Since this summer, I have been teaching a short class each Wednesday morning on the Tomer Devorah, the Palm Tree of Deborah. The Tomer Devorah, which was written by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a medieval Sephardic mystic, is about the notion of imitatio dei, that each of us is tasked with emulating God in our behavior.
That we are to emulate God is firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition. It is first hinted at in the Book of Genesis, which teaches that human beings are created in God’s image and likeness; our rabbis suggest that, since God has no physical image or form, this means we are expected to embody God’s qualities or virtues. In the Book of Leviticus, we are famously commanded, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” and in the Book of Deuteronomy we are instructed lalekhet b’khol d’rakhav, to walk in all God’s ways. The rabbis of the Talmud interpret these imperatives to mean that we are supposed to act the way God acts: Just as God buries the dead, visits the sick, and doles out compassion – to list but a few examples – so should we bury the dead, visit the sick, and be boundlessly compassionate.
The way I see it, then, whenever we talk about God, whenever we strive to understand what God is or how God works in the world, we are really talking about the ideal paradigm for human behavior. Theology and morality are in this sense intimately intertwined. They are inseparable components of an integrated spirituality. Our theology must be ethical, as our ethics end up being extensions of our theology. The same is true of the Bible. Whenever the Torah talks about God, I do not read it as a simple description of the way God behaves. I read it as a description of the way we are compelled to behave as emulators of the Divine.
It is in this context that I would like to bring to our attention a passage from this morning’s Torah portion that many of us, I assume, might otherwise have…if I may engage in a bit of wordplay here…”passed over.” Now, I have to warn you that there is going to be math involved here, but I promise that, like our ancient ancestors, if you stick with me through the hard work you will merit to see the redemption.
Here we go. Toward the end of our parashah, as the Israelites begin their long march out of Egypt, at the very onset of their liberation, the text points out:
U-moshav b’nei yisrael asher yashvu b’mitzrayim shloshim v’arba me’ot shanah.
The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.
Va-yehi miketz shloshim shanah v’arba me’ot shanah va-yehi b’etzem ha-yom hazeh yatzu kol tziv’ot Adonai m’eretz mitzrayim.
At the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt.
Nearly all of the traditional commentators are quick to point out the problems with this calculation. We learn in several of the Torah’s genealogies, for example, that Moses was, at most, in the second generation of Israelite children born in Egypt, and that Moses was 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. This means that the Children of Israel in Egypt could not have been in Egypt for more than 200 years or so. Rashi, for his part, calculates that the Israelites were in Egypt for 210 years, which includes the period of time that the Israelites were there before the new Pharaoh, the one who did not know Joseph, enslaved them.
This might not be such a complicated problem were it not for the fact that God tells Abraham in the Book of Genesis that the patriarch’s descendents will be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years before they are ultimately delivered to the Promised Land.
What’s the point? The Israelites were supposed to be enslaved for 400 years, but instead were redeemed after only 210.
Now, this in itself need not be particularly problematic. After all, the Talmud insists that, even though God has a time planned for ultimate, Messianic, redemption, we can speed its advent through worthy behavior. But according to the last Slonimer Rebbe, a 20th century Hasidic luminary, gam l’ahishenah lo zakhu, she-hayu m’shukayim b’arba’im v’tesha sha’arei tum’ah / the Israelites did not merit to be redeemed early through worthy behavior, for they had sunk to the lowest of forty-nine levels of impurity. In other words, not only was it not time for the Israelites to be redeemed, but they did not yet even deserve to be redeemed. Slavery, it seems, and the influence of the Egyptians, had so utterly broken the Israelites’ spirit, had so thoroughly transformed and warped the Israelites’ character, that they had barely an ounce of goodness left in them. The motif of Israel’s unworthiness, their unreadiness to be redeemed appears again and again throughout the Exodus narrative: when Moses comes to liberate them, they reject his leadership; when they reach the Sea of Reeds, they demand to return to Egypt; when they hunger in the wilderness, they long for the delicacies of the land they knew. Time and again, this proves to be a people that is so entrenched in the mentality of slavery, that is so influenced by the immoral, materialistic, and brutal Egyptian way of life, that they are not yet fit to be redeemed.
