How Passover Led To The World’s First Humanities Lecture

In keeping my new weekly tradition (and not getting too mad at myself for skipping a couple of weeks), I listened to the Torah portion from Passover and have attempted to apply the teachings from it to modern life. Skip to the bottom for a Too Long; Didn’t Read synopsis. 

Library Walk in NYC, Midtown

Plaque from the “Library Walk” in NYC, Midtown

The Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and entered Israel only after enduring years of slavery and humiliation at the hands of the Egyptians, followed by an exodus through the desert. By receiving the Ten Commandments (i.e. the first written laws), they were invited to a higher plane of spiritual existence.

God used Egypt as a cautionary example of how not to live – incest, debasement and cruelty were the norm. We’re introduced to the concept of the “Other,” as the Jews were instructed to not be like the Egyptians, and were given a set of principles to define a brand new nation. We’re also introduced to the concept of conscientious living.

A modern-day parallel can be drawn between the Jewish people receiving the Ten Commandments and college students receiving a liberal arts education.

An article in this month’s Harvard Magazine titled “Toward Cultural Citizenship” explores the decline in humanities concentrations among college students, and why this is detrimental to an individual’s participation in society. Harvard’s Dean of Arts and Humanities, Diana Sorenson, describes culture as “a dense conversation through time” – and the pleasure one experiences from participating in this conversation. The economic recession has led many students away from the humanities in favor of more strategic, career-focused concentrations.

I myself deliberated for three months during my undergraduate sophomore year between choosing the business school versus a liberal arts major, interviewing essentially everyone who crossed my path about their opinion on the matter. (This was pre-crash of 2008, so there was a little less pressure back then.) Ultimately I decided to become a better citizen of the world; I chose a double major in Anthropology and Comparative Literature – and never looked back.

The gift of knowledge has been valued in Judaism, as a path toward a more spiritual life. It can be argued that the Torah helps us live more “successful” lives, as well, through its lessons regarding humanity, relationships and even health. Today, students of the humanities are offered an even broader course on ways to live. The Jews who received the Torah had never heard of Descartes, Freud, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. (Interestingly, in some form, all of what those leaders have recommended can be extrapolated from the Ten Commandments.)

TL; DR

Receiving the Torah from Mount Sinai was like the earliest humanities lecture. Abandoning the Ten Commandments in favor of the golden calf is akin to today’s college students foregoing an education in history, psychology, anthropology and sociology in favor of business and economics.

Passover is one of the most important, sacred holidays in the Jewish calendar. It’s actually kinda “meta” how the retelling of “the story” each year is part of the story; if Passover didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have a story to tell.

 

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