Reconnecting spiritually through Judaism’s ‘Master Story’

BY RABBI LANE STEINGER

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting at the Central Agency for Jewish Education with some outstanding local religious school teachers. Our topic was “The Exodus as a Master Story in Judaism.” At the outset, I wrote this title on the board and asked the group what was wrong with it. In an instant several of the teachers pointed out that the title should have been “The Exodus is the Master Story in Judaism.”

The story of Y’tziat Mitzrayim/the Going Out from Egypt, the Exodus, depicts the birth of the People Israel. At the seder, the annual birthday party of our People, we tell and retell the tale, transmitting our Master Story Dor va’dor/from one generation to another. “In each and every generation,” the Haggadah urges each and every one of us, “to see her/himself as if s/he personally had gone forth from Egypt.” I think the Haggadah and our tradition are teaching us that every year at Passover, every one of us can reconnect spiritually to Judaism and be reborn, so to speak, as a Jew.

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The notion is emphasized and reinforced for me in the Haftarah for Shabbat Chol Ha’moed Pesach/the Intermediate Sabbath of Passover. In this majestic prophetic passage Ezekiel proclaims:

The hand of the Eternal came upon me. God took me out by a divine wind and set me down in a valley. It was full of bones. God led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “O mortal, can these bones live again?” I replied, “O Eternal God, only You know.”…

And God said to me, “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Eternal God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of your graves, O My People, and bring you to the Land of Israel. You shall know, O My People, that I am the Eternal, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil. Then you shall know that I the Eternal have spoken and acted”—declares the Eternal. [Ezekiel 37:1-3, 11-14.]

With these famous words Ezekiel, Priest and Prophet of the sixth century BCE Babylonian Exile, vividly portrayed and predicted a national rebirth for the People Israel in its own land. Later interpreters–both Jewish and Christian–took Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones as promise of resurrection at the end of days. At this springtime of the year, the season of the rebirth of nature, of the lambing of the flocks and the first harvest of the sheaves, Ezekiel’s powerful prophecy took hold of hearts and minds. For Jews, linked to the first redemption, to the Exodus, the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones renewed hope for a better world and a brighter future.

For me, the Haftarah which we read in the midst of Passover is a source of uplift—and of challenge. Both our Festival and the Prophet’s vision remind me of my need to reconnect to the spiritual beauty, depth and hopefulness of Judaism. As, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, the Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote in his magnum opus, “Judaism as a Civilization”:

The main requisite is to reinterpret the significance of the festivals and make their meaning relevant to current needs and ideals. The story of the redemption from Egypt, which is the traditional basis of the Pesah festival, should be made the occasion for stressing the implications of the conception of God as redeemer. That festival should direct our attention to the need of utilizing the redemptive energies which exist in nature and in man, the energies to which we look to break the shackles of the human spirit. It offers an excellent opportunity for becoming conscious of the true significance and the proper uses of freedom.

The imagery of God as Redeemer, central to the story of the Exodus, also potently and pointedly uplifted the visionary Prophet Ezekiel. It is inspiring for me as well–especially at Passover, the time for retelling our Master Story. It helps renew my Jewish soul and reinvigorate my quest to break the shackles of my own and of the human spirit, to grasp “the true significance and the proper uses of freedom.” What about you?

 

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves  Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Com-munity and is a member of the  St. Louis Rabbinical Association.