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There is a famous and often cited Medrash based upon a verse from the celebrated approach to the splitting of the sea as our ancestors began their march to freedom. Describing the circumstance of the exodus the Torah states (Shemot 13:18) “vachamushim alu Bnai Yisrael m’eretz Mitzrayim”. How are we to translate these words? Artscroll - “The Children of Israel were armed when they came up from Egypt”. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan - “Bnai Yisrael were well prepared when they left Egypt”. These are conventional readings, but Rashi cites a Medrash declaring that “echad michamishah yatzu - only one Israelite out of five actually left. Shall we then choose this translation, that "one fifth of the Israelite people actually left Egypt"? If so, what happened to the other four-out-of-five? The Medrash theorizes that eighty percent did not yet have trust in the impending exodus and they were therefore disenfranchised and eliminated by God during the three days of the plague of darkness. Might there be another possibility?

Pauline Boss is a retired professor of psychology from the University of Minnesota, and she very recently published a book entitled “The Myth of Closure”. The subtitle is “Ambiguous Loss at a Time of Pandemic and Change”. The author contends that “ambiguous loss” is when norms are disrupted, and traditional closure is not possible. To heal from such losses, Boss says, we have to acknowledge what has been lost, then give it new meaning. "Our best option ... is to cope through some kind of action - seeking justice, working for a cause or demonstrating to right the wrong."

Maybe, my own medrash, is that after four generations of bondage in Egypt, life as it was became a norm; and within that norm, despite its hardships, there were routines. They may have been ruts, but for four-out-of-five slaves they were acceptable or at least tolerable ruts. Embedded in Moshe’s initial job description was the task of preparing Bnai Yisrael for a new norm. Maybe one reason among many for a prolonged and protracted process of ten plagues was to give the Israelite nation time and opportunity to prepare. For twenty percent it was enough, for eighty percent it was not. For the eighty percent, maybe they chose to stay with the devil they knew.

Yet some sort of closure might still have been needed for the twenty percent who followed Moshe to freedom. Leaving Egypt behind might simply not have been enough. This need might be why the mitzvot relevant to remembering the years in Egypt are among the most numerous in all of Torah. We are told to be kind to the stranger because we were treated like strangers in Egypt. We are told not to hate or scorn the Egyptians (Devorim 23:8). “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34). In 2017, Rabbi Jeremiah Unterman (who used to live here) published a book entitled “Justice for All”. Rabbi Unterman counted over fifty mitzvah related imperatives in pursuit of justice that are linked to the years of bondage. Or as Professor Boss suggests, ambiguous loss can be mollified through working for a cause, righting a wrong, or pursuing justice for others suffering imposed hardships.

In multiple way, these are times of almost universally experienced ambiguous loss. Virtually every person on earth has experienced disrupted norms, losses endured in ways that have defied expectation and convention; and oh how desperately we wish there was a surefire antidote and way to recapture a sense of equilibrium. Even with the COVID numbers here dropping precipitously no one knows for sure what might come next. How might a post-pandemic community differ from what it was before?

I do not know if Pauline Boss has read the Torah; but if she read the book by Rabbi Unterman, she might value the parallels in what they both advocate in their respective ways. Making the world a more just and compassionate place, beginning right in our own hometowns and communities, could be the most therapeutic course of action. It was the Torah’s method of helping our ancestors escape Egypt emotionally, and it remains the Torah method for coping with ambiguous loss.






Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784