A stiff-necked People?

Exodus describes the Israelites as a “stiff necked people”; I prefer a “Resilient People”. Resilience is an individual’s tendency to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to function better than expected. Resilience is most commonly understood as a process and not a trait.

As an individual process we are made to understand that it is up to us to learn and grow from our experiences, the expectation is that anyone can change for the better – the choice is ours. What is true to the individual is true to the collective. Like the individual, collective resilience is reflected in a group’s ability to use the experience of exposure to adversity to function better than expected, commonly understood as a process, perhaps a journey.

Experiencing Exodus and journeying through the Sinai wilderness was then and is today such a process. The People of Israel continue to demonstrate their collective ability to “bounce back” – their resilience from Sinai through Zion. Beginning with slavery in Egypt to the modern State of Israel, exposure to adversity – at times existential – has been internalized, processed, and carefully embedded in Jewish ritual and values. Reenacting the Exodus during Passover re-exposes us to this adversity through ritual and memory – ”slaving” over kashurizing our homes and uttering the words “avadim hayinu” are meant to literally remind us that we were slaves in Egypt and that now we are free.

From slavery to freedom was an exodus of epic proportions which, when internalized through Jewish ritual, value and study, has planted the seeds of mission-hood or “Tikun Olam” – healing the world. Our experience in overcoming adversity then, and since then, propels us to seek justice in the world. We project our resilience onto others who are spiritually or physically enslaved through acts of “hesed” or righteousness, with the hope that the exposure to adversity will lead to the other’s resilience, or their ability to function better in the world.

For many in the Jewish world Tikun Olam has become an obsession. Yet in this blessed mission to make the world a better place we have forgotten ourselves along the way. Before we take on a mission to heal others, we must first look inwards to heal ourselves: “Tikun Israel kadma l’Tikun Olam”, healing Israel precedes healing the world, or as Rav Salantar (founder of the Mussar movement) would say: “First, a person should put his house together, then his town, then the world.”in order to help others we must first help ourselves. We see such a shift in organizational agendas, local grassroots initiatives, and government policy all increasing their focus and investment in Jewish identity and Peoplehood. The past decade’s push for experiential based programs in Israel (for example MASA, birthright Israel, Jewish National Fund’s Alternative Winter & Spring Break), reimagining Jewish education, and the focus and investment by major Jewish agencies in the area of Peoplehood is in reaction to our need of a collective tikun. It is time to regroup, reclaim, and define our resilience in the 21st century.

I recently took part in the first of a series of “miNYanim” seminars taking place in Eastern Europe, a gathering where individuals opened their hearts and minds to an exploration of self and identity. miNYanim “…is an initiative supported by the UJA Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency, and the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest to give young Jews in Europe the tools they need to connect with each other and with their Jewish heritage…” planting the seeds of Jewish reclamation in local communities.

This first gathering, which took place in Warsaw, brought together young Jews from Bulgaria, Hungary, Israel, Poland and Serbia. These select individuals have taken upon themselves the responsibility to explore Jewish life and challenge one another on the one hand, leading to a process of learning and collective growth on the other. The participants navigated through some challenging terrain, personal encounters and differences only to realize that these challenges are often shared in more ways than expected. We left tired and confused, yet inspired for the journey that lies ahead.

The journey of Exodus is a collective process, a continuous revelation of healing, a tikun of Jewish Peoplehood putting the People of Israel back on track. When we retell the story of Exodus to our children during Passover we are the agents of healing. We look to the past for answers in our present only to reveal that not much has changed. Just as it was then, so it is today – Tikun Israel, healing Jewish Peoplehood tops our communal agenda.

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Leor Sinai

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