Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Shemot (Mitzvot)

NB: Due to an error in posting, Vaera follows below, rather than preceding Shemot as the more recent. May apologies. For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog, at January 2006.

“You Shall Love the Stranger, for You Were Strangers / Slaves in the Land of Egypt”

This parasha, which launches a new book of the Torah, turns from the family sage of the Avot (Patriarchs) to the birth of the nation of Israel in the crucible of Egyptian bondage. This week’s reading, specifically, paints in brief but arresting strokes the story of the enslavement in Egypt, and of cruelty, oppression and inhumanity which accompanied it. This began with the plan to murder all male children by drowning; continues with the imposition of heavy and arbitrary work quotas, beneath which the Israelites groan (they are too much weakened and demoralized to do more than that) and cry out; the creation of a system of Hebrew work-masters, so as to turn the different elements of the people against one another—a tactic well known from the system of Judenraat and Jewish kapos in Nazi Europe (and in many other times and places throughout the history of man’s inhumanity to his fellowman); and the refusal to allow the enslaved people any cultural or religious distinctiveness—i.e., Pharaoh’s denial of all requests to “go celebrate to the Lord.”

While this week’s reading contains no mitzvot as such, it is clear that the bondage in Egypt, and the identification with the suffering of our ancestors, reinforced through its retelling over the generations, is the source of a basic ethical principle of Judaism: sympathy, compassion and identification with the weak and oppressed. Many mitzvot cite as their rationale, “and you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt”… “therefore you shall love the stranger” …. “For you knew the soul of the stranger” … “for you were slaves in Egypt.” These range from: the Shabbat, granting to all the much-needed hiatus from labor that the slave is denied; sabbatical and jubilee years, in which the individual who has lost all that he owns, or even fallen into debt and become an endentured slave, are restored to their previous situation; just weights and measures; leaving portions of the crops for the poor, the stranger and the orphan (Deut 24:14-22); equitable treatment of servants during their (limited) period of bondage; and, of course, the various commandments to love the stranger and not to oppress him “for you know the soul of the stranger” (Exod 23:9).

Emmanuel Levinas, in his attempt to derive the inherent philosophical underpinnings of Talmudic discussions, gives a central place to the concept of the Other—seeing the ability to transcend the self or those in ones immediate circle with whom one identifies as a kind of extension of the self, to embrace the one who is different and to cultivate sensitivity to him, as perhaps the most basic ethical command. (There are those who will see this as one of the roots of the famed liberal tendencies of many Jews, particularly in the Western Diaspora, to support universal causes, to champion the underdog, and, as one wit put it, “to be as wealthy as Episcopalians but to vote like Puerto-Ricans.” In some cases these sympathies may go to the extent of ignoring or even acting contrary to one’s own group interests—but that’s another discussion.)

There is some question as to the object of the commandment of loving the ger. Does it refer to all aliens and strangers, or only to “righteous proselytes”? The mainstream of the Talmudic discussion and the poskim is that it refers only to converts to Judaism, who are to be accepted fully, without reservations, as part of the Jewish people. But I gain the impression that the original force of this command in its biblical context was far broader: surely, loving the stranger, because you were a stranger and a slave in the Land of Egypt, must mean: to empathize with the alien as such, because you (or your ancestors) were once like him—a stranger, without land, without roots, without friends or family in a strange place.

But even if the definition of the ger is limited to the righteous proselyte, there are many Jews who honor this in the breach. Almost every convert to Judaism can tell stories of suspicion and hostility towards them directed from “real” Jews (i.e., from birth), and the sense of being treated, among certain groups and individuals, as socially peripheral, as semi-outcasts, as second-rate marriage partners for one’s own children—no matter how pious and meticulous they may be in their observance. But there is nothing new in this: one of the epistles in which Maimonides expresses himself most passionately is one addressed to Obadiah the Ger, a learned and sincere proselyte who was insulted and humiliated by his Baghdad community some 800-odd years ago—and whom Rambam defends and encourages. Some Rabbinic courts outright refuse to accept converts, under any circumstance, despite the mitzvah to do so. The Haredi halakhic leadership in Israel today puts countless obstacles in the face of conversion. Recently, I heard that the (US) National Council of Young Israel barred converts from the office of synagogue president. While there are some halakhic sources for this position, there is equally or more abundant ground for a lenient pesak. Sadly, it would seem that, if our universalist Jews at times go too far in the direction of championing all causes but the Jewish ones, those who take greatest pride in their people too easily cross the line from pride to simple racism.

“And it happened on the way, at the night stop”

Last week’s parasha contains one of the most puzzling and opaque passages in the entire Tanakh. I refer to Exodus 4:24-26, in which Moses, while en route to Egypt to bring the people the message of the coming redemption, stops with his wife and family at a night stop. While there, God “met him, and sought to kill him.” Zipporah, surmising (why?) that this is connected to circumcision, circumcises their son (presumably their younger one, recently born? or perhaps the other?), and touches his (whose?) legs with it (the foreskin?), and says “you are a hatan damim, a bridegroom of blood, to me.” He (God?) relents, and she repeats the phrase: hatan damim la-mulot, “a bridegroom of the blