Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution has kept Rabbi David Ackerman company throughout his adult life, but his reading of it has evolved over time.
Editor's Note: The eve of Passover is a fitting time to launch "Rabbis Uncensored," the Jewish Exponent's newest blog, where you will find stimulating discussion of Jewish thought and rabbinic insight into contemporary issues that touch our society both locally and globally. Just as we read the Haggadah and draw upon our historic journey from slavery to freedom to find resonance in our lives today, our rabbis will be looking to Jewish tradition as they grapple with issues of the day through their own special lens. For our inaugural posts, we posed this question:
By Rabbi David Ackerman
Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution has kept me company for most of my adult life. I’m fortunate to count Professor Walzer as one of my teachers. He was a consistent and powerful presence at my college, a crucial figure within our Jewish community. As an informal advisor to our Hillel at Princeton, his semi-annual Friday night talks were always the programmatic highlight of the semester. By the time Exodus and Revolution was published in 1985, I was a rabbinical student. Its words and insights were already familiar to me; I’d been hearing Walzer work out its themes and ideas in open conversation over the preceding four years.
As a young adult, I was very taken with Walzer’s understanding of the political nature of the Exodus story. In the 80’s and early 90’s, living in great and complex cities — New York, Jerusalem, Chicago — I saw evidence of his central insight all around me. “Egypt” took the form of homelessness and poverty, failing schools, gun violence, the crack epidemic, the AIDS pandemic, and myriad other social and cultural maladies. These and other forms of oppression, created by human beings, could only be overcome through the joining of human hands enabling and inviting individuals to march together toward a promised land. My teacher’s clean separation between divine action and human action made enormous sense to me. In his words: “my subject is not what God has done but what men and women have done.” To make things better, people needed to join with others, to imagine something different and to move toward it together.
Thirty years on, I find myself more interested in the connections between God’s work and ours. As a middle-aged adult, I see “Egypt” more as a spiritual state than a physical one. I’m drawn to the wordplay that ties Egypt — mitzrayim — to a sense of constraint and narrowness — meitzar — and then imagines the trajectory of a spiritual transformation leading toward openness and ever-expanding possibility.
Early in his book, Walzer quotes an early rabbinic commentary on the Exodus, found in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, which suggests that it was “with an alertness of its own that Israel went out of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for “alertness’” — zerizut — intimates a sense of awareness or wakefulness. Our ancestors woke themselves up to the reality of their constrained lives, imagined a brighter tomorrow, joined hands and marched together toward openness. They sought God’s expansiveness and they took the initiative in reaching for it. Spiritual and political transformation goes hand-in-hand.
Too often, we reside in an Egypt of the spirit, a place of narrowness and constraint. We can, and many of us do, imagine a better way. For most of us, most of the time, the support of others — fellow travelers in search of God’s presence in the world — is deeply needed in making the journey. As Michael Walzer eloquently teaches, the only way to the “promised land” is to march together through the wilderness.
Rabbi David Ackerman ([email protected])is the spiritual leader of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.