Children of Believers
(T.B. Shabbos 97a)

This is an expanded version of the article of the same name that appears in Introspection 5766-1.

My father was a wandering Aramite. He went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there with a few people. He grew into a great, mighty, formidable, nation there.
Devarim 26:5

"The memory of its (Jewish) history does not form a point fixed in the past, a point which, year after year, becomes increasingly past. It is a memory which is really not past at all but eternally present. Every single member of this community is bound to regard the Exodus from Egypt as (if) he himself had been one of those to go... this people trusts only in the eternity it creates and in nothing else in the world."
Franz Rosenzweig
Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought

A weighty and curious trepidation precedes Pesach. How will I prepare adequately, existentially, for this redemption? For it is not re-enactment but an actual exodus. It is not an assumed role but a true personal memory that must be unearth'd. There is a climate of trauma that surrounds this time. Will I be shattered and re-formed? Will I be blessed, through my efforts in this redemption, with the complete consciousness of the ultimate redemptive presence of God? Will I know freedom?

But what is freedom?

Jean-Paul Sartre, The Reprieve, tells us: "Outside the world, outside the past, outside myself: freedom is exile." But the Talmud is not so wild with freedom. Shemot 32:16 tells us: "And the writing was the writing of God, engraved (charut) upon the tablets." T.B. Eruvin 54a explains: "The writing of God is freedom (cherut) upon the tablets." What we gain from proximity to God, from His narrative to us, provides us with true freedom. But this freedom is not outside the world, the past or the self. It is the strong-hold on which all three meet. Yet there is a cry of truth to Sartre's sentiment.

Sigmund Freud describes the state of great discomfort, even pain, which occurs when we think about death or any absurdity. He calls it unheimlich, unhome-like: it lacks familiarity; it surrounds us with strangeness, complete vulnerability without mercy or hope. Hasn't everyone felt this in some unlawful moments? We are affected towards doom by the wild workings of time that allows us at one point to have a home and at another to be homeless. History, the story of time, is one of our fiercest prevailing masters. And what is History if not the world, the past and the self? Would it not be a great comfort to imagine a freedom "Outside the world, outside the past, outside myself?"

Humanity sustains a great romance with eternity, fueled from just such a search for comfort. Everlasting unchanging Truth, and our ability to succumb ourselves into the vapor of eternity, would consequently vaporize the oppression of time, the unhemlich. Avivah Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, Parshat Bo tells us that, "in Ramban's view... the heart of the narrative (is) not a physical redemption but an eternal realization of the truth of God's relation to the world." Story is replaced by truth. History is replaced by eternality. And whatever trepidation we might have had is replaced with a rather impersonal freedom, for eternal freedom is a freedom that arrives without redemption.

This lack of redemption is not just logically impossible, in that an eternal freedom excludes the space in time for the slavery necessary to provoke redemption. Eternal freedom cannot couple with redemption because that is an existential impossibility. Ha'amek Davar, Shemot 6:7 says that the four cups of wine designate the four stages of redemption. He says there is a fifth cup—it is without obligation—but it represents the evolution of personal determination and growth. He says this is the apex of the redemptive experience. True growth, true redemption, is not able to occur without a whole-hearted involvement in an event—as an event not as a mere thought or contemplation. If our whole being is not at stake when attempting growth, then the non-disposable essence of a person is allowed to safely observe the expansion of what, at its most intimate, is a harvested grain of the essence. We cannot dismiss the oppression of time without dismantling our sense of significance. Despite the Ramban[i], we cannot forget that this story of Exodus is our story, our history.

To not forget is one thing, and not really so difficult for us to do; eternity turns and we hear the rustle and the distance the rustling sound journeys is calculated by our absorbed hearts with the passivity of habit, only it makes our hearts tremble. We don’t forget that we are the product of events. The difficult task is how to remember. We could trick ourselves into eternity and remember the events of the exodus like we remember thoughts, like shards of truth decorating eternity. But the task of Pesach is not to remember, but to have a memory, (memories have such an affectionate shape we could never excuse them from physicality). And not just to have a memory, but to re-live that memory on the seder night. On all other nights I travel from intense event into the security of eternity (Torah); how on this night can I travel from the security of eternity into the intense event?

