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Mahashavoth - February 2017
As you read these words, we are in the cycle of Torah readings from Sepher Shemoth, the Book of Exodus. The two major events of the book are the Exodus from Egypt (Yetsiat Mitsrayim), and the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Ma’amad Har Sinai). These two events establish two foci which ostensibly stand in opposition, but actually function together to produce the spiritual richness of our tradition in general, and the creativity of Conservative Judaism in particular.
Yetsiat Mitsrayim asserts human freedom, the intrinsic right of each person to live free of outside control and the domination of others. Ma’amad Har Sinai asserts human responsibility, the demands and discipline of living in the presence of the divine and the recognition that our actions have consequence. Yetsiat Mitsrayim represents God’s love for us; Ma’amad Har Sinai represents our devotion to God. Yetsiat Mitsrayim focuses on our needs; Ma’amad Har Sinai focuses on our deeds.
Much of Judaism can be understood from the perspectives of these events. The two central relationships of Judaism, that between the human being and God (bein adam lamaqom) and that between two human beings (bein adam lahavero) reflect this duality. Our central concept of Teshuvah ("repentance") assumes both our freedom of choice and our ultimate responsibility. This dual perspective is also reflected in the Shabbat: Dr. Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary once commented that as "remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt" (from the words of the Friday night Kiddush) the Shabbat represents human freedom, and as "an eternal sign that in six days God created heaven and earth" (from the words of the Friday night Amidah) the Shabbat proclaims God’s sovereignty.
The Conservative Jew in particular moves between these two polarities, asserting the freedom and authority to modify tradition in response to each generation’s legitimate spiritual needs, yet at the same time affirming the timelessness of the tradition’s wisdom, significance, and authority.
In musical counterpoint two lines of music operate independently, each with its own melody and rhythm, yet they also work in tandem to produce a third richer melody. Yetsiat Mitsrayim and Ma’amad Har Sinai each individually reflect an important spiritual perspective and a significant religious message. However, it is together that they produce the beautiful melody of our Jewish tradition and capture the dynamic that defines our approach to that tradition.
Rabbi Charlie Popky