Democracy: Remembering Where We Are Going

A d’var Torah for Yitro (Ex.18:1-20:23) by Rabbi Gordon Tucker.

The Book of Eikhah (Lamentations) contains this apparently oxymoronic phrase when speaking of how ancient Judea had lost its moral way: “It did not remember its future” (1:9). What could it mean to remember something that is not in the past? The usual ways of making sense of the phrase is either to translate it non-literally as “it gave no thought to its future,” or else to take it to mean that the Judeans did not remember the past admonishments of its prophets about the punishments its corruption would lead to in the future.

Many years ago, Rabbi Max Arzt, of blessed memory, taught me the phrase “anticipatory memory” and suggested that this verse was not about threats of future punishment, but rather about remembering and re-experiencing a destination that had already been visited in the mind. A destination, a destiny, and a moral vision, all of which ancient Judea had neglected. But how and when had Judea visited that destiny, such that it could be said to have forgotten it?

In Parshat Yitro, the Israelites reach the foot of Mount Sinai, and God instructs Moses to tell the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians; and I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me” (Exodus 19:4). Again, the usual way of understanding this is that “to Me” meant to “God’s mountain,” i.e. Mount Sinai. But an ancient Aramaic version of the Torah (Targum Yerushalmi) reads it differently, saying that on the night of the Exodus:

“I carried you from Pelusium (i.e. Goshen) on clouds, as if they were eagles’ wings, to the place of the Temple, where you offered the Paschal sacrifice; and that night, I brought you back to Egypt and from there brought you to this place (Sinai) to receive My teaching.”

In other words, this Targum is understanding “to Me” to mean “to my other mountain, Mount Moriah” — to the future mountain, your ultimate destination in the Promised Land. In other words, to return to the condemnation in Lamentations, the Judeans had, at their very inception as the Israelite nation, already been to their future destination, and they were expected to “remember” that future, to be faithful to it, and not to corrupt it.

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The Targum’s depiction of the night of the Exodus is most curious. First, there is a magical night journey to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (sound cross-culturally familiar?). More puzzling still: The slaves desperately needed liberation from their oppression, and the supernatural power of their God seemed to have effected that for them. They were free, in their Promised Land. But, in a strange twist, it was only to return them that same night to the very place of oppression! Why?

It seems to me that this ancient “tale within a tale” holds within it a deep insight into how worthy national goals are to be achieved. A people cannot simply do  nation-building from scratch. It must first have a vivid vision — one might well call it an experience — of its moral and political goals. The Israelites had that encounter with destiny at Mount Moriah.  America’s founders expressed their national ideals in the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence. But indispensable as envisioning one’s best future is, it is never self-effecting.

Democracy insists that there is no supernatural force — and certainly no authoritarian power — that can unilaterally and magically deliver us to where we are meant to be. Democracy means recognizing the perpetual “not yet” that reminds us we are not at a resting place. Democracy means that we must want to leave behind oppression — our own and that of others — a goal for which we work together. The only earthly partners we have are each other.

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Sinai shows us that the path for this work is through the rule of law — so, too, American constitutional history. It must be a law that continually refines itself in accordance with the nation’s anticipatory memory, so that it can inspire everyone in the people to say “we will do it.” (Exodus 24:7)

Democracy is a commitment never to forget the future that we have seen in our national mind’s eye. And, as we learn from Lamentations, if along the way, we forget the moral vision that inspired the march from the “Egypt” we once knew, we will have corrupted democracy, and will be called to account.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker is the Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.