In Devarim 4:9, Moshe Rabbeinu says to the people:
"Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully, so that you do not forget the things that your eyes saw. Do not let this memory leave your hearts all the days of your lives. Teach your children and children's children about the day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb."

Moshe is speaking at a time when those who directly witnessed the revelation to which he refers are already dead. What did these people, the living ones who Moshe warns, see to remember, to protect and to transmit?

To see is to know that you are a slave in Egyptand, simultaneously, a soul freed by God from this slavery. But to see does not require living through the original experience. Can it be that the apparently clean order of things—the notion that the events of my life are solely within me and belong solely to me, that we exist within strict temporal confines, that my senses limit my acquisition of reality, that reality is containable in space—is negotiable?

"It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt... in order that you may relate the story."  Shemot 10:2

Ibn Ezra, Shemot 13:8 clarifies a paradox: it is not because of the redemption that we fulfill God's commandments. It is because I fulfill God's commandments that I was redeemed. There is a great inversion of time, an overlap of all things in time, so that the cause is the effect and the effect the cause. Our future is determining our past. If I am told the story, if I internalize it and keep it in my heart, if I teach it to my children -- I will be redeemed: the story will occur. God's faith in His children is a redemption that begins with its ending.

When, in Yirmiyahu 2:2, God says: "I remember to your credit the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you went after me into the wilderness, into a land not sown", we find that part of our nature -- we call it forward and make certain it is still a viable aspect of our rhythm. We begin by learning about the exodus and, through learning about the experience, a memory about the experience is created.

If the learning is internalized learning, we are able to make this memory a part of the self, an adjuring memory. Internalized learning is a learning that has as its integrity genuine wonder, and pressing questions summoned by wonder. Or HaChaim, Shemot 13:8 tells us that the same basic answer is given to the wicked son and to the one who does not know how to ask. The latter son is disparaged not for his lack of intellectualism but for his lack of wonder. Furthermore, Rashi, Shemot 13:14 tells us concerning the simple son—who asks only "Ma zot?” "What is this?”—that this is a foolish child who does not know how to dig with his question but actually stops it. He consequently receives a simple answer, as it is verily the form of the question that breeds the answer. The tale of slavery and rescue, written in the text and commentaries, is not full-bodied on its own; it lacks the beatbeatbeat of the private memory which breathes poetry within each of us when we take it as our own. If we provide our learning with dimension, so that it is not hollow, so that it lives, then we meet it, and then it is not just the event of learning but what is learnt that takes on the oblique form of a memory. To imagine slavery is the beginning of being a slave and an act of freedom.

Some memories are so rambunctious and brave
They scatter right into the you of you
They scatter right onto the days and the mornings.
Don't the heavy days have something real in their load?
And if they were just memory
Wouldn't weigh a thing?

Rashbam, Shemot 12:26-27 says the format of the Haggada shows us that it is the present situation to which we must respond during the Seder. We are not telling the story of you (lachem) but of me (li) ("to me and not to him"). I have a memory, hazy senses, each one playing all parts, but I am only half way there. This memory must be disentangled and refurbished until it is the present. Nature assists us: the slamming nature of this memory is traumatic and leads to a "wound in memory"[ii]. As with all trauma, memory revolts into a re-experiencing, rather than a cerebral recalling of the event. The memory, newly created, must be so strong it creates a past that darts into and expands over the future and the now.

There is one last stage to this paradoxical redemptive process. Now the story must be told. The importance of the telling of the story is articulated in Shemot  10:1,2:

"You will then fully realize that I am God –When you tell your children and grandchildren—I have made Pharoah and his advisors stubborn so I can demonstrate these miracles—All of this so you will TELL THE STORY."

The telling of the story allows for the process of redemption to begin anew, but this does not make telling an altruistic act for the teller. There are stories we don't want to tell: they hurt or shame us, we fear repercussions; at times we are just shy. As Moshe doubts that the people will take him seriously, surely we each doubt that our story will be considered seriously.  We doubt our own stories until we tell them. Which stories do we tell; which can we not refrain from telling?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah, Bereishit 28:12 says: "The ladder (which Jacob sees) represents all the spiritual levels which would be given to Jacob and his descendants. It is shown to him now, when Jacob is about to start a family."
To our children and our children's children, we tell the stories that led and lead us upward on Jacob's visionary ladder. And when we tell these stories our eyes shine inspired, our hands reach into the air of a mercurial past, the just-past, the never-past, until we touch what F. Rosenzweig terms the  "everlastingness."

