Throughout Jewish history, every major crisis is responded to with an awakening of creativity.
As we move away from Hanukkah, we follow the narrative of our Torah down to Mitzrayim and into Sefer Shemot – the Book of Exodus. Found within the stories and laws of Sefer Shemot, we can find hints of challenges that those who were responsible for canonizing the Tanakh were seeking to confront.
Throughout Jewish history, every major crisis is responded to with an awakening of creativity. In response to the transition between Persian and Hellenistic rule we see the beginning of the canonization of Tanakh sometime around the 2nd century BCE. When the Babylonian Exile came to an end, and a majority of those living in Babylon remained in Diaspora, an entire generation of Jews that never stepped foot in the land of Israel came of age toward the end of the 5th century BCE when the Second Temple was constructed. This led to three distinct groups of Jews – those who never left the land of Israel, those who had returned to the land of Israel, and those who had never been to the land of Israel. There are elements of the narrative of Sefer Shemot which speak to each of these groups individually and collectively.
- To speak to the community who had never been to the land of Israel, whether because they were born outside the land or had chosen to join the people in exile, the Sinai narrative of covenant as the bonding aspect of peoplehood brings together those from any place in the world who share the common values and adherence to the laws and customs of the Torah.
- The experience of those returning from exile in Babylon is spoken to directly by the narrative of God fulfilling the promise made to Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov, that their descendants would reside in the land of their ancestors and that Moshe, the stranger in a strange land, would lead the people to freedom.
- Addressing those who never left the land of Israel during the exile, comes the centralization of the Mishkan/Mikdash (Tabernacle/Temple) motif – that what was and remains at the center of the people is a sacred space that is always destined to be in Jerusalem, and so the practice of Pilgrimage becomes essential, that even as there are those in Diaspora who must make a distant pilgrimage, the rites, practices, and governance is always maintained by those present in the land who are at the center of the people.
The Exodus narrative unifies, crystalizes, and solidifies our sense of self and collective identity.
The bringing together of disparate identities that ultimately seek to find a commonality is one of the most powerful aspects of this text. It is a firm reminder that while each of us may have a different, unique entry-point into our Jewish practice, and that while there is an incredible diversity in authentic Jewish expression and practice, we are bonded together. That bond may come from a shared value system (Sinai), from a shared experience (Exodus), or from a shared place (Temple), or it may be a mixture of all of these. The Book of Exodus reminds us that it is our perpetual responsibility to provide affirming, inclusive community, inviting to everyone who is seeking to find their place within the Jewish people.