Have you ever had a Jewish experience change you? Perhaps the better question is, have you ever let a Jewish experience change you?
These last few weeks, we began reading Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. The 70 souls who descended to Egypt become, in the words of Pharaoh, a people “much too numerous for us.” While each Israelite experienced slavery and some lived to see redemption, the Torah could not possibly chronicle their individual paths of faith, despair, hope or anguish. And yet we know that each person experienced these and other feelings acutely.
So how did some prominent figures in the Torah respond to the experiences of the Exodus? Pharaoh, famously, did not respond with empathy in the face of human suffering. The text tells us repeatedly that God hardened Pharoah’s heart or that Pharoah hardened his own heart. Rashi comments that while Pharaoh initially had the capacity to change his heart, he lost that over time.
In contrast, upon seeing an Israelite suffer, Moshe takes action and kills an Egyptian slave driver. According to Avivah Zornberg, a modern commentator, Moshe allowed his heart to be moved by the pain of the slave, and it changed his life, and our people, forever. The focus of the Torah, in the case of both Pharaoh and Moshe, is on human agency and the capacity for change.
What might the Torah be teaching us by focusing on the change of heart, or lack thereof, of these two individuals? As a Jewish educator, I often approach texts in the light of experiential education, a method through which educators, in one definition, “engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.” One of my favorite educators, John Dewey, emphasizes the “experiential continuum” – the idea that educational experiences should intentionally build off of one another.
Keeping these definitions in mind, it is interesting to think of God as an experiential educator who provides experiences, and the opportunity for reflection and change, for Pharaoh and Moshe. In the journeys of both individuals, we see the arc of a lifetime of experiences. Pharaoh, of course, fails to reflect upon his experiences, whereas Moshe changes his course.
The Torah may again be hinting at the importance of individual change in the passage of the burning bush, which appears shortly after the killing of the Egyptian. In this passage, God first introduces God’s name to Moshe as Ehyeh Asher Ahyeh – “I Will Be What I Will Be.” This enigmatic name hints at an unknowable God whose essence is continually in process. We know that we are supposed to emulate God. What might it mean to emulate a God whose very name defies characterization?
God may be encouraging us to keep ourselves open to change through experiences that require risk, vulnerability and unknown outcomes. By using this language, God may be foreshadowing to Moshe, a new student, something important about the educational experiences by which God will form the Israelite nation. I would argue that Sefer Shemot, and especially the arc of Moshe’s life, which ends without him reaching the land of Israel, pushes each of us to view our life as a process of educational experiences rather than a product.
For myself as an educator, I see this book as a framework for Jewish education. What can we learn? We must be willing to let the “wilderness” change our students; challenge them to go through experiences whose outcomes are not always clear, while guiding them on the side. We must be willing to let students (and teachers) fail. If we are successful, we open ourselves to the possibility of being changed by our texts and traditions.
The Israelites needed many, many experiences of God in order to feel spiritually connected to something greater, and similarly, we all need different and varied experiences of Judaism in order to figure out what it all means to us. The Haggadah tells us that “each person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt.” If we are to understand our people, we must strive towards the empathy and insight that we gain through experiential understanding. Sefer Shemot is not just about freedom from slavery. It is about what we do with that freedom. It all comes back to the choices we make in our hearts and our responses to our experiences. Will I let life’s experiences change me and be willing to accept that I might be a different person, a different Jew tomorrow than I am today?
Jodie Honigman is a Jewish life coordinator and teacher with Milwaukee Jewish Day School.