“The Intuitive Jew”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the eighth and ninth plagues–locusts and darkness, are visited upon the Egyptians. At long last, the tenth and final plague, the Death of the First Born, strikes the Egyptians and the Israelites triumphantly depart from Egypt to freedom.

In Exodus 13:3, Moses says to the newly-liberated people, זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא הַשׁם אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה, Remember this day on which you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage-–for with a strong hand, G-d removed you from here.

The people have just been freed from 110 years of slavery. The “iron” of liberation is still burning hot! Yet, Moses is concerned that, in future years, the emancipated slaves and their offspring will fail to fully appreciate the extent of their miraculous liberation from Egypt. Moses even reminds the people (perhaps with tongue-in-cheek), Exodus 13:3, וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל חָמֵץ, Therefore, Chametz (leaven) may not be eaten!

Rashi cites the Mechilta, which derives from the word זָכוֹר, remember, that every Jew must remember the Exodus every single day. The commandment to remember is fulfilled by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema, שְׁמַע, prayer each day, which concludes with the statement, “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you [the Children of Israel] out of the land of Egypt.”

The fact that Rashi not only emphasizes the importance of remembering, but states that “one must remember every single day,” implies that remembering even a profound historical experience such as the Exodus, can be extremely challenging.

Even from a contemporary perspective, it is virtually inconceivable that an American soldier who fought in the American Revolutionary War would ever forget that miraculous victory, in which a group of gangly, untrained, Colonial fighters defeated the British, the most powerful military force on the face of the earth at that time. Is it possible that Americans today, who are blessed with so much good as a result of the Revolutionary War, would forget the immense gift that the martyred Revolutionary soldiers bequeathed to them?

Of course, the same could be said of the Haganah forces of the Israeli War of Independence, or the miracle of the Six Day War in 1967. Could soldiers who fought in these battles or citizens who lived through those challenging times ever forget the miracles they saw? And even if they do remember, will they be able to meet even the greater challenge of passing on that same passion to the next generation, and the generations that follow!

By noting that the word “Zachor” is in the infinitive form rather than the imperative, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch captures the exquisite nuances of the Hebrew word “Zachor,” remember. Rabbi Hirsch declares that the Torah thus implies that the experience of the Exodus must always be kept in remembrance. The Exodus experience must become an essential ingredient of the Jewish character and persona, very much like breathing, like the beating of a Jewish heart. It must be intuitive, part of the very essence of every Jew. Not an easy task, to be sure.

I vividly recall my chemistry professor, who would say to his students, “Gentlemen, if I wake you at two in the morning, and ask you the oxidation number of the element Iron (FE), I expect you to know it spontaneously!” When the great professional basketball players approach the hoop for a “simple” lay up, they respond intuitively, even though, the pass may come from behind their backs, and require all sorts of contortions of the body. All these movements are performed very naturally and virtually unconsciously. That is the way the Jew must feel, not only about the Exodus from Egypt, but about every aspect of being a Jew.

The word “Zachor” is repeated many times in the Bible. Perhaps the most frequently repeated reference is the citation from the Ten Commandments that is recited as part of the Shabbat morning Kiddush. The Bible in Exodus 20:8 states, זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ, Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it.

I recently had a conversation with a very successful 80-year-old businessman, who became more observant in his later years. First he made his home kosher, then started to observe the Shabbat and now attends synagogue three times a day for daily prayers.

He said to me that he used to regard the Sabbath as a terrible burden, as one unending series of “nos” and “don’ts.” He literally dreaded the Sabbath day. This man, who is still very active and successful in business, informed me that today he deeply cherishes every single aspect of the Sabbath day, very much like a parent’s love for a child. He related his love for the Sabbath day to me with such a profound passion, that I felt embarrassed by my own inadequate feelings.

The message of “Zachor” is a most profound and powerful message. Being Jewish and loving G-d must always be at the top of our consciousness, and our most deeply-felt commitment. It is the love of G-d and His Torah that has to be our most passionate emotion. Our thirst for the Al-mighty can never be sated. We must all strive to become “Intuitive Jews.”

May you be blessed.