Religious beliefs cannot be reduced to formulas

Religious beliefs cannot be reduced to formulas

Beshalach | Exodus 13:17-17:16

Few stories in the Torah have as much dramatic impact, religious significance, and lasting import as the journey to freedom of the Israelites which is celebrated in this week’s Torah reading. After years of slavery, after the drama of the Ten Plagues, we finally witness the miraculous passage through the parted waters, which, upon closing, draw an irreversible line between the experience in Egypt and the new Israelite identity as a free nation in formation.

Traditional commentators as well as contemporary Jews are well acquainted with the human tendency to forget the miraculous in the face of the mundane. So it is not surprising to find that immediately after securing their safety, the Israelites turn on Moses and complain of lack of food. Perhaps more tellingly, they are depicted as yearning for “the good old days” of slavery in Egypt, where, despite the heavy workload, “we were sated with bread” (Exodus 16:3). This series of complaints leads to the miraculous provision of manna and quail, in an abundance designed to silence the protestations of the Israelites.

What is curious in the narrative of the heavenly food is that in both the case of the manna and quail, the instruction is that on the sixth day, a double portion should be gathered, implying that the seventh day, Shabbat, would be a day on which either the gathering or perhaps the preparation of food would be prohibited. 

Why is this curious? Well, if one reads the Torah chronologically, we are only in Exodus 16; the giving of the Torah itself, with the specification of observance of the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments, will not occur until Exodus 20, raising the interesting issue of how the Israelites would be expected to know about the Sabbath when the laws governing it had not yet been given. 

Rabbinic Judaism offers the principle that “there is no chronological order to scripture,” which is the ancient commentator’s way of recognizing what contemporary non-Orthodox scholars readily acknowledge, namely, that biblical texts analyzed as infallible historical records will often fail to stand up to critical scrutiny.

The conflation of this contemporary historical assumption with the spiritual intuition of our ancestors yields a fruitful common teaching: the power, meaning, import, and impact of scripture does not reside in its infallibility, its historical accuracy, or its chronological consistency. 

Rather, when the ancients said, “there is no chronological order to scripture,” they were calling our attention to a great truth of the spiritual life, namely, that all religious experience is in some sense simultaneous: It happened back then, it happened now, it will happen in the future. This is exactly how we reenact the Exodus each year at the Pesach seder: “in each generation we are obliged to experience ourselves as having gone out from Egypt.”

When we try to impose accuracy or consistency on religious experience, we unnecessarily reduce its vitality by trying to shoe-horn it, as it were, into a rigorous and rigid formula. Shabbat is an indispensable part of Jewish life. It is not surprising that the biblical authors in various ways retrojected it onto the earliest experiences of our people. It matters little if Shabbat was created in Genesis 1, Exodus 16, or Exodus 20. What does matter is that Shabbat was, has been, and will continue to be so central that what happened back then continues to happen now, and will continue to happen in the future.

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