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Pesach as Liberation

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 04/21/2009
Location: Makor Or
In Topics: Judaism / Jewish Meditation

“Red Sea liberation is liberation into trust, into the unknown dark sea of what cannot be said or known or ever finally understood, yet is the most important part of life. It is a liberation that begins with the recognition that one person can’t do anything alone, one must always be together with others, part of a people; and that that people can’t do anything alone either, it needs to rely God.”

Pesach as Liberation.
A talk first given at Makor Or day long retreat, April 7, 2007

Today I want to think about the liberation that happened at the Red Sea, and what it might mean to us, in our time. I realize that this is a pretty shaky proposition: first, because I'm not at all sure what the story of Pesach actually means, and second, it would be very foolish and arrogant of me to try to characterize the nature of our time, as if I could know it, how it was different from or the same as any other time in history. But it's one of the things that we have to do: to try to understand something, to make sense of it, to make meaning. Not that we ever do actually understand. But that doesn't seem to matter. What matters, what seems to be crucial, is that we try to understand. And trying to understand is important because we always understand something anyway, whether we try to or not, and we live according to what we understand. So we are better off trying to understand, because understanding is not just a theoretical matter.

Probably all this is influenced by my reading of a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophy has been influential on me for a long time. Here is a quotation I wrote in my notebook:

"Wittgenstein's remark about philosophy – that it ‘leaves everything as it is' – is often quoted. But it is less often realized that, in seeking to change nothing but the way we look at things, Wittgenstein was attempting to change everything."

This is important. As far as we are concerned, the world consists in how we look at it. Yet we take the way we look at the world completely for granted, as if it actually was that way. When we for a moment or two – say when we come to a Makor Or retreat – think about and see the world differently, we think that's good, but very soon we know we must return to what we call "the real world," the world in which we are consigned to live out our lives. Whatever liberation is or isn't, it's not this. To assume a world that is basically oppressive, that doesn't give us joy and a sense of transcendence, and to have to live in that world every day, until we die and are erased, is exactly the opposite of liberation.

But this is not the part of the quotation I want to emphasize. The biographer, Ray Monk, goes on:

"(Wittgenstein's) pessimism about the effectiveness of his work is related to his conviction that the way we look at things is determined, not by our philosophical beliefs, but by our culture, by the way we are brought up. And in the face of this, as he once said … ‘what can one man do alone?'" Monk p 533.

This brings us to the crossing of the Red Sea, an unprecedented event in religious history. The passage can be found in Exodus 14:10-31.

All the encounters with God in the Torah that precede this one are encounters that are easy for us to understand: one person encounters God, in what we call a religious experience. I believe that religious experiences are actually fairly common. I am sure we have all experienced at least once, and probably more than once, in our childhood, that sense of awe and ineffability that seems to be not the same as but also not different from the world. A sense of Presence that enables us to hear the world, as it were, speaking to us, sharing with us its deepest necessities. As we grow up as modern people in the materialistic world, conditioned by our point of view, we are socialized out of these experiences. We literally forget them. When we practice meditation we can sometimes more or less remember or re-experience them. But one doesn't need meditation: sometimes a life crisis, or, possibly, a moment of reverie, reading a poem or looking at the sky, can bring religious experience on. In these latter cases, though, the experience is so brief and subtle we might not even quite notice it. The point is, we know about religious experience. We can understand the encounters with God experienced by the Abraham and Jacob because they more or less match our own experience, and the template for mystical experience throughout the history of religion.

But the Red Sea escape is different. It is not a religious experience, the existential experience of a person. It is the experience of a whole people, a whole culture, and, we could say, of two peoples, two cultures; or is this really one culture, two aspects of one culture? Still, we can't call it a social experience, a cultural experience. So what is it?

Wittgenstein realized that one person's philosophizing doesn't mean much. The way any of us sees the world is through the lens of language, whole culture, a whole "form of life," as he put it. In other words, we never think or see or experience anything on our own, but only with others, with the whole world of people and language and experience that has formed us. So liberation can't be an individual affair, an existential affair. Religious experience is important, but it is not enough to fundamentally change us. This is the Torah's message, I think, and the story of the Red Sea is a crucial piece of that message: A whole world, not just the self, must be liberated. Liberation can't be my personal liberation. It must be more than this.

