What if all of Jewish life, story, ritual and symbol was a practice and not the fulfillment of any kind of Truth?
What if the point of all Jewish tradition was an ever more focused intention on a set of ideas that are central to living a life of meaning?
What if every time we celebrated Shabbat – we saw it as not a reward of leisure for the work we have engaged in for 6 days, but instead as a weekly practice in the experience of feeling whole? Unburdened? Complete?
What if every time we observed Havdalah – we experienced it as a weekly reminder of the importance of maintaining sanctified borders – not to keep the stranger out, but rather to affirm the uniqueness of our identity, the uniqueness of our most cherished relationships and even, the important and sometimes painful step of discerning what or who we can no longer maintain in our orbit of intimacy.
What if Chanukah was a yearly exploration into the essential spirituality that exists in every single human being and our responsibility to never let the human heart be darkened by fear or intimidation?
What if Passover was a yearly archeological dig into the meaning of freedom? Not just for us Jews but for all people?
If this were the case, if Jewish ritual and tradition, holidays and observances weren’t about affirming what we believe about our history, our heritage, our story, but instead were regular practices in the art of being human, the practice of Jewish theology would be a practice in humility – in working to affirm our inherent ability NOT TO KNOW THE WHOLE TRUTH. And if we could live with that and by that, how much more peaceful a world this would be.
This past week, with the closing chapters of Genesis upon us, Parashat Vayiggash, retells the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers and ultimately, with his father, Jacob. Joseph is the Vizier of Egypt, having been absent from his family for 19 years. Sold into slavery by these very same brothers, thrown into jail by the man who had become his surrogate father, appointed to the second most powerful position in all of Egypt by a Pharaoh who, it would seem, was wise and discerning. Joseph, who is known only to his brothers initially as this Egyptian Lord, tests them to see if they have changed. He wants to know if they have grown since those days of jealousy and impulse that found him at the bottom of a deep pit, physically and existentially. Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers, wanting first to know about the welfare of their father. Soon after, Joseph, it would seem, releases them of their responsibility with these words,
“Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”
The question then lingers – “What does Joseph intend by these words?”
-Human infallibility in the face of a lovingly “meddling” God?
-A fictionalized rationale such that Joseph can save his people and invite them to live amongst him?
-Joseph’s own humble self flagellation in light of his recognition of his unkind and boastful behavior?
Wherever you land, on one of these explanations or the many other possible ways to imagine this, the Torah doesn’t fix it for us – it doesn’t complete the circle. This is not a homily whose official lesson is bestowed upon us. Not in the Torah text and not in the writings of ancient and not so ancient Sages. They were satisfied with publishing a multitude of varying and often contradictory explanations for the many elusive events in the Torah. Seemingly left to us not to fix but to dive in and add our own.
What if the practice of Torah study led to a regular reminder of our lack of surety? What if it led to conversations without winners? Discussions without ultimatums? And what if this were a practice not at all limited to Torah study but instead to how we engage daily or weekly in the discussions of events whose meaning is at best opaque and at worst, completely irreconcilable? When we can engage in these kinds of conversations about issues complicated, challenging, disturbing or even insulting, with people with whom we fundamentally disagree and can yet put them aside and toast each other’s unique humanness, that is when peace will come.
By suggesting that Jewish tradition is an exercise in undermining our affirmed surety about the TRUTHS in life, I am not seeking to undermine Judaism. Rather, this is what it means to be the children of Abraham – able to smash idols of societal expectations and affirmations without smashing each other.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Pray as if it depends on God but act as if it depends on you.” Indeed, I would suggest, both are true. It is indeed the mystery, not the surety that Judaism seeks to make real. I don’t know what Joseph meant by those prophetic words – but the fact that it leads to his ability to not take vengeance upon his brothers, to save his people, and to ultimately keep alive the call to go forth and be a blessing to all who know you, this for me is why we are the people of the Book.