We Jews know what to do when we are imperiled. We have learned to lean into our faith (Book of Job), celebrate our redemption by God (Pesach) or fight back (Purim). We know how to write letters, lobby politicians, stand up and demonstrate, and even mock our enemies with humor. At our most dire moments, we have taught Torah and celebrated our heritage while literally under the gun. Because we have had so much practice being imperiled we have all these tactics and strategies to push back at the ready.
But what about when we are not imperiled? What about when we are not facing imminent disaster? The parasha this week has the famous Song of the Sea, but before we get to the other side of the Reed Sea, there is a small quiet moment at a village called Sukkot.
In Exodus 13:20, we learn that once the 10th plague caused Pharaoh to let us go, we traveled from our little homes to the first stop, Sukkot. Sukkot? B’shem omro (credit given) to the good people at alephbeta.org for the reminder that there was a village called “Booth Town” (or something like that). Perhaps there were enough huts for us to hunker down for the night. Perhaps we set up our own huts and gave the spot the name ourselves. Either way, I wonder what that first night was like.
With no idea that Pharaoh would send his troops to bring them back, I see the Hebrews sitting back, putting their feet up and celebrating that first taste of freedom. They were out. We were free. No more brick-making, no more whips to endure. Freedom.
What do we do with our freedom? How do we live our lives when we get to make our own decisions? This is a question for today. Yes, I know acts of antisemitism are on the rise, but it is also true that Jews are not imperiled. We are free, in control of our destiny here in America and in Israel. We can finally live as Jews however we want. We can do whatever we want. So what do we want?
The greatest threat to the Jewish people today is not antisemitism. The greatest threat is the shrug, the disinterest. Jews are fading away because, well, because we can. Not you, dear reader of the Chronicle. You are engaged by the very fact you are reading this. But surely you know many, many Jewish families that, aside from a shmear now and again, are simply not engaged because there is nothing that forces them to be.
I imagine the Hebrews, kicking back in the place called Sukkot, Boothville, imagining how life will be. All the options are available to them. Build a vibrant future for the tribe. Or maybe they will just join the majority wherever they wind up
because it’s so much easier. Maybe they dreamed of finally being in control of their own fate so they could enslave some other tribe to do all the work.
All the options were on the table.
Just sitting there in Hutsburgh, dreaming and dreaming.
Of course, the reverie was short lived. Pharaoh did send those troops, and we did have to make our way through the walls of water.
But every autumn we sit in our huts, don’t we? And we kick back and relax and maybe even dream about how we want to be Jews. Should we engage Torah, learn never to do what Pharaoh did to us and not use our newfound political power to oppress somebody else? Should we commit ourselves to making the world a better place and ourselves better people the way the mitzvot teach? Should we simple skip it all and just be American without the hyphen? Just live our lives and fade our Jewishness away?
That one day in the town of Sukkot is recreated every year during the festival of Sukkot as we imagine the type of Jew we want to be.
Who do you want to be? What engages us? Or are we, too, on the verge of a shrug?
Jewish educators work mightily to offer meaning and value and insight and spirituality to uplift and push back against the shrug.
How do you push back? PJC
Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.