Bo: Creature-hood

For the past several weeks, this column has addressed a challenge that we all face during Passover, Pesach, which is now barely two months away. The challenge is posed in a passage in the Haggadah, which ultimately derives from a Mishna in the tractate of Pesachim. The text reads, "In each and every generation, one is obligated to see himself, lir'ot et atzmo, as if he had personally left Egypt."

How is one to do that? Is it not a nearly impossible feat for one to imagine oneself as a shackled slave and then to see himself as a free man, ready to march into an unknown wilderness?

We have attempted to address this dilemma by employing the definition given by Ramban, the great thirteenth century commentator, to the concept of redemption, geulah. He insists that merely "leaving Egypt" does not equal redemption. In his words, which can be found in his introduction to the Book of Exodus, "The exile was not completed until the day they returned to their place and were restored to the status of their forefathers."

In other words, "redemption" is not a mere synonym for "freedom from slavery." Rather, "redemption" requires personal moral and ethical improvement. "Seeing oneself as having personally left Egypt" demands that we recover the ethical and moral stature of our Forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The task is not one of creative imagination. It is one of personal spiritual transformation.

In the past two weeks, we have suggested several components of that moral and ethical stature. Following the nineteenth century commentator Netziv, we demonstrated that our Forefathers were each considered a yashar, an ethically straightforward individual who can relate harmoniously even to people who differ from him. We concluded that one aspect of the forefathers was their ability to work constructively even with their pagan neighbors. For us today that means developing the will and the skill to overcome our various prejudices and to work cooperatively with people despite their differentness.

We also identified another component of the stature of our Forefathers, a two-sided component. On the one hand, they were able to remain tenaciously faithful to the Almighty even when they were faced with great frustration. "Lo hirharu achar midotai," they did not question their Maker. And on the other hand, they were able to celebrate every small blessing that they were granted. They expressed gratitude for everyday gifts. For us today, that means going beyond our verbal declarations of faith and remaining faithful even in very trying times. It also requires gratefully cherishing the many blessings that we too often take for granted.

Remembering that Ramban defined redemption as the reclamation of the "status of our Forefathers," I propose that this week, we turn to another component of that "status." Here I will use a term coined by the early nineteenth century non-Jewish theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. The term is, in German, Kreatur-gefühl, or a "sense of creature-hood."

To define this concept, permit me to share a powerful personal experience that I had quite a few years ago.

I was then a guest lecturer in a Jewish community far from my home. At the conclusion of the Shabbat there, I was approached by a social worker who was the assistant to the director of the Jewish home for the aged. He was reluctant to ask me to do another, unscheduled, presentation. He told me of the challenge he had with his non-Jewish staff, mostly medical paraprofessionals. They dealt with Jewish patients 24/7 but found themselves with very little in common with them. This was mostly a group of devout Christians, and almost all were people of color.

He felt that I might be able to demonstrate to the staff that these differences were, quite literally, no more than skin deep. He felt that I would be able to build a "soul bridge" between his wonderful staff and his wonderful patients.

I couldn't say no, but I was hard put to think of the words that might build that "bridge." That motza'ei Shabbat night was a sleepless one for me. But early that morning, two common liturgical texts came to my rescue, as if in a dream.

Later that morning, after sharing a "Jewish" bagels and lox breakfast with about two dozen fundamentalist Christians, I began my formal remarks. I asserted that we are all creatures of the Almighty. I claimed that the essence of Judaism was the sense that we are creatures of the divine. I asked the audience whether this was also part of the essence of their religion.

I had prepared copies of two prayers which I distributed to the group. I explained that these prayers were recited at the beginning of the day by every practicing Jew, every day without exception. I referred first to the blessing Asher Yatzar. The text reads, in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' masterful translation:

"Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and cavities... Were one of them to be ruptured or blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You, Healer of all flesh who does wondrous deeds." The theme of this blessing is this: our bodies, our physical being, are the Lord's creation.

I then introduced a matching blessing, again in Rabbi Sacks’ translation:

"My God, the soul You placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me… One day You will take it from me and restore it to me in the time to come… Blessed are You, Lord, who restores souls to lifeless bodies." The theme of this blessing is this: our souls, our spiritual being, are the Lord's creation.

Body and soul, soul and body; in every way, we are creatures, and we strive to be conscious of our "creature-hood."

There was electricity in the room. Everyone, I daresay without exception, exclaimed, "That's beautiful! But that's also the essence of our religion!"

At that moment, I knew that, with the Almighty's assistance, I hit a home run.

Sometime later, a friend of mine educated me about Friedrich Schleirmacher and his concept of Kreatur-gefühl, the sense of being a creature of the divine.

But it was long before that serendipitous experience that I was taught the concept of "creature-hood" and the central role it plays in Jewish theology. For that lesson, I am indebted to my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Weinreb, of blessed memory.

My grandfather was fond of introducing me to what he called "the gaps in my education." One of those gaps, which I have ever since strived to fill, is the commentary of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Ramban, on the Torah.

Grandfather's favorite passage in that important commentary is to be found toward the very end of this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13: 16). The passage reads, this time in the excellent translation of Rabbi Charles B. Chavel:

"The purpose of all the Commandments… is that man should know and be thankful to God for having created him. The purposes of raising our voices in prayer and of the service in synagogues, as well as the merits of public prayer, is precisely this: that people should have a place wherein they assemble and express their thankfulness to God for having created them and supported them, and thus proclaim and say before Him, 'Bri'otecha anachnu! We are your creatures!'"

And so, we have uncovered yet a fourth component of the spiritual stature of our Forefathers: the capacity of acting yashar, free of prejudice against those who differ from us; faith in the Lord in the face of adversity; gratitude to the Lord for His everyday blessings; and a deeply felt sense, in our bodies and in our souls, of being but a very small part of His glorious creation.