How does liberation take place at the Red Sea? Moshe tells the people, "stand fast and see; God will deliver you; God will make war for you: be still." With the patriarchs God was making promises and extracting commitments. That was, apparently, all necessary, and all preliminary. Here God is engaging in immediate, drastic, direct action in history on behalf of a whole people. And what do the people have to do in return: immediately, in their extremity, they have to stand fast and see, they have to be still. And what do they actually do? They resist: "didn't we tell you this would happen!" they say. "You should have left us alone as slaves in Egypt! What, there weren't enough graves in Egypt you had to bring us out here to die?" And Moses tells them: "You don't understand! It's not up to you (or me!) to act, to take up the burden of moving the whole world so that you can be safe and secure. No wonder you are so pessimistic! Of course that will never work: of course you can't be free, it's too difficult, too dangerous for you! But if you stand fast, if you open your eyes and see, if you will, for God's sake, be still – then you will see how the Lord will take care of you. Your part is simply to live with faith and trust. You don't have to move heaven and earth. God will do that for you. All you have to do is walk straight ahead." The text doesn't say so, but presumably the children of Israel, having anyway no other choice (and this is probably a salient point!), heed Moses words and go forward. And are liberated.

So liberation in Exodus 14:10-31 involves several things:
1) solidarity as a people: the recognition that the personal encounter with God only goes so far, that the truly decisive liberative encounter comes only with a sense of shared life;
2) trust in God, in what's awesome both within and outside this world – that which speaks to us as the process of our living. Here is where Wittgenstein comes back into it (and I use Wittgenstein as short hand for the human need to understand, even though we never do understand). Despite, the common view to the contrary, Wittgenstein was an extremely religious man, he was essentially a religious figure who understood his work to be entirely an effort to reaffirm and rescue the transcendent for our time. In a preface to his book on logic, the Tractatus, he famous said, this book is to clarify what can be said. I have necessarily left out of the book the part that cannot be said. But this is the most important part!

Red Sea liberation is liberation into trust, into the unknown dark sea of what cannot be said or known or ever finally understood, yet is the most important part of life. It is a liberation that begins with the recognition that one person can't do anything alone, one must always be together with others, part of a people; and that that people can't do anything alone either, it needs to rely God.

And finally, 3) just go straight ahead. Moses, as Rabbi Lew has so often taught, says, "Be Still!" And God says "Get Going!" So you live in this world among others and you go forward with your living in trust: trusting what is more than yourself, more than you can ever understand, and also more than others and what they can understand.

Now I want to think a little bit more about what this trust might actually mean for us, in our time. Religiously, it seems as if the world is living in several time-frames or meaning-frames at once. A large part of the world is modern and secular; at one time it appeared as if secularism was the inevitable wave of the future, that modern education would inevitably produce a universal secular culture; and that this would be a wonderful thing. But now we are not so sure: not so sure this will happen, and if it did whether it would be so wonderful. The last century was quite humbling, as far as our overall confidence in human intelligence and goodness is concerned. The present century does not so far seem to be any different. It may even be worse.

Another large part of the world seems, as a consequence of this, to have rejected the modern secular point of view. It seems to be narrowly, uncritically, religious, holding to a set of beliefs that seem to be, on the face of them, incompatible with the social realities of our time. Surveys in the United States show that an astonishing number of people, if asked, will say they believe in God. But it is impossible to tell what this means. It seems pretty likely that many people who say they believe in God are part of the secular culture, in the sense that they don't have serious religious commitments, and see God as a good friend who protects them and will help them to get what they want. This seems to be quite different from the liberation of the Red Sea, in which exactly what's unreliable, exactly what one needs to be liberated from, is what one wants, what one thinks one needs. Notice that the people plunge into the Sea in the dark, at night. It's not a cheerful or an easy or joyful affair. They're frightened. It's cold. It's dark. It's uncertain. They exactly have to trust, and go forward in trust, against all their own natural instincts. At dawn, in the light of day, the Egyptians go forth in pursuit: and they are engulfed, overcome, wiped out. If we read the story, as I think we could, and maybe should, as the story not of two peoples but as one, then we're reading the story of the choice point we find ourselves at right now: will we go forth into the light, guided by ourselves, what we know and can see, our own possessiveness, our own aggression, our own human need and intellectual arrogance, and therefore drown frightfully; or will we go forth with trust into the dark, where we will be liberated from the one thing we are bound by – ourselves.