Franz Rosenzweig writes: "All that God ever reveals in revelation is revelation... He reveals nothing but Himself."[iii] Is this not even truer for human beings: that all we have to enunciate, while we reveal our remembrances, is ourselves to our selves, to that voice talking which is also watching and listening? Within our Pesach narrative is our pledge to listen to see God and the everlastingness of our petition. It is an elevated love that declares itself with unafraid entreaty. For the teller, telling the story completes the redemption much the same way verbal confession completes repentance. Though it is inverted and full of paradox, the journey of Pesach is a personal one suffering the oppression of time, the nemesis of eternity.

Is this really a bad thing we could ask? Sometimes it is a simple biased Now and an insignificant uncluttered Here that we desire, and if that requires accepting the lurching of the unheimlich in unlit corners, well, what real danger is there in that? The danger is that we will not realize the danger. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death warns, “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off as quietly as if it were nothing.” The desire for such nothingness is a scar from the slavery in Egypt.

"But because of their broken spirit and hard (to bear) work (Avoda), they did not hear Moshe."  Shemot 6:9

When Moshe spoke to the Jews of the impending Exodus, they could not hear. The root of the problem was their Avoda. The wicked son uses the term Avoda in his (cynical) question: he asks "What is this labor (this ritual) to you?" Abarbanel, Zevach Pesach explains: "His choice of this particular term implies that he regards the Pesach celebration as a purely material formality, neither divine in its origin, nor spiritually uplifting in its practice." The wicked son sees the Exodus only as a history, with neither unified nor linked events. The labor which broke the spirits of the Jewish slaves and continues to break ours is also un-unified and un-linked to anything before or after it. What does a slave care for the preparation and produce of his slavery? Although unlinked labor is the very raw pit of an event, the very opposite of eternity, it carries with it the same weakness as eternity. Events, in their pure form as unattached event, do not allow for any consequence upon the essential to be at stake and therefore, once again, nothing is significant. Or rather, nothingness is significant, for, when the self suspects what it is involved with is not the essential, it will look to what’s outside for the essential. But, in a world where the present is disconnected from its past and future, so that within the event the past and future are absent, from the perspective of the one within the current event outside the event is nothingness.

This explains how it was the Jews did not hear Moshe even though, as the Sefas Emes, Va'era tells us, it was hard for the Jews in Egypt to separate from idolatry. One would have thought if the Jews were so wrapped up in worship they would have been open to the possibility of the miracle Moshe prophesized. But what does a slave worship? Absence. The absence of the master; the absence of pain, hunger, hopelessness, work; the absence of sorrow in his children's hands. Something akin to emptiness and a void. Absence marks the boundaries of time, creates the state of the unheimlich and is the root of the oppression of time. If we do not allow some of eternity to filter into our events, we are not only accepting the unheimlich, but inviting it to sit in the place of honor once reserved for our consciousness.

Human consciousness finds order in chaos; all thought, all emotional bonds or outbursts, all art in one way or another is an act of ordering and linking. It is consciousness of something that gives it life. Consciousness can reject and destroy or it can accept and create. The slavery in Egypt stunted the consciousness of the Jewish people. We are told the Jews left Egyptin haste (chipazon)[iv]. When the early chapters of Shemot are studied, the hastiness, in its haste, flings itself from the book into the throat of the reader. Such empathy is not calmed from knowing the ending, we are Jews and we play the role of the Jew. We too are anxious to leave slavery with an anxiety that jumps. But God prolonged the exodus by commanding the Jews to request from the Egyptians their gold and silver. The Jews were resistant to this demand. Ha’amek Davar explains:

“This is like a man in prison who is told you will be released tomorrow with a lot of money. The prisoner answers: please, let me out today and I will ask for nothing.”

