Thoughts from Rabbi Shai Held

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Mechon Hadar’s Rabbi Shai Held wrote the following personal and beautiful words about the inauguration, which he has kindly allowed me to share with you.

Those of you have been my friends and/or my students over many years have no doubt heard me say it countless times before: the meaning of the Exodus is that anything is possible, that there is no status quo that cannot be overturned.  Imagine a world in which you are a slave, and your father was a slave, and his mother before him, and so on for generations.  And then, seemingly suddenly, God intervenes and you are no longer a slave.  To be sure, the journey ahead will be long and arduous. Indeed, there will be moments when things seem so frightening and unsettling that you will even find yourself longing for the way things were before.   But there is no returning to the way things were– not ultimately, anyway.  The Exodus is a rupture, a break in history, a moment after which all things are new, a moment in and through which all things are possible.

I have a very personal confession to make:  over the past couple of years, as my struggle with chronic illness has continued and in many ways intensified, I have found myself less able to talk about the Exodus in this way.  Is there really no status quo that cannot be overturned? I have asked myself.  What about the pain and fatigue that wrack your body each day?  What about the degradations and devastations that pervade the globe and seemingly make a mockery of human dignity and of life’s meaningfulness?  Perhaps all this talk of the Exodus as paradigmatic for human history was just loose talk, just so much Pollyanna nonsense.  I have wondered, and lamented the depths to which life seems resistant to, indifferent to, the stories we tell and the narratives we strive to live by.

This morning I feel something I have not felt in quite a long time:  I believe– but really believe– in the Exodus again.  That which was utterly impossible, indeed unimaginable, will become a reality in just a few short minutes.  The United States of America, the great beacon of freedom and democracy, has always been tainted by the monstrous legacy of slavery and the ways it denied that black men and women, too, were created in the image of God and were thus every bit as infinitely valuable as their white counterparts.  Today these same United States will swear in its first black president, a black man who will occupy the very house that slaves built so long ago.  The status quo has been overturned, repudiated, one might even say redeemed.  (This, I hasten to add, remains true regardless of one’s political commitments or affiliations.)

We ought not be deceived.  Just as the Israelites faced a long and torturous road to the Promised Land, so also do we Americans face  a long and difficult road ahead (and on more fronts than I can begin to list).   The Hasidic masters teach that each year we are obligated to re-live the Exodus, to tap into the liberatory energy that the Exodus represents, to reclaim and deepen our own freedom and dignity as God’s creatures.  I cannot help but feel that the Exodus is being re-enacted and re-experienced in our day, today.

To be sure, many of the world’s problems will remain as intractable tomorrow as they seem today.  On a personal note, my own battle with illness is not likely to disappear soon.  I’m still not sure about every status quo being overturned– at least not before the Messiah comes and enacts a kind of cosmic Exodus for us all.  But what I’ve learned this morning is that much of what we take as given and immutable is in fact neither.  So I go back to what I have said and taught over and over again:  to take Judaism seriously is to believe that the world as it is is not yet the world as it must be, and to know that we are implicated in the sacred task of closing the gap between them.  May all of our faith in the possibility of redemption and transformation be renewed and revitalized by this extraordinary day.

“This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and delight in it.”

God bless all of you, and God bless the United States of America.

Posted on January 20, 2009

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