This year we are entering 2021 at the exact same moment that we are entering a new book of Torah. The transition from Genesis into Exodus is a hinge moment, and not just in the outer narrative of the Israelites’ adventure. If we understand Torah (in part) as a roadmap for the soul, Exodus appears to describe a hugely consequential developmental shift – complete with leaps and challenges that may shed some light on where we find ourselves today, at this turn from one year to the next.
First, note that as Exodus begins, we are now talking about a people – not just an individual or a family. Exodus shifts location (from Canaan to Egypt), and also more critically, shifts subject matter – our point of view moves from an individual to a collective one. This peoplehood, notably, is initially formed in the crucible of suffering, and as readers we suddenly find ourselves in the realm of an expanded belonging.
In Mussar terms, we might name this as a new awareness of our shared lives. Of course, this brings with it a fresh, monumental set of challenges. Exodus will begin to describe the messiness of living in community, and of identifying communal norms. It will also tell the story of how the fact of freedom presses upon this fledgling people, and how they begin to understand their agency and obligation to one another.
The experience of our ancestors in turn presses upon us in our own hinge moment. It seems that it’s not only a question of moving more from “I” to “we,” but also to expand our very notion of “we.” The practice of Mussar tells us to analyze this beyond the easy slogans. How do we honestly learn to inhabit or expand the “we” without colonizing, merging, or coopting? As Mussar teaches, truly every other being is our neighbor, and yet each are also a great mystery. Each face we encounter has the potential to awaken us from our trance of self-absorption.
Exodus gives us clues about how to do this. While it was perhaps more dramatic for our ancestors in their experience of moving in and through the brutality and despair of slavery, the meta-question still holds true for us: how might our relationship to our own suffering gently shift? For brilliant reasons, our personal suffering often makes us shut down and let our Yetzer haRa take over (one way of naming the Yetzer haRa is that it is our adaptive strategy in response to whatever our own wounds have been). Yet as Exodus moves forward, it invites the possibility of that suffering softening our hearts, and letting it inform our growing sense of how we might be useful to others.
This is exactly what the Israelites are tasked with as they head out of Egypt, into the wilderness, towards Sinai and towards covenant. They are wrestling with the oft-repeated commandment/koan: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger.” What is it to know the heart of a stranger?
May this secular New Year bring us many opportunities to learn together, as our CCM community grows and deepens.
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger is the spiritual leader of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, OR, and a Member of the CCM Rabbinic Advisory Council. He is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and is a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. Rabbi Boettiger leads three Mussar cohorts in Ashland, and also teaches Jewish meditation on a weekly basis and leads silent retreats. He has taught at Williams College and Southern Vermont College, and has been a scholar in residence at different locations around the country, teaching on topics ranging from the history of Jewish poetry to biblical Hebrew.