the Egyptians have enslaved them, and I have remembered my covenant. [Ex. 6:5]
In other words, our story begins with collective suffering. Sadly, both the bible and our history is replete with examples of Jewish suffering – from the suffering servant of Isaiah through the mass expulsion from Spain to the Holocaust and now to rising antisemitism today. We are well acquainted with suffering, and often take pride in our resilience. We might think that our suffering is what defines us. As the joke goes: “don’t mind me, I’ll sit in the dark.” Yet who really wants to sit in the dark? If we define ourselves as martyrs, then we miss the point. Judaism is not about suffering; it is about how to find joy and meaning despite our suffering – through our covenant with God.
The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim famously penned what he called the 614th Commandment (taking it upon himself to add one to the original 613 in the Torah): “Don’t give Hitler posthumous victory.” He was concerned about the loss of Jewish identity through assimilation and feared that after the Holocaust we would slowly disappear as a people and a tradition. While I share his concern about assimilation, I strongly disagree with his formulation of invoking the name “Hitler” for the observance of a mitzvah. Furthermore, to argue that we should not assimilate because of how others suffered before us is a terrible incentive to be Jewish. Rather, we should focus on the joy and the meaning of Jewish life. Judaism should be inspirational, and thankfully, it is! Inspiration is a far greater motivator than guilt.
This does not mean that we should not remember. We must remember. The question is one of balance. Our history of collective suffering, and our grief over our losses help us to be empathetic and sensitive – and it honors those who have walked the path before us. But we must also remember that it is not our grief which defines us, but our love – and God’s call to us to leave the unjust status quo of the world behind us in the pursuit of a better world.