Covenant & Conversation
Exodus: The Book of Redemption
A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Maggid, 2010, 340 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 2, 2011
This is the second volume discussing Torah portions by Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, one of the world's leading Jewish intellectuals, and the author of about two dozen books. This one focuses on the second of the five books of Moses, Exodus. The book won the National Jewish Book Award. Rabbi Sacks offers four clear, incisive, relevant, and rational essays on each of Exodus' eleven portions. Readers may want to read my review of Rabbi Sacks' first commentary, on Genesis. That review discusses his rational approach to the Bible text. It points out, among many other things, that he presents very interesting discussions and that unlike many rabbis, he examines the Torah text and reveals when a tradition is not in the Bible itself, but is in a Midrash. Midrash is the parables invented by ancient rabbis to teach important moral lessons. It is frequently associated with Torah readings as a spin-off from the Torah text, even though the message is not in the Torah itself. It is important as long as listeners and readers realize that what they are hearing is not the Torah itself.
He states that what had been a family in Genesis, has become a nation in Exodus. "Never before and never since has a message of monotheism been more world-transforming." "For the first time," he also writes, "politics enters the narrative." "(W)e encounter law in all its nuances." We are shown a reluctant hero who grapples with a slave-minded people. He explains all of this and more in his seventeen-page interesting and informative introduction.
In the first of his forty-four essays, he discusses the concept of civil disobedience as it is shown in Exodus, and how it was absent in Nazi Germany. He mentions Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, John Locke, the Talmud, the Greek playwright Sophocles, and the Italian Jewish Bible commentator Samuel David Luzzatto. Four of these six are not Jewish. As Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote: the truth is the truth no matter what its source.
Everyone knows that at the Passover Seder Jews drink from four cups of wine, but most people don't know the differences of opinions among ancient authorities about whether Jews should drink five. Rabbi Sacks in another essay explains the reasons for each of the four cups and the dispute between Maimonides (one may drink the fifth cup), Rashi (one should not drink it), and Ravad (one should). He also tells why the fifth cup is placed on the table, is usually not drunk, and is curiously called "the Cup of Elijah." He adds that today, when many Jewish people have returned home to Israel, one modern Jewish sage maintained Jews should drink the fifth cup.
He discusses a host of other interesting and eye-opening subjects, such as: what does the Torah mean when it says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart; isn't this wrong? Why should Pharaoh be punished for an act that is beyond his control? And how can God do something that seems to be wrong? Is God working in history? Was the division of the Red Sea a miracle or a natural event? What does the Torah mean by calling the Israelites a "kingdom of priests"? There are also interesting literary analyses of Scripture, such as his analysis of the brothers Moses and Aaron, in "Brothers: A Drama in Five Acts" and his essay "Exodus: The Narrative Structure."
In summary, people who read Rabbi Sacks' commentary will enjoy his writings and learn much from them.