This is the slave talking—God attempts to bring forward the mind of freedom into the slave’s mind. When we did finally leave, with their gold and silver, we left trembling and quickly, our bodies were bruises from the clench we held on haste all through the night.

Logically, we can understand the Jews’ haste. God’s calmness is a result of His luxurious position. Isn’t it fair to allow the Jews their fear? But fear does not necessarily lead to haste. Haste is dissatisfaction and distrust in the linking interval between now and now. When human consciousness grows anxious with the present’s ability to slide into the future, we lunge at that future, disregarding the insult to time, and time’s revengeful disinterest. Human consciousness betrays itself to absence. Rashi, Devarim 16:3 explains that the haste of the exodus originated in the Egyptians. The haste diffused into the mindset of the Jews[v], a mindset perfectly set to accept this influence due to the years in slavery. In leaving Egypt, God demanded high consciousness from us. He demanded that we should re-assemble our will. We would not be free until we could remove ourselves just slightly from the present in order to see history, to see unification of the world, the past and the self. We were made to trust in the order of time, its grandeur and its lowliness, before we could be freed.

The difficulty of capturing such freedom is illustrated by the four sons.  These four sons represent the stages in the acquisition of freedom.
1.  Our spirits broken—we have no hope, we cannot hear hope.
2.  Without a sense of freedom and only the unfamiliar absence of the weight of slavery, we still have no regard for or even recognition of the worthy self and ask, in a stupor, “but what is this?”  There is no why.
3.  Then, as we acquire a sense of a standing self in freedom, and the potential physical reliefs, we resist the efforts that appear not to serve us, we resist mightily the idea of a new master, we are horrified at the thought of returning to slavery.  Still, equally resistant to de-evolving to dumb sorrow or simplistic curiosity -- we engage in dialogue to prove our equality, to maintain prestige. We are afraid of weakness, we reject humility.
4.  Finally, with revelation, our questions assume insightfulness—we work to unmask illusions, we ache to be a significant aspect of the reality that heats and humbles us.  We are no longer afraid of being slaves to Pharoah but of being slaves to Pharoah's ideology – to obscurantism and Godlessness.

The first three stages can occur without awareness. We only truly grasp that we traversed these stages when we have completely absorbed the radiant energy of the wise son. The first three stages are about distancing one’s self from the past, ideals for the future are absence. In the final stage our emphasis is on what we wish to find in the future, but in giving a body to the future we return to the past to understand what it was in the past that enslaved us. Maybe we are still afraid of Pharoah, but we are not afraid of our fear and so we can sojourn into it. Because we have started to make out a form of the future, the past too becomes a thing, something bound in its own limitations and therefore possessing the ability to be overcome. The past is able now to be a memory. If we did not have this memory, memory in general, we would have nothing for our consciousness to stand upon. God was hard on us when we left Egypt, but He was only warning us: when it is possible to create an absence, create a memory instead. Events are illuminated through an outline of absence, but if events will ever merge with eternity it will be through the virtue and skill, the vivification, of memory and the echoic command of God.

This is the significance of the paradox. Because the experience of the exodus is created through a memory, which in turn was born fresh from learning, we are able to marry eternity and the event. To complete the thought of Franz Rosenzweig mentioned above:

"The fact that we do not live within the laws of world history or to state it positively, the fact of our everlastingness, renders all the phases of our history simultaneous. In the history of other peoples, reaching back for what has been left behind is only necessary from time to time; for us it is a constant, vital necessity. And we must not forget that it is a vital necessity, for we must be able to live within our everlastingness."

If we do not live "within the laws of world history"[vi], what laws do we live within? God's Law—the law that bore creation. It is by this law that the world is sustained, and all life, and yours and mine. As it says: "If Israel accepts the Torah, you shall exist; if not, I return you to the emptiness and void."[vii]Our souls respond to God's voice when we study, without the interference of anything, because all things are absorbed into and clarified by Torah. This sense of encompassment where all reality and all time converges, allows us to "live within our everlastingness." If I study God's word and I am absorbed into it so that I know my source (I am not homesick then), then I am a part of the eternality, and it is all Here and all Now.

