Friday, May 25, 2012

Two-minute Torah: In The Wilderness

This Shabbat we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. The English name of this book is Numbers but in Hebrew it is known as B'midbar, "In The Wilderness." It covers almost 38 years of the 40 year period from the departure from Egypt to the entrance into the promised land.

In his seminal book "Exodus and Revolution," the great American Jewish philosopher Michael Walzer draws a contrast between messianism and what he calls "Exodus Politics." In some ways for us Jews it is a subtle distinction, because obviously Passover is connected in Jewish thought with the messianic idea. For example, we symbolically welcome Elijah (the harbinger of the Messiah) at the Passover Seder, and most of the many references to the Exodus in Jewish liturgy make it clear that it is viewed as a synechdoche for the ultimate redemption of the entire world.

Yet, Walzer points out that messianism and "Exodus politics" are in tension if not actually opposites. Messianism is supernatural, for one thing; it depends on divine action. It is total and immediate and does not take realpolitik into account. Exodus politics is gradualistic -- we don't go from slavery to Promised Land overnight, it takes 40 years. And exodus politics is melioristic -- it strives not for perfection but for improvement. As long as today is better than yesterday, we are moving towards the Promised Land.

The message of the Wilderness is not one we like to hear. We live in a society of microwaves, instant messaging and sound bites. The American Jewish community is looking for the magic bullet that will cure all of our problems. For a while it was day schools, then it was Birthright, then it was Jewish camping, then "indie minyanim," and now it's Tribefest and Moishe House. All of these are good things, by the way, but no one magic bullet is going to guarantee the survival of American Jewry. And no one magic bullet is going to solve the problems of any particular synagogue. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience.

As Walzer says, there are three lessons of Exodus politics:
1.) wherever you are now, it is probably Egypt;
2.) the Promised Land is real;
3.) the only way to get there is to march through the wilderness -- there are no shortcuts.

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