True, Whether It Happened or Not

Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.

I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.

No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.

I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.

Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.

I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”

The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.

As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Passover Pesach Social Justice

Each Person Must See Themselves As If They Went Out of Egypt

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.”

This is my favorite line in the Haggadah.

In the Moss Haggadah, an illuminated text created by the artist David Moss, the page with this text depicts Jews from many different generations and places—Jews from ancient Middle Eastern countries, medieval European countries, colonial America, and so on. And in between each picture is a small mirror, so that when you look at the page, you see yourself along with all those Jews of different generations.

This year, when I look a the Moss Haggadah, I will see the faces of my maternal great-grandparents who came to the United States fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia in the 1890’s, and my paternal grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. I’ll see my mother’s parents looking like folks straight out of a Sholom Aleichem play; I’ll see my dad’s father, age 7, in his lederhosen. I will add their faces that page of the Haggadah in my mind’s eye.

They told desperate stories to their families of their harrowing escapes, the laws they bent and broke to get out from under the tyranny of their native lands, and stories of the pride they felt in making it to America as refugees, as asylees. I will see I will see my maternal grandparents as they struggled to adapt to life in the United States, to learn English, to learn a new culture. I’ll see in the Moss Haggadah an image of my father’s parents as they spoke with tears in their eyes of all the family they left behind.

And then I will see– there on the pages of the story of our exodus from Egypt, the story of the miracles it took to free us—I’ll see those mirrors on the page. I will see myself—not as a refugee, but as a witness.

And I will see, if I squint hard enough, the faces of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. I will hear a question in their eyes. I will hear them asking, “What did you do in your generation to live out the Torah’s admonition, ‘In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt?’ What did you do, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, in your time, when people were facing persecution, fleeing the only homes they’d ever known, seeking asylum? What did you do?”

And what will I say? Will I say, “well, my children, there was nothing I could do”? Or will I say, “well, my children, it was a different time, because it wasn’t Jews who were fleeing”? Or will I say something else? Will I perhaps tell a story of which I am proud, of a time when the Jewish people, when the majority of people of conscience in my home country stood up for the rights of those whose lives were under threat in their native lands?

That is what I will reflect on this Passover as I look in those mirrors, as I see faces of future generations staring back at me. The mirrors are a little blurry. This story is not yet written. We still have a choice. I pray that I will write—that we as a nation will write—a story we can proudly tell our children. I pray that when they open this page of the Haggadah and see us, that they will smile with pride, and be agitated to be matir asurim, those who free captives, in their own time.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 

Passover Pesach

The Ivrim: Holding Time and Tension in Perfect Balance

This week, we mark our final days in Egypt. For generations, we have languished in slavery, served our masters from the narrow confines of our chains. We have built, heaved, sweat, and cried – bled, birthed, pushed, and died all in a land that is not our land, for a king who is not our king. Stifled, oppressed – this is our people’s story of alienation, of being the stranger.

But, this week, though our bodies are still ensnared, our eyes are set on revelatory fire. There is something new in the air. Freedom is coming. This week is the last week of our captivity. In these final days leading up to Pesach, we step into the project of our redemption – a seemingly unending march to the land of our promise.

There’s a paradox here. Every year we leave Mitzrayim, we leave Egypt, and every year we find ourselves back there again. Where was your Mitzrayim, your narrow place, last year? By what or by whom are you held captive this year? Back and forth – and forever in between.

This is the story, the very essence of our people. We live in tension, in movement. From the narrow confines of slavery, toward the land of our redemption – from the darkness of exile to the blinding light of revelation. Most of the time we are betwixt and between.

We are the the Hebrews, the Ivrim.  The word Ivrim comes from the root ayin, bet, resh, which means to cross over. The very name informs us that we are in constant motion, unending transformation, and enduring transition. We are named for this tension, this unending march toward a more just, a more righteous reality.

As Ivrim, we are called to move across borders and boundaries, across time and space – called to relive a collective past and a shared memory in every act of ritual, in every reading of text, and in every moment of prayer. We are an unending past and revelatory future – a collection of movements, words, and memories transmitted from the murky depths of creation passed down to us in the accents of our great-grandparents.

When I think about crossing boundaries, about breaking free from captivity, I think about my great-grandfather, Nathan Chanin. Nathan came to America at the turn of the century after serving an eight year sentence in Siberia for his revolutionary activities. He was a leader of the Jewish Labor movement, a prominent union organizer, and well-known educator.  He worked for the  Workmen’s Circle for over 15 years, serving as both the organization’s Education Director and Secretary General.

Nathan’s passion for the Yiddish language, his unceasing pursuit of justice, and his love of Yiddishkeit have flowed down through the generations of my family, spilling over into our religious, political, and cultural identities. It is at this time of year, this time of exodus, of liberation, and of transition, that I am most reminded of Nathan’s legacy.  Every Pesach, my family narrates, sings, and celebrates the story of our redemption in Yiddish. From the perfectly pronounced story of the four sons, each voiced by my mother and her siblings, to my broken and heavily accented four-questions — we speak a more just future into being through the language of our past.

In addition to the Yiddish of our past, my cousins and I add supplementary texts, prayers, and music to our family seder. Every year, we bring new words that have moved us, songs that have inspired us, and rituals that have transformed us. We bring in Leonard Baskin’s drawings from the CCAR’s Passover Haggadah and the ritual of Miriam’s Cup and the gender-inclusive language of The Open Door. Our Seder is two moments in time at once – multiple voices held together in perfect tension.

This blend of past and future, of Nathan’s secular Yiddishkeit with the current longings and passions of his great-grandchildren have taught me that perhaps freedom and redemption come not as the result of a long march or entering a promised land, but are cultivated and honed over time in our ability to move in and out of the boundaries and to live as Ivrim, in constant transformation.

At the end of his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin imagines a moment of unending revelation and redemption that stands in perpetual tension. He writes:

“No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where blood ran down. They wandered in the valley forever, and they smote the rock forever. And the waters sprang perpetually, in the perpetual desert. They cried unto the Lord forever and lifted up their eyes forever. They were cast down forever, and the Lord lifted them up forever.”

Revelation, Baldwin says, happens in tension – in the unending march toward freedom.

As we embark once more from the confines of Mitzrayim, our narrow places, I would like to offer you the opportunity to fully embody the identity of the Ivrim, the boundary crosser. From Egypt to revelation, from the promised land to exile — we are blessed with the ability to find redemption and freedom in moments of unending tension.
May this blessing be available to each of us.

Hilly is a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is also a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.