But to know what the Torah tells us, to accept it as we accept air, is to remember it as a living entity, as an encounter, to see it embodied. In the Tanya[viii], the Alter Rebbie supports the assertion that the human soul was formed by a more intrinsic part of God than the body was, and the body formed by a more intrinsic part of God then the rest of the world was, through the following proof. It says that the world was formed by the word of God, the body by the hand of God, but the soul by the breath of God. Our words are very distant from us, less so the work of our hands, but very much a part of us is our breath. And yet, what are words but manipulated breath? There is a thin but sturdy veil that marks off what is part of the make up of a person and what the person is only a vessel for. Certainly sometimes words are only carried by our breath, but are characterized by something far away from their carrier. And sometimes, words are characterized by the breath that creates them; the words are then the carrier for the breath. The Torah and the exodus are situations of the second option. The intensity and consistency of our relationship with these words will ensure our existence--this will protect us from the emptiness of disconnection, from insincere time laid out as dots, from the void of unrealized expectation. In our learning, we conquer the oppression of time by growing closer to God and re-uniting with everlastingness. We find some of the comfort of eternity we searched for, but are protected from the pitfalls of eternity by passion. Such learning is too raw and full of wonder to be considered an act of intellect. It is an act of will and, so, its by-product is the creation of actual events as sense-tingling as the memory of yesterday and the experience of today. If we survive to the end of the paradox, the memory of the exodus is a complete memory, forever uninvolved with the normal mode of memory. I will have the memory of being Pharoah and his advisors and his citizens as well. As Freud put it, "Where It was, there I should be." This is the memory created when all time is absorbed in my time and the high level of consciousness is reached so I can say: I am a slave in Egypt, I am being saved, and I am truly grateful.

The eternity discovered through such history is not the eternity of God. As Rosenzweig reports, it is an “eternity we create.” The human eternity is a Frankenstein of saintly proportions, masterminded by human consciousness, fleshed by time, muscled by memory, and the donated brain is our very own. But the still and kind look in the creature’s eye is a donation of God’s.            

Moshe reminded a generation who did not see that they saw. He reminded them about a memory in their heart which was not a memory in their past. The fear that time produces and the mirror image of this fear, a worship of absence, are demons of history clashing and crashing over whatever parts of ourselves we, with love or hate, sense can carry something of eternity with them. The evil son attempts to overcome his history by disassociation, he throws out his personal memories and asks: "What is it to you?"

This is the freedom of Sartre, but the freedom of God tells us we are smarter than the event. There is clearly an unprecedented and pure advantage to studying and internalizing the very blueprint of our being. We can enter the event with the strategic advantage of already owning the memory. We can merit something of eternity and redemption. The wise son too says: "which our God commanded you", but his is a "you" of humility. He is aware God is present and he accepts that God spoke, but the two awarenesses lie scattered, nodding at each other from across the room. The wise son is building strength to make them one.
Perhaps this year.

I tell the story so that You will redeem me.

I remember the day we left--in the month of standing grain.  Shemot 13:4

Naomi Hecht & Tikva Hecht.


[i] See, however, with implications on this view of history, Ramban,  Addendum to the Mitzvot Lo'Ta'aseh, Sefer HaMitzvot L'HaRambam, Lo Ta'aseh 2.

[ii] Michael Kigel, Translator's Note to Levinas: the Life and the Legacy.

[iii] While these words could possibly be interpreted in a manner that would reject the concept of Torah Mi Sinai, i.e. that the Revelation was of some perception of God and not a concrete revelation of Torah, they do not have to be understood in this manner. The Revelation of Torah is the Revelation of God for it is through Torah that we are able to gain any perception of Him. While Rosenzweig may not have been intending to enter into the discussion of the relationship between Torah and God, these words do touch upon this subject. Torah is not only a work of direction. It provides a glimpse of the Divine Essence. It is through Torah that God reveals Himself -- and it is this recognition that provides the basis for the continuing discussion. On the subject of the relationship between Torah and God, see, further, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Torah for Torah's Sake

[iv] Devarim 16:3

[v] See Avivah Zorenberg, The Particulars of Rapture, pg 181-182.

[vi] See, also, Henry Abramson, The Jew in History, Nishma Journal VIII.

[vii] T. B. Shabbos 88a

[viii] As explain by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman.

2006 NISHMA