Today, thousands of people will converge on Washington, DC to celebrate the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. Tomorrow, shabbat, Washington will again be flooded with people arriving for The Women’s March on Washington. The Mission & Vision statement of the Women’s March explains its purpose: “In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore,” to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights.” Further: “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families - recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”
The Women’s March on Washington was organized because so many people are terrified of what the Trump presidency may hold for America and do to the fragile democracy we far too often take for granted. Abraham Lincoln famously warned, “American will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Freedom is the banner theme of Parshat Shemot, the first portion in the Book of Exodus, the beginning of our epic story of redemption from slavery in Egypt. It is a story we return to again and again for wisdom, insight, and inspiration. Our lives revolve around the quest for freedom and redemption, our falling away from them and into various dark pits of pain and even despair, and our renewed efforts to rise up and overcome. Pursuing, losing, regaining, and maintaining freedom is a roller coaster ride of the ups and downs, turns and twists, gut-wrenching descents, and exhilarating ascents.
The underlying purpose of the Women’s March on Washington is to galvanize those who fear that the incoming administration will either erode or outright destroy the freedoms we hold dear, and to send an unequivocal message that we will not permit that to happen. For many coming to Washington tomorrow, the underlying agenda includes: protecting and improving the global environment, protecting and uplifting those living in poverty, bridging the abyss between ethnic and racial groups, ensuring that all Americans have access to decent medical care and that women have control over their own bodies, increasing access to voting and eliminate cynical attempts at voter suppression, instituting campaign finance reform, and so much more.
How can the story of the Exodus shed light on the situation in which we find ourselves?
Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl looks at the story of the Exodus from an expansive perspective, broad enough to encompass far more than the purported historical escape of the Hebrews from the clutches of Pharaoh. He pinpoints what undergirds the story and propels it beyond a moment in history into every moment of time, beyond one experience in our past into every experience of our lives. In Me’or Einayim, he writes:
We all know the secret meaning of our exile in Egypt: דעת (mindfulness/knowing) itself was in exile. We knew nothing of the Creator or God’s Torah. In the generation of the Flood people said: מַה-שַּׁדַּי כִּי-נַעַבְדֶנּוּ What is God that we should serve Him? (Job 21:15) Even though Torah hadn’t yet been given in the generations before the Flood, it existed in this world as the power of the Maker within the made. It had not yet been garbed in specific worldly forms, such as it would have after being given. But there were certain select individuals who fulfilled Torah just as it exists above, having come to grasp it through their own expanded minds. They understood its true inner essence as it was before it was given. Such people were Methusaleh, Enoch, and Adam, who were all students of Torah. But at the time of the Flood, humans were so wicked that they cut both world and Torah off from their connection to the Creator. Both world and Torah were separated from their Root; that is why the Flood came to destroy the world.
Where was Torah cast down at that time? It fell into the shell of Egypt. That is mindfulness/knowing in exile, for the Torah represents mindfulness/knowing. And this is why Israel had to go down into Egypt, to raise up fallen Torah…
Before there was the Written Torah (the words in the scroll we study and revere), there was primordial Torah. Before God revealed Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai (“garbed in specific worldly forms”), there was Torah with which God created the world: wisdom and the inherent potential of everything in Creation (“the power of the Maker within the made”). Before there was an established set of laws—expressed (“garbed”) as mitzvot— there was wisdom and potential. But few people grasped this and thought, behaved, and lived accordingly. The Chernobler rebbe identifies for us only three: Methusaleh, Enoch, and Adam—each of whom has special resonance in Jewish mysticism—operated according to the insights of wisdom. Everyone else, cut off from the Torah of wisdom and the potential for goodness, behaved wickedly and violence flourished.
This, then, is the root meaning of Exile, which goes far beyond the story of Israel in Egypt. It is separation from knowing, from mindfulness, from wisdom and insight. It is the lack of a foundation of goodness and decency, an attitude of kindness and compassion, that underlies one’s behavior and choices even before someone dictates the laws of what is permitted and what is not, what is required and what is not. Exile is not a social or political state of being; it is a spiritual state of mind. This is a wide and expansive understanding of Exile: it speaks to universal concerns about the human condition and human behavior, with immediate implications for hard social and political reality of our lives and current situation.
Reading the Chernobler’s words, I wonder if he is telling us that if we were to tap into the universal wisdom of primordial Torah—the Torah of wisdom, of decency, compassion, and righteousness—we would not be in spiritual Exile and need countless laws to regulate our behavior. Or perhaps he is suggesting that all the formal laws in the world (religious or secular) cannot create the society we would want until we achieve the Exodus from Exile and achieve mindfulness and knowing, wisdom and compassion.
This thought brings me back to the events unfolding around us, all of which is happening in a climate of “ethics are dead,” dramatically illustrated but the House Republicans’ middle-of-the-night surreptitious attempt to gut the independent ethics committee—their very first act. The “swamp” that President-elect Trump vowed to drain is now being filled with a fire hose to float the yachts sailing to Washington, piloted by the bevy of billionaires he and Mike Pence have tapped to run the country. For days we have watched the confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in which it is being revealed that nominees for the cabinet of the incoming administration are riddled with improprieties and failures to conform to rules and standards of their positions, are hiding information from those in the Senate entrusted with vetting them on our behalf, and hold in contempt the very institutions and departments they have been tapped to head.
Where is the Torah that comes before the Torah?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730–1787) initiated the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty. He was the student of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch and his Uncle Nachum, both of whom were disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Twerski was the founder of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, and published one of the first books of Hasidic thought.