In times gone by, our ancestors, and all religious people may have had a naive and literalistic faith in God – the sort of faith perhaps fundamentalists of all stripes think they can or are returning to. But I wonder whether so-called fundamentalists, or anyone, actually believe in a naive and literalistic God. Many say they do. But I am skeptical. They say that in the days of Sabbatai Z'vi, who was believed to be the Messiah, Jews packed their bags and sat on their doorsteps waiting for the world to turn upside down. Years ago, I became fascinated by the professed belief of Jehovah's Witnesses that they were sure they wouldn't have to die, that their faith was that the End of Days would occur in their own lifetimes. I wanted to investigate this, so I spent some time hanging around with the local Jehovah's Witness community. (They loved me because it is an especially good thing to convert a Jew!). I wanted to see how a person would live if he was sure he wouldn't ever die. And I found that it made no difference at all. Jehovah's Witnesses seemed to live and think and perceive more or less the same as anyone else I knew. I concluded that it is one thing to say you believe in something, even to believe you believe it, and another thing to actually believe it, and to live as if you believed it.

In my opinion then, most fundamentalists don't actually believe what they think they believe. And those who do, are, by the standard of our time, either literally insane, or politically and socially hysterical. It is impossible for them to live in this world as it is. Far from being liberated, trusting in God and willing to walk forward together with everyone, they exactly don't trust and won't walk. They somehow believe, if you think about the implications of their belief, that God left the world to people, that people have screwed it up, and that therefore God will have to destroy it and start over again. So they reject entirely the world as it is, and people as they are in this world as we know it.

Of course I have no idea what anyone believes or doesn't believe! The only reason I bring all this up is because I want to ask, if we don't have a naive and literalistic belief in God (which I suppose isn't possible in our time) then what kind of liberation can we have in this age of self consciousness? The philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes, speaking of the goal of his own thinking:

"In every way we are children of criticism, and we seek to go beyond criticism by means of criticism, by a criticism that is no longer reductive but restorative. Does that mean that we could go back to a primitive naivete? Not at all. In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we moderns, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short it is by interpreting that we can hear again."

From "The Symbolism of Evil," quoted in Robert Bellah's essay "History of Habit."

Freedom is a word we hear much of nowadays. America is free and we are going to bring freedom abroad. The War on Terror is exactly a war for freedom, against unfreedom. We are not just protecting ourselves, we like to believe. In fact, we are quite free, and freedom is a dangerous thing; I think it is not the same as liberation at the Red Sea. In a way, in our time we have become free of God. That's what Ricoeur means by criticism: we have thought ourselves, through scientific critical thought, beyond all the scriptures of all the religions. We are now free from God's commands. We can choose to follow them or not. Or so it seems. In fact, with all our freedom and all the wealth and knowledge it has brought, we are still in need of, as people have always been in need of, liberation. If Moses were to show up today in San Francisco I think he was be astounded at the capacity and knowledge of the average person. At first he would be bewildered by the world we live in. It would make no sense to him. But once he could understand a bit he would say, this is amazing! It is equal to God appearing at the Red Sea, just as awesome. But if he stayed with us still longer, lived, with us for a while I think he would feel sorry for us. Because having a lot and knowing a lot is not the same a liberation, not the same as living a meaningful life. What is meaning and why do human beings need it? Only God knows. We can't eliminate our freedom, we can't turn back the clock. But we still need to find a way, our own way, to take our stand with others, to be still and get going, not by own steam alone, which will never suffice, but by God's.

If my wife asks me "Do you love me?" I can't say to her "I told you last week that I love you, don't you already know that? Why would you ask again?" If I answer that way then I am not really getting the gist of the question. My wife is not asking me for information, she's asking me for meaning. Meaning isn't something that can be stored up, like knowledge or things can be; meaning is something that has to be rediscovered and repeated every day. This is why liberation isn't something we can experience and then simply remember. This is why the Hagaddah, as we remark every year, doesn't say this happened to them; it says this is happening to us. The Red Sea liberation doesn't happen, as one might imagine, at the end of the Torah. There is still a long way to go. We are liberated into meaning; and meaning has many requirements. To begin with, meaning needs to be recreated every day, it requires a commitment and a courage beyond our personal needs and desires, which is why religion, and especially Judaism, is so demanding. Every day God asks us "Do you love me?" And we are supposed to answer every day, several times a day, "I will love the lord my god with all my heart and with all my might." Ricoeur speaks of interpretation as a form of hearing. This is a very Jewish notion. Hearing, shema, is the essence of Judaism. And the rabbis of the Talmud, possibly more than the sages of any religious tradition before or since, saw that interpretation, constant renewal and re-understanding, would to be needed if were to be able to hear, really hear, the old words in new times. When we practice meditation together, when we try to understand Torah together, this is what we are trying to do.