Jewish Journal

Excerpts: Prager on Exodus

Exodus 23.16: “[And you shall observe] the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field …”

This is the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday that takes place at the time of the first harvest. Often referred to as Pentecost, Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks.” This holiday of “Weeks” was so named because the Torah commands it be celebrated exactly seven weeks after the first day of Passover. In addition to its agricultural significance, Shavuot marks the Jewish people’s receiving the Torah.

The Unique Moral Power of Empathy

The law against wronging the stranger ends with the words, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It is a fact of life we can only fully empathize with other people when we have experienced what they have experienced. That is why the Torah commands love of the stranger by reminding the Israelis about their own painful experience as strangers in Egypt.

I personally learned this truth about empathy after undergoing a period of serious, sometimes disabling, physical pain. I realized that when listening to, or reading about, people in pain, one can, and of course should, sympathize with them; but unless one has experienced similar pain, it is not possible to truly empathize with them.

Exodus 25.9: “Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.”

This is one of those verses in the Torah that does not seem particularly significant, but is actually one of the most significant.

Regarding religion, the Torah provides guidelines on how to lead a religious life. While there is room for spontaneity in religion — prayer being an obvious example — such spontaneity must be within the context of the Torah’s ethical monotheism. In our time, many people believe they need no guidance on how to express religiosity or, as many put it, “spirituality.” They attempt to be religious without adhering to any religious standards or even just to biblical ethical monotheism.

The great lesson of this verse is individuals and societies need ethical, moral, artistic, and religious standards that transcend them or there will be no more ethics, morality, art, or good religion.

Was Animal Sacrifice in the Torah Immoral?

People today eat beef and chicken without thinking twice about the life of the animal taken. In the world of the Torah, however, the killing and eating of animals was taken extremely seriously and imbued with sanctity. Moreover, the animals sacrificed were not subject to the cruelties of modern slaughter-houses or factory farming, the fate of the large majority of animals eaten in our time.

In light of that, only a vegetarian could morally object to the sacrificial system — and any such objection would have to be made against every secular or religious society that allowed meat eating.

Of course, religious sacrifice today does not involve giving up livestock. It involves giving up money and time. In terms of money, this is generally understood to mean financial contributions to religious institutions and other charities. In terms of time, it means engaging in Bible study.

Exodus 31.16: “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”

By keeping the Sabbath, the Jewish people affirm they have a covenantal relationship with God. Prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments and its command of the Sabbath, circumcision served as the sign of the covenant. However, circumcision is not unique to Jews; it has been practiced all over the world. And though circumcision remains a cornerstone of Judaism, it is the Sabbath that serves as the chief sign of the unique relationship between God and Israel. Furthermore, while circumcision applies only to males, the Sabbath applies to both men and women. And, of course, in terms of influencing people’s behavior, circumcision is a one-time act, while the Sabbath is observed weekly. The late Pinchas Peli, a prominent Israeli theologian and dear friend, once noted a seventy-year-old Jew has spent ten years observing the Sabbath.