kosher bookworm

The inside story of the Exodus


Yes, there is an inside story to the Exodus, the defining moment and experience that culminated in the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery and their open observance of the Jewish faith in all its manifestations.

Rabbi Yanki Tauber of Woodmere has published the second volume in his “The Inside Story” series, this one dealing with Shemot, the Book of Exodus. Publication of this work is an apt lead-up to Pesach, just a little over two months away.

According to Rabbi Tauber, “The Inside Story” is a journey into the fascinating and empowering world of the Torah’s inner meanings.” This is not just a history book. Rather it is a spiritual dialogue between G-d and the Jewish people, themed on every page to their physical and spiritual liberation.

This book reflects the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed and sacred memory, who according to Rabbi Tauber delve “into the Torah’s narrative to discover a program for life that is as sublime as it is tethered to reality, as inspiring as it is pragmatic, as original as it is rooted in tradition. … The 62 essays in this volume, which are based on the Rebbe’s writings and talks, each explore an event or insight from one of the 11 weekly Torah readings of the book of Exodus to illuminate the big questions of life as well as its most rudimentary concerns.”

This week’s review present a chapter from Rabbi Tauber’s book, as an example of his method of analysis. Hopefully you will find it as inspiring as I did, and you will be encouraged to read more of Rabbi Yanki’s literary works and religious teachings.

The Third Crown By Rabbi Yanki Tauber

[Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the ears of the people. And they said: “Everything that Gd has spoken, we will do, and we will hear.” Exodus 24:7

As the above-quoted verse attests, our covenant with G-d entails not only “doing” the divine will, but also “hearing” it — comprehending it and identifying with it. In other words, we serve G-d not only with our actions, but also with our minds and hearts, by studying His wisdom and gaining a love and awe of His truth.

Yet, as our sages point out, the people said, “We will do,” before they said, “We will hear.” This means that our observance of the divine commandments is not contingent on our understanding. First comes the unequivocal commitment to do what G-d commands. It was only after we made that commitment that we pledged to also “hear” and understand.

A beautiful Talmudic passage illustrates how G-d valued this declaration by the people: “At the moment that the people of Israel put ‘We will do’ before ‘We will hear,’ 600,000 angels came, [one] for each Jew, and fixed two crowns upon his head: one for ‘We will do,’ and one for ‘We will hear’.”

A closer examination of the wording of this passage reveals an apparent inconsistency. Its opening words imply that the gifts borne by the angels were not for the declarations “We will do” and “We will hear” themselves, but for the fact that the people of Israel “put ‘We will do’ before ‘We will hear’.” So why did they each get two crowns, “one for ‘We will do,’ and one for ‘We will hear’?” The chassidic masters explain: Giving precedence to “We will do” over “We will hear” is not just a virtue in its own right, signifying an unquestioning commitment to the divine will. It also has a profound effect upon the “doing” and “hearing” themselves, elevating them to a completely different level of achievement and comprehension.

When our fulfillment of a mitzvah is predicated on our understanding of its significance, the deed is bounded by the limitations of our mind and heart. Furthermore, each mitzvah has its own set of limits and conditions. Some mitzvot are more understandable, others less so. Some are more emotionally stirring, others less so. The mitzvah is thus reduced (at least in the experience of its observer) to a human deed, subject to the limitations and fluctuations of the human condition.

But when we put “we will do” before “we will hear,” we are saying: “I will fulfill the divine will not on my terms, but on Gd’s terms. I am doing this not because and to the extent to which I understand it, but because Gd commanded me.” Our deed is thus elevated from a finite and temporal human act to the infinity, eternity, and equivocality of the divine.

The same applies to the “we will hear” aspect of our service of Gd. In and of itself, the human effort to comprehend the divine remains just that: a human effort, delimited by the scope of human intellect and the particular prejudices of each individual mind. Certain aspects of the divine will are more comprehensible; others, less so. Certain mitzvot are more readily identified with, while others are more difficult to relate to. The only way to gain an uncircumscribed apprehension of the divine truth is to live that truth, fully and unequivocally, in our daily lives and everyday activities. It is only when we put “we will do” before “we will hear” that our “we will hear” achieves a true understanding of the divine.

According to this, however, the crown-bearing angels should have placed three crowns on each of the people. For the elevated doing and understanding that earned us our two crowns both derived from a third, underlying virtue: our unquestioning submission to the divine will, expressed by our placement of deed before understanding. The answer to that can be found in a parable told by the Midrash: There was once a king whose countrymen made him three crowns. What did the king do? He took one and placed it on his own head, and two he placed on the heads of his children.

The two crowns delivered by the angels to each Jewish soul, one for “We will do” and the other for “We will hear,” represent the magnificence of a deed done solely for Gd, and the depth of understanding gained by one who pursues wisdom to the sole aim of serving its divine author. There was, however, a third crown—a crown that is the source and root of the other two—which the angels did not bring: the crown of our unequivocal commitment to Gd.

This crown Gd entrusts to no angel, awards to no soul. Instead of placing it on the heads of His children, Gd does something that is an even greater demonstration of His regard for them: Gd wears it on His own head. This is My pride and glory, Gd’s crown says. This is where My wearing it is tantamount to your wearing it, for this is where you and I are one.