Nahmanides and Rosenzweig – Shemot 5783

D'var Torah | Exodus

A most remarkable Jewish thinker of the twentieth century is Franz Rosenzweig. His biography is of special interest and requires more space and consideration than this short piece allows. But what if of signal importance is his organization of Judaism around three main themes: creation, revelation, and redemption. Creation is the focus of the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. Revelation, that is, God making His laws known, is the central focus of the Book of Exodus. And redemption is the perennial striving of humanity to be worthy of God’s love and blessings: an activity that spans the entirety of Jewish history.

Traces of Rosenzweig’s architectonic are already embedded in the commentary of the great thirteenth century exegete, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or, simply, Nachmanides. In his introduction to the book of Exodus, Nachmanides notes that the book of Genesis is all about creation: creation of the world and creation of patriarchal families from which the Jewish people descends. And, although the Sinaitic event is crucial, the main message of the book of Exodus is redemption. Were revelation the central theme of the book of Exodus, Nachmanides argues, then the book would have culminated with the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Instead, the book ends with the construction of the Tabernacle.

For Nachmanides, the construction of the Tabernacle is a kind of spiritual redemption, allowing for communion with God. But what is also necessary is physical redemption which, for Nachmanides, requires a return of Israelites to the land of their fathers. The disconnection of the Israelites from the Land of Israel is the real reason for distress. It is not with slavery that Israelite subjugation begins but with exile. That is why the book of Exodus begins with a list of names of those who descended to Egypt. Until physical redemption is achieved, Israel must make due with spiritual redemption. As if anticipating Rosenzweig, Nachmanides also includes a corrective. As important as revelation is, without physical redemption it is incomplete.

Worth noting is that Nachmanides emigrated from Catalonia, Spain to the land of Israel before his death. He lived what he taught.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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