January 27, 2012

The Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who wrote an extraordinary ten volume World History of the Jewish People, was forced into the Riga ghetto in 1941, and then executed by the Nazis in December of that year. According to several accounts, Dubnow would go around the ghetto exhorting the people, "Yidn, shreibt un fershreibt" ("Jews, write and record"). His sense of urgency to record events was, I think, more than just a desire for substantiation of the monstrosity to be preserved. Recording events is part of the process of interpretation, and the act of writing gives purpose and dignity to life even in the most chaotic and humiliating of circumstances.

Something similar transpires in Parashat Bo, with the commandment to memorialize the Exodus even before it has reached its climax. In chapters 12-13 numerous mitzvot are commanded--from the fixing of the calendar (for you trivia buffs, what is the first mitzvah in the Torah?) to the redemption of first born to the Korban Pesach to eat matzot for seven days and on to the admonition marking of these events on the hand and head with tefillin—these mitzvot are all expressly designed to commemorate the historic passage to freedom. Curiously, there is no instruction to write things down.  In the ensuing years we received the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch.  It seems that the preservation of memory requires physical rituals.  Judaism can be trusted always to embed such rituals in a thicket of text, and all of these rituals are now well explicated for each generation.

Yet this same imperative to create ritual, and to explain the enduring meaning of events is not how most of us respond to our own personal lives. Today when we sense that we are in a momentous occasion, our instinct is to create images so that we can literally see what happened. Yet a picture is not always worth a thousand words.  Or, as someone once said “the book is better than the movie.”  A picture does not explain the meaning of an event. That requires a response of some sort. A picture accompanied by commentary, or embedded within a larger work of art can begin to give meaning to the experience. If we were leaving Egypt today, most of us would lift up our camera-phones and catch images of the Exodus, but that would never capture the power and grandeur of the experience.

What does it take to make us feel that we are in the midst of a historic change?  What rupture can shake our sense of habit and make use feel the urgency of writing about and ritualizing our experience?  Although we do not live in the kind of moment described by our parashah, it seems that our personal sense of mission can only be enhanced by our taking the time to write and create.  I reveled in the evening reading poetry with many of you last week as well as our recent service of Kavanah with new ways we are looking to express ourselves at CSI.  The time I have spent getting to know many of you these past few months has been truly meaningful.

Obviously there were movie and still cameras inRigain 1941, but few had access to them in those depraved days.  Deubnow may well have condoned the numerous methods of recordation available to each of us in 2012.  But my real feel is that he would still espouse what many would call hard evidence.  Who has not seen photos (or movies) on phones or a computer screen?  Each of them is gone with the flick of a finger or the click of a mouse.

Between MP3 players, laptops, Ipads, Iphones, Androids, Kindles, and Nooks (someone recently said to me “before you know it the Jews will be known as the ‘people of the Nook.’”), there will be no photos on the credenza.  My father and father-in-law were dumfounded when I e-mailed them a photo of Benny on the plane when we were still in the air.  All that is well and I am not maligning it.  We still need something to touch and feel.  As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary when I started noted when referring to his father, a well known rabbi, “Though he died over twenty years ago, we often meet in the pages of his books that are scattered throughout my library.”  What could be more poignant?

Some things need to be caressed, touched and seen—not for a fleeting moment, but all the time.  This week, let us try to identify the historic potential of our present, and at the very least mentally transcribe that awareness so that the moment does not simply pass, but is realized and remembered.  Just as the Israelites are about to cross the Red Sea and began transcribing our religion as we know it, let us learn from the past and the present so that we can take it with us forging our future together at CSI.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham