Reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus in preparation for Pesach, I came across her elucidation of the concept of Gezera – a Heavenly Decree. The servitude in Egypt is considered in Jewish theology a gezera. As Zornberg explains,
In the gezera view of the world, reality is perceived in freeze-frame mode. Things are what they are, what they must be. There is no other basis for decision, for evaluation… The way of those who live in the gezera mode is to limit knowledge, vulnerability, empathy…
Zornberg writes repeatedly of the heaviness of gezera, of its inevitability, inertia, and static nature. This was the nature of the bondage in Egypt. But it made me think about the religious Zionists.
Of all different Jewish ideologies, religious Zionism was the only one to see in the founding of the State of Israel a Divine redemption. The Satmar rejected the possibility that this secular state founded by anti-religious Jews could embody some aspect of a Divine deliverance from exile. And the Zionists themselves agreed! They saw their project as a project of self-redemption, without help from God or anyone else. It was the Religious Zionists who identified a reishit tzmichat geulateinu, a first flowering of Divine redemption.
At first, the story unfolded well, from the victory of 1948 that made the state a reality, to the miraculous 1967 war that became an instant near-Biblical myth. Yet since that time, and particularly from 1973 on, redemption has stalled. Today, Religious Zionists, the only ones to see in the State of Israel a Geula, a Redemption, are now stuck in the world of Gezera. They have no answer for the Palestinian question. They do not believe peace is possible, and the only solutions to the status quo are too terrible for them to consider. They are stuck, they are frozen, they are laid with the heaviness of Gezera. There is no basis upon which to make different decisions or new evaluations. Instead, Religious Zionists limit information, reduce perspectives, and avoid empathy or other human dimensions of relation.
The metaphor for redemption in Judaism is that of birth. When a birth is stalled, when a redemption flounders and runs aground, a forceps delivery is the answer. So too, we see in the Torah that at the end of Parshat Shemoth, the deliverance from Egypt is stuck. Pharaoh won’t listen to God. The Israelites won’t listen to Moses. And Moses himself resists God’s message, complaining that so far he’s only made it worse for the Israelites. At this moment, God introduces the forceps and delivers the Israelites by bringing on the plagues. Though today we don’t relate to it as such, there is no doubt that the plagues were traumatic for the Israelites as well as the Egyptians – and traumatic for God as well!
Zornberg poses the question in her exploration of the Exodus, but I think it applies today as well. “[I]s there any other solution to the problem of impasse, of stalled birth, than the invasive solution of a forceps delivery? Is the Exile… a fate for which there exists a more organic form of release?”
I believe that the answer lies in the human capacity for narrative. The main Mitzvah of Pesach is just that, to tell a story, l’saper. Pesach has no fixed text for us to recite. The Hagaddah is not the Megillah of Purim, whose every word must be recited clearly to fulfill one’s obligation. Rather, we must tell a story that can be understood by our children. In telling that story, we have tremendous liberty to meet our obligation. We can tell a halachic story like the Chacham desires, we can tell a story of redemption and punishment, like the one we tell the Rasha, we can tell the story of our ongoing relationship to God through worship, like we tell the Tam, or we can tell the broadest outline of our national origin, like we tell the She’eino Yodea Lishol. Or perhaps some other story to some other child. But the story creates the possibility for a different kind of future, and we must construct a story of our own redemption in this day that doesn’t end with us waiting for the forceps of redemption to inflict their terrible price on all involved.