The Torah enjoins us to derive our emunah from the miracles of the Exodus
Many have the custom to buy a new Haggadah every year. That may not be possible this year, but I'd still like to commend The Intellect and the Exodus: Authentic Emuna for a Complex Age by Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, a friend of more than forty years. It is not a quick read, but those who make the effort will be amply rewarded with both deep insights on nearly every page and a new framework for understanding the plagues in Egypt.
The Intellect and the Exodus is at once a profoundly erudite work – Rabbi Kagan's previous book, The Choice to Be: A Jewish Path to Self and Spirituality, was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought – and a deeply personal one.
Rabbi Kagan writes movingly of his struggle as a ba'al teshuvah to come to authentic emunah. By the time he arrived at Yale as a math and physics major, he already had an intuition that the materialistic explanations in which he was thoroughly schooled did not fully explain the wonderous complexity and diversity of the world. Furthermore, his strong moral intuition that it is not just "nice to be nice," lacked foundation in a purely materialistic universe.
Though he was open to Torah, as a child of Western culture, he still found it hard to believe in miracles. Neither he nor anyone else for millennia has witnessed a complete suspension of the laws of nature. Yet the miracles in Egypt form the basis of our recognition of a transcendent G-d.
Difficulty in attaining authentic emunah, however, is not just a problem for ba'alei teshuvah. Few of us fully relate to the plagues as actual historical events. At the Seder, a five-year-old recites the plagues in a cute sing-song, though the plagues killed untold numbers. Can we imagine a nursery rhyme about the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
In the first half of The Intellect and the Exodus, Kagan explains that our weak emunah derives from the impact on our consciousness of our long exile among cultures with distorted views of reality. Our initial exile to Babylon, after the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, showed us the extremes to which idolatry leads, allowing us to turn away from our own dalliance with idol worship. But just as a rebellious teenager, who declares his independence, will not go back to living at home as an adult, even after reconciling with his parents, we could not return to the comfortable relationship with God in which we had passively received His revelation. We needed to take responsibility for the relationship. That began in Persia where we discovered miracles in the concatenation of events of the Purim story. At the same time the Oral Torah, through which Chazal deduce Hashem's side of our conversation with Him, replaced prophecy as the means of knowing Hashem's Will.
This hiding of God's revelation segued into the Greek exile, which challenged our access to spiritual reality even more than Babylonian and Persian idol worship. The idol worshippers did not deny the possibility of miracles, they just asserted the ascendancy of their gods. They still viewed man as rooted in a spiritual realm.
Not so the Greeks. They denied the existence of the spiritual realm, replacing it with the abstract intellect and crowning man's reason as the arbiter of truth. The god of the Greek philosophers was the thinker of abstract ideas. Their god was unchanging, neither intervening in nature nor communicating with man. Miracles were therefore impossible, and the Greeks considered belief in them to be childish. The laws of nature and causality could explain everything.
The Maccabees' war against the Seleucid Greeks was, according to all rational calculation, suicidal. The question they asked was not whether engaging the Greeks in battle made sense, but whether it was necessary to further Hashem's Will. Their victory both militarily and culturally was sealed by an open miracle, albeit one confined to the Temple precincts.
Finally, there is the long Roman exile. The Romans had scant interest in the abstractions of the Greeks. For the Romans, reason was a tool for the manipulation of the physical world - engineering trumped theoretical physics. Rome viewed reality as based in material. We remain rooted in that materialism, and the shallowness of soul that results. It is this which complicates our quest for authentic emunah.
THE TORAH ENJOINS US to derive our emunah from the miracles of the Exodus, i.e., the plagues. In the second half of the book, Rabbi Kagan examines those plagues in detail, exploring how our emunah can emerge from them. He juxtaposes each plague in inverse order to one of the ten ma'amarot (utterances) with which the world was created and the sefira, or Divine middah, which gave rise to the ma'amar.
For all the complexity of the parallels, Rabbi Kagan paints a clear picture of the path from the plagues to emunah and how, in an earlier age, their message would have been intuitive. The plagues are seen as the means of development of the character traits necessary for genuine emunah. Avraham Avinu is the model for this process. It was because of his middah of chesed, the uninitiated desire to give to another, that Avraham recognized the "given-ness" of the world and the existence of a transcendent Giver.
One brief example of Rabbi Kagan's method: The final middah of creation, Malchut, is associated with the tenth ma'amar granting Man dominion over creation and sustenance. Hashem's Kingship can only be realized when there is a being with autonomy to acknowledge that Kingship. The most complete form of acknowledgment is emulation, and the ultimate form of emulation is when we ourselves become creators.
Our primary creation is ourselves through the exercise of our free will. We are to Hashem as the moon is to the sun: We either reflect His light through our choices or block it. Thus, the first mitzvah given to us in Egypt was the sanctification of the new moon.
But even as we exercise dominion over the world, and create ourselves through our choices, we must never forget our absolute dependence on Hashem. That the Egyptians failed to do. They viewed themselves as self-sufficient and independent by virtue of the Nile. Pharaoh even claimed to have created the Nile. But if the Nile were just a projection of man, and not a gift for sustenance from Hashem, then the human life-force should have flowed through it. And that is precisely what happened in the plague of blood. It laid bare this Egyptian misconception.
The Intellect and the Exodus even casts light on the current plague of COVID-19. Every recent worldwide epidemic has involved a virus that "jumped" from animals to humans – SARS, Ebola, MERS, swine flu. Does that not seem, at least, like a Divine hint that we are losing our essential humanity – i.e., our connection to our neshamos, and through them to Hashem?
Something similar happened during the plague of the frogs, which corresponds to the ninth ma'amar – "Let us make man." Man is the culmination of Creation, a breath of the Divine in a physical body. That fusion allows us to give expression to Hashem in the world, principally through speech, The Midrash tells us the frogs jumped down the throats of the Egyptians, so that they croaked when they opened their mouths. The Egyptians became absorbed in their baser desires, and as a consequence, their distinction from animals – human speech -- was lost.
The plagues guided us to the intellectual understanding of the world as Hashem's creation. But only at the Sea are we described as believing in Hashem – "vaya'aminu in Hashem and Moshe his servant." Emunah coursed through our neshamos causing us to break forth in song. Later, at Sinai, our neshamos became fully identified with Hashem and departed from our bodies before being returned to us. That total identification instilled within us forever the capacity for emunah in Hashem – ya'aminu l'olam.
May our eternal capacity for emunah soon express itself in full-throated song of thanksgiving.