Take Ramban and Seforno - two different perspectives on Exodus, two different perspectives on life. How can the sentiment help us deal with dissapointments and failures?
We are beginning Sefer Shemot, the second Book of the 5 Books of the Written Torah, otherwise known as the Book of Exodus. What happens in it, and what can we learn from it?
The moments that we focus on, and the way we focus on them, can shape the meaning and purpose of a story, including the stories of our days, and weeks and lives. The question “what happened?” (or “How was your day?”) is indistinguishable from “what is important to you?”, “what happenings do you care about, and choose to focus on?”, the good or the bad, the reassuring or the worrying, the external threat or our internal foibles, progress or descent?
The educator Ian Gamse pointed out to me through a session at Limmud years ago that the Ramban, the 13th Century Spanish mystic, and Seforno, the 16th Century Italian commentator, have radically different views of what happens in the Book of Exodus. As you read these extracts from them, you might wonder how they can summarise so differently the same book. Ramban introduces the book as follows:
“All the events that happened in the Book of Genesis foretold all that was destined to come in the Book of Exodus. The Exile was not over until the day they [the People of Israel] returned to their place [the land of Israel] and were restored to the status [spiritual] of their ancestors. When they left Egypt, even though they came forth from the house of bondage, they were still considered exiles because they were entangled in the desert. When they came to Mount Sinai and made the Sanctuary and the Holy Blessed One caused Her Divine Presence to dwell again amongst them, then they returned to the status of their ancestors. Then they were redeemed”. (Translated and adapted by me).
Ramban describes a march towards inevitable progress. From slavery to physical freedom to spiritual freedom. He does not even mention the calamitous sin of the Golden Half, bringing, as it does, the destruction of the 1st set of Tablets, the punitive killing of Israelites, and negotiations with the Ultimate in which the whole project seems to be at stake. Seforno, on the other hand, summarises the story like this:
“In this second book it is related how Israel became enslaved in Egypt because of their breaking the covenant. As the Prophet Ezekiel states, “they rebelled against Me; they did not discard the idols of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:8). So they were enslaved with hard labour until a small number repented, prayed to God and a messenger saved them. The book then proceeds to relate how initially, when God chose to honour the Israelites, SHe spoke to them face to face at Mount Sinai. However, they rebelled against God [by building the Golden Calf] and the Divine Presence departed from them. The book then tells us how in spite of all this God did not refrain from correcting their ways so that Her Presence might dwell once again in their midst. SHe commanded that a Sanctuary be built. So the Presence returned to their midst after their seemingly complete spiritual impairment and state of despair”. (Adapted by me).
While Ramban describes continuous progress, Seforno sees persistent failures, and the chance to atone, to return to Ultimate meaning and purpose, to say sorry and get better. He is a rare commentator in focusing on the complicity of us Israelites in our own slavery, in apportioning some self-blame rather than exclusively railing against Israelite oppression. There is an important question about how these radically different views of the story connect to the broader contexts and world-views of the Ramban and Seforno. For now, however, I am interested on what they connect to us, and our lives.
Right now, some of us may feel stuck and scared.
We may be distressed by others’ distress and suffering, including those close to us. Work can be challenging- we want to make real change in the world, but sometimes we struggle just to turn up and be focused. We may feel like we’re letting ourselves, and somehow everybody else, down.
How can the Book of Exodus through these two lenses, help us?
On one hand, Ramban can teach us to focus on the positives. What has gone well, and what did I do to contribute to it going well? Why should I neglect to focus on the time a month ago when I taught well just because this week I was disappointed by the way I taught? Yet left to our own devices we might naturally do this - chastise ourselves for disappointments and failures without crediting ourselves for progress. All of us who are alive are growing, we are accumulating experiences and learning, we are supporting others and being strong ourselves. We keep on going. We can’t help it - yet sometimes we might be psychologically inclined to hack at ourselves. Try keeping a journal in which you note what recently went well, and what exactly you did to contribute to it. We can also keep targets: what skills and learning do I want to develop in the next months? What people do I want to spend more time with? What attributes in myself do I want to develop? We’re gradually getting better.
On the other hand, from Seforno’s understanding of the Book of Exodus, I recall that I sometimes make mistakes, and let people down, including myself, and that’s okay. It’s more than okay - errors are the engine of change. We should just try our best to do minimal hurt and harm in making them. Seforno sees failure throughout the book. He sees our sin of the golden calf, our persistent error in committing to superficialities as if they’re important, as the heart of our learning, and self-change. He even uses the frightening word “despair”. At that moment in the story everyone has almost given up.
The book of Exodus, through the eyes of Seforno, teaches me to be sensitive to the mistakes I have made and might be making and to learn from them.
Shame will stop me from doing this. “Embrace your mistakes” might be too much, but accept them and learn from them. I frequently neglect to call and see people. I can change this. My error has too often been to think that I can’t be in touch because I haven’t been in touch or because I am not clear enough about what I need to say. I can move away from these thoughts, and embrace unapologetically picking up the phone. The Seforno also fundamentally teaches us that we can change, even when we feel that we can’t. Crying might break us open a little. We shouldn’t self-chastise, but be open to deepening our relationships and developing ourselves in relationship with others. In the words of a Yehuda Amichai poem that I have loved for years since being taught it by Rabbi Haim Shalom:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
May we all grow and stumble, stumble and grow. It’s what we all do anyway.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.