Reclaiming our Relationship with G-d
by Rabbi Aaron Gross
With the closing of the book of Beraishis/Genesis, one might assume we bade
a final farewell to the patriarchs and matriarchs. The setting changes with
the beginning of the book of Shemos/ Exodus, which forms this week's Torah
portion. We enter a new era with an entirely new cast. "And Joseph died,
and all his brethren, and all that generation." (Exodus 1:6) The face of the
nation begins to change, and the people eventually will bear little
resemblance to their pious, G-d fearing forbearers. The trials and
tribulations of the Egyptian bondage leave their mark as the saga of our
enslavement and persecution unfolds in the coming chapters. The telling
signs of our spiritual deterioration become painfully clear. Even as Moses
carries the Divine assurance of ultimate redemption, the Children of Israel
display disinterest in his message. "And they did not hearken unto Moses out
of impatience and out of cruel bondage." (Exodus 6:9) Surely by the time the
exodus becomes a reality, our illustrious past will be a distant memory.
However, Nachmanides (R' Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, of Gerona, Spain, one
of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages; successfully defended
Judaism at the dramatic debate in Barcelona in 1263) found a connection
between the two books. The lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs act as the
blueprints for what befalls their descendents. Genesis is the microcosmic
form of what will transpire in macrocosmic proportions for the entire Jewish
nation in Exodus. Each patriarch endured his own exile; Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob met challenges presented by a variety of deterrents to their service
The climax of Exodus, Nachmanides wrote, is the construction of the Mishkan
(tabernacle). Even after the physical deliverance from Egypt, we were a
nomadic slave people with no tangible vehicle for connecting with our
Creator. Only after receiving the Torah at Sinai and assembling a sanctuary
in which to capture the Sinaitic experience - a profound closeness with
G-d - could we be considered a truly free people able to serve Him. At that
time, the children of Israel returned to the spiritual stature of their
ancestors in their relationship with the Almighty. Just as the patriarchs'
and matriarchs' tents experienced the on going effects of being graced with
His presence, so did the Jews achieve it on the national level upon building
of the tabernacle.
The book of Exodus, then, is the story of our struggle to reclaim our
relationship with our heavenly Father that we almost lost for eternity
during our years in Egypt. Nachmanides' description of the events should
inspire us in our attempts toward creating an environment within every
Jewish home that enables the Divine Presence to dwell in our midst. However,
in order to do this we must understand: if the Jewish people in Egypt were
on the brink of spiritual disaster, by what virtue were we deserving of
Divine intervention on our behalf? What initiatives had we taken in the
context of our relationship with the Almighty?
The Medrashic texts Exodus Rabbah (1:33), Leviticus Rabbah (32:5) and Song
of Songs Rabbah (4:24) say that the Children of Israel were redeemed in the
merit of four observances: they did not change their Jewish names; they did
not adopt the language of the land, but continued speaking Hebrew; they did
not betray a fellow Jew to the Egyptians; and they were not immoral. At
first glance, this Medrash merely lists the merits for which G-d saw fit to
reward us with redemption. A deeper look yields a more meaningful insight.
These four merits are designed to preserve national identity. By not
changing names or language, we distinguish ourselves from the host nation.
The last two merits attempted to maintain our national unity. Through these
devices, our people prevented widespread assimilation, thereby paving the
way for liberation. As long as we remained separate, deliverance could
occur. The lesson for today is clear. With intermarriage and assimilation
rates spiraling upwards, our battle must be fought on two fronts.
Jewish education from the early years on must emphasize the ways in which we
can tangibly distinguish ourselves as Jews. Only by transmitting an
appreciation of our religion, embodied in the Torah, will we retain our
young people. This must be complemented by maintaining lifestyles that are
inherently Jewish. Finally, we must reconfirm Jewish unity if we are to
remain worthy of the calling, "So says the Lord: My son, My first born is
Israel. Let my son go that he may serve Me." (Exodus 4:22-23)
Have a good Shabbos!
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