5kahn, rabbi yoel
5kahn, rabbi yoel

Torah: Exodus offers hope for personal liberation a wide, open place


Exodus 13:17–17:16

Judges 4:4–5:31

What is the story of the Exodus about? At first glance, of course, the answer is simple: It is the liberation story of the ancient Israelite people from slavery to freedom. Yet across the centuries, readers of the story have found in the Torah’s central narrative support and inspiration for their own interpretations of how social change and, for some, revolution, can unfold.

In his preface to “Exodus and Revolution” (Basic, 1985), Michael Walzer shows what philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau “have done, first with the biblical text itself and then in the world, with the text in their hands.” African Americans’ yearning hope of freedom was long nurtured by their identification with the Torah’s story of enslavement and subsequent liberation.

Besides the national liberation story, the rabbis also heard the private pain of humans in distress and their experience of movement toward freedom.

In Psalm 118, we read “From the maitzar [‘straits’ or ‘narrow place’] I called … You answered me from merchav Yah — God’s wide, open place.” From my place of distress — out of despair or depression — I cried out. I was immobilized and then new possibilities, new ways of imagining, a new perspective opened up for me.

Has this ever been your experience? When have you been “stuck,” what enabled you to “lift up your eyes” and see the world, to understand the present moment and the future, differently than you had imagined?

The word “maitzar” — narrow place — reminds the rabbis of Mitzrayim, literally Egypt but figuratively it is every place of oppression or limitation, whether carried within or imposed from without. The movement from constraint to openness, from the despair of “no exit” to previously unimagined possibility, is embodied in our tradition by messianic hope.

While our tradition does not explicitly enumerate “hope” as one of the 613 commandments, the capacity to sustain hope even in the darkest hours and most trying circumstances has always been a core Jewish value. I think it is an overarching “meta-mitzvah.”

This week’s Torah portion begins: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer” (Exodus 13:17). Why not? Because ultimately short-cuts often take longer; because we cannot rush the journey; because even though we know what we must do, we are not always ready to take the next step.

Bay Area poet Dan Bellm understands the Exodus as a coming out (“exit”) narrative. The journey goes “not by nearer way … but round-about, by way of the wilderness,” both in the Torah’s telling and for contemporary liberation stories, as well:

The Crossing

God did not lead us by the nearer way

when Pharaoh let the people go at last,

but round-about,

by way of the wilderness —

pillars of fire and cloud marking night

and day —

to the edge of the flood-tide —

uncrossable and vast.

If God had led us by the nearer way,

we cried, we would not die here;

let Egypt oppress

us as it will; let us return to the past.

But we have come out,

by way of the wilderness,

in fear, on faith — free now, because we say

we are free — no longer the unchosen, the outcast.

God did not lead us by the nearer way,

but into rising waters, which do not part unless

with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast.

Roundabout, by way of the wilderness

we have come here, blessed with love,

lesbian, gay,

or sanctified in ways of our own, to bless

our God, who did not lead us by the nearer way,

but roundabout, by way of the wilderness.

– From “Practice: A Book of Midrash” by Dan Bellm (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2008, used with permission)

Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected]