Friday, February 3, 2017

Exodus and Leviticus: The Protests and the Day After

      What would Judaism be without the Exodus?  A narrative that details the sorrows of the downtrodden and the joys of liberation, the Exodus from Egypt is a cornerstone of Jewish identity. We know from sociological data that even when Jews have given up all other forms of observance, the Passover seder remains a part of their lives.  The story can be addictive and nourishing, a tale of good and evil when good prevails against all odds. The Exodus makes for a fantastic movie -- we imagine ourselves almost always as Moses, courageous, victorious, and righteous.  What follows the Exodus, however, fails to compel audiences as much as the journey through the Sea of Reeds.

      After we are freed from the great external evil of Pharaoh, we need to face ourselves and confront the difficult freedom of the wilderness.  In an act of true love and commitment, God gives us a way to deal with the vicissitudes and chaos of the desert: Torah.  We celebrate this moment with Shavuot, a holiday far less known than Passover.  On Shavuot, we cleanse ourselves with a vegetarian diet instead of feasting on lamb (like on Passover), and we stay up all night study the statues, details, and nuances of Divine Law. Revelation -- and the restrictions that come along with it -- does not provide the same drama and allure as the Exodus. I know of many more Jews who will gladly sing the songs of the Passover seder than will joyously study and observe the minutia of kashrut.
    But great dramatic narratives cannot alone sustain a great nation or movement. There needs to be guidance in the wilderness to create, order, and unify a diverse people. Discipline and restraint are essential for crafting just solutions to inevitable conflicts.  Leviticus may not be as sexy as Exodus, and Shavuot less famous than Passover.  But Jewish civilization could not continue without their complementary contributions.
     The same is true with our social justice movements.  Protests are our great narrative actions. However, without the discipline of voting strategically in every election, the restraint required of compromise across difference, and the requirement to donate to effective organizations and leaders, the protest movement will never bear fruit.  A movement without law is ineffectual and inert; a movement without narrative is soulless and bereft of galvanizing principles.  The next four years will require effective political mobilization in order to preserve the rule of law and the health of our democracy.  We've protested. Crying out to God is important.  Telling the story is essential.  But then there is the time to be pragmatic, practical, and productive.  We must have the discipline to vote when it counts (which is always!), to make compromises on smaller issues to preserve our most cherished institutions, and be willing to give our time and treasure to actualize our most deeply held and most imperiled values.

Shabbat Shalom!