Review of Covenant & Conversation – Exodus

14 Oct 2010
OU Press

Review of Covenant & Conversation: Exodus – The Book of Redemption by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in the Washington Jewish Week (link):

Cheat sheet for rabbis — mind-stretcher for laypeople
Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Exodus: The Book of Redemption by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. New Milford, Conn.: Maggid Books, 2010, $24.95. 340 pp.

by Aaron Leibel

Arts Editor

This book will become an instant best-seller — at least as a cheat sheet for rabbis who wait until the last minute before writing their sermons on Exodus Torah portions.

For me, this book was a wonderful Jewish journey, stretching my mind to its limits with different ways of looking at that biblical odyssey from slavery to freedom and revealing the nuggets of beauty often hidden below the surface in the second book of the Torah. (Even those much more Jewishly learned than I should be enlightened by this book. My colleague Richard Greenberg tells me that the collections of d’vrei Torah — discourses on the weekly portions — dispersed in his Orthodox Kemp Mill neighborhood in Silver Spring often contain the thoughts of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the book’s author.)

Exodus is “the West’s meta-narrative of hope,” Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes in the book’s introduction. It is a revolutionary book in which God intervenes in human history to help a group of slaves against one of the ancient world’s powerhouses.

But it is a political story as well. “The Exodus narrative is not a simple story of good versus evil,” he writes. “It is a critique of the politics of power, empires, hierarchical societies and the division of populations into free human beings and slaves.”

In place of this society based on power, the Torah offers politics based on a covenant, in which people agreed freely to grant “absolute sovereignty” to God.

However, Exodus tells a double story — that God intervened to free people, but also that “people sustain freedom by their own efforts.”

It teaches, according to Sacks, that freedom is a journey, and we haven’t gotten there yet. But we get a taste of things to come every week.

“On Shabbat we rehearse utopia, or what Judaism came later to call the messianic age,” Sacks writes. “One day in seven, all hierarchies of power are suspended. There are no masters and slaves, employers and employees. … On Shabbat within the covenantal society, all are equal and all are free. What a stroke of genius it was to introduce a foretaste of the future into the present, to remind us constantly of our ultimate destination… .”

In discussing each parsha, Sacks does not simply reiterate the ideas of the sages. For example in his discussion of Ki Tisa, when Moses is told to count Jews, those counted are commanded to make “an atonement offering” to God. Jews were to be counted not directly, but by this contribution. Later, David conducts a direct census, and the people were then struck by a plague.

Sacks notes three classical explanations for not directly counting Jews, but then suggests his own — that counting Jews would reveal their numerical weakness and thus could demoralize the nation.

A few of the interesting ideas suggested in this book — some based on the work of the sages and others from Sacks — include:

¥ How Jethro’s advice not only helped Moses, but his people as well.

¥ The word kadosh, holy, as applied to the Jewish people involves three states of emptiness.

¥ Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its emphasis on liberty and equality, would have been inconceivable without the revelation at Mount Sinai.

¥ The mistranslation of one word led to differing Christian and Jewish views on abortion.

¥ Why God asked that the Israelites contribute voluntarily.

¥ “The alphabet created the book that created the people of the book.”

Last year, Sacks published Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings. With this year’s Exodus, can Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy be far behind? Apparently not, as those others — based on the remaining three books of the Chumash — are shown as “forthcoming” at the end of the end of his most recent volume.

I can’t wait, but meanwhile, if Judaism and the Jewish tradition are important to you, put this work at the top of your reading list.