One of the more perplexing aspects of the Exodus story is the repeated “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. This phrase—together with another that is equally mysterious—is the key to understanding the true miracle of the Exodus.
While the Book of Esther bears all the literary marks of a fairy tale, the underlying themes are far from trivial. At what point does a ruler become unfit to rule? When is civil disobedience not only allowed, but imperative? Why continue to believe in social justice in a seemingly unjust universe?
Tisha b’Av is an intentionally triggered “national flashback”. Any survivor will tell you that the anniversary of a traumatic event is the time when one is most likely to relive it. Rather than trying to “get over it”, we allow ourselves to acknowledge the loss. We acknowledge that there are some things that we should not just “get over”.
The seeds planted on Tisha b’Av, a poem by Ovadya ben Malka: “A curse and a blessing were laid on us that day. Having lived the curse, can we doubt that blessing will come as well?”
Tisha b’Av is a kind of “Bermuda Triangle in Time” for the Jewish people. Most people know that both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed on that day. That would be enough to qualify this day as a day of misfortune. But what is less known is how far back it goes.
Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Holidays mandated by the Torah, and yet the text tells us very little about the holiday or how it is to be observed. Even the date on which it is celebrated is left undefined. Instead, Shavuot is described only by reference to what came before it. The nature of the holiday became the subject of intense debate among rival factions during the Second Temple era.
In fact, this controversy was part of a much larger debate which threatened to split the Jewish nation along sectarian lines. The split hinged on a major difference of opinion over the nature of Jewish society and its foundation texts: Is the Torah a fixed text, unchangeable for all time, or is it a living document meant to be reinterpreted in the light of changing circumstances?
Lag b’Omer’s rising popularity and increasing religious attribution is a good indicator of how holidays evolve in our national consciousness. We seek meaning, and if meaning is lacking, we draw on our collective memory of transformation to supply it.
The juxtaposition of Yom haZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and Yom haAtzmaut, the Anniversary of Independence, is startling. On Yom haZikaron, we remember those we’ve lost, and we mourn what might have been. And the next evening, the somber atmosphere of mourning suddenly gives way—too suddenly for many of us—to the exuberance of celebration. The transition seems too abrupt; is it really fitting? Can we be expected to shift gears so suddenly?
And yet, there are reasons why this abrupt switch may be fitting after all….
The Egyptian experience, not as a historical fact, but as a deeply-felt cultural motif, penetrates and pervades all subsequent Jewish law. The commandment to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times in the Biblical text, and serves as the basis of derivation of countless later customs and laws. The relevance of the Exodus story goes beyond mere factual truth; its true significance lies in what we’ve built on it and how it has molded us as a people who, in every generation, have made it our own.
The way we choose to commemorate communal sorrows is indicative of the peculiar relationship between the Jewish People and time. For most cultures, a memorial day is a day for transcending sadness. Pomp and ceremony keep the events in mind, while rising above them. Our way is different.