Yet before the time had arrived, before they were deserving, God breaks all of God’s own rules and personally comes to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. And not only this, but God’s arrival in Egypt to redeem Israel has the quality of urgency and of haste. The name for the holiday in which we celebrate the Exodus, Passover, is taken from the Hebrew word pasah, which literally means to skip, to jump, to leap. God does not just pass over the Israelites’ houses to bring the final plague that will result in redemption. God runs, God skips over steps, God leaps over buildings to save Israel. Why? Why would God do this?
The answer, simply, is love. God’s love, as the Roman poet Virgil famously put it in the Eclogue, conquers all. God’s love triumphs over God’s own rules. God’s love triumphs over God’s patience, God’s willingness to let the clock run down on Israel’s enslavement. God’s love triumphs over God’s judgment of Israel’s flaws. God’s love is a boundless, resilient, powerful love that ignores everything that might stand in its path. In fact, the rabbis compare God’s leaping over houses in Egypt to save the Israelites with an image from the great biblical love poem Shir ha-Shirim: “Listen! Here comes my beloved, leaping over mountains, bounding over hills!” The God of the Exodus is a lover that races to save His imperiled beloved, refusing to be concerned with whether or not the time is right for salvation, or whether the beloved deserves to be saved.
And if our understanding of God is ultimately an imperative for our own behavior, as I believe it is, then we, too, are commanded to embody this kind of supple and limitless love in our lives.
On the most basic level, we learn from God that love is not simply sentimental mush, an emotional abstraction. Love is creative; it is the relentless desire to uplift others. And it is an internal force that compels us to redeem them, empowering us to overcome any obstacle that may be in our way.
My guess is that most of us can easily identify with this. Perhaps we have already emulated it in our lives, or at least we could imagine scenarios in which we would imitate it. Many of us have, unfortunately, been in situations where a loved one is in jeopardy: a loved one is stricken with illness, has been injured, or is having a life crisis. We feel like we would suspend time and space if we could just see them through the difficulty. At the very least, we have all heard stories of mothers summoning nearly superhuman strength to save their children. I even heard a story once of a mother who lifted a car in order to free her child who was pinned underneath. Love induces a singularity of focus that enables us to ignore the obstacles that may be in our way. Love, in short, is what gives us the power to save others.
But there is a second dimension, a more challenging dimension. It is what Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice: “love is blind and lovers cannot see/
The pretty follies that themselves commit.” Love makes us unconcerned with cold calculations about whether or not others are deserving of our love. Adira does not love me because I have no flaws. She, I’m sure, would be happy to list some of them for you during Kiddush. But because she loves me, she regards my flaws as irrelevant. This is a reality ingrained in our biology: A 2004 study by University College in London found that love suppresses activity in areas of our brains that control critical thought.
So now I come to the heart of the matter: I propose that it is not enough to show this kind of love to our families and friends. This we tend to do naturally. Instead, the Torah offers God’s love as a model because it requires our aspiration. God’s love is a kind to which we are not naturally predisposed. God loves the Israelites even though they do not deserve it.
Similarly, we are invited to love even those who we believe do not deserve it. As God’s love triumphs over God’s judgment, so must our love for others triumph over our judgments of them. One way God is able to do this is by looking past our flaws. Our rabbis teach that when God found no goodness in the enslaved Israelites, God recalled the Patriarchs, and redeemed Israel because of their merit. Nearly everyone, no matter how undeserving we may perceive them to be, has some redeeming quality. Yet most of us focus on that which we dislike or disapprove of in others. Instead, if we look for their goodness, however small and hidden it may be, there we can find love, and through that love, there we can summon the power to redeem them. After all, is it not true that the ones we perceive as being the most undeserving of our love are actually the ones who need its redemptive, liberating power the most?
I am aware, of course, that this is an extremely difficult imperative. Many of you might even be saying to yourselves that I am laying out an impractical ideal, that it just isn’t possible to actually practice this command. I, however, believe what Martin Luther King, Jr. taught; that this command is not only practical, but it is “an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for” those we deem undeserving.
So this Shabbat, and in the week ahead, I want us to think about all those people we despise or berate because we see only their flaws. I want us to think about all those suffering people out there who we ignore because we deem them unworthy of our generosity. I want us to think about all who are in such desperate need of redemption. I hope we can look into their eyes and say, “I love you, and I will do whatever it takes to help save you.” Let us cultivate the abiding faith that, as God redeems with love, through the power of our love, even the most recalcitrant people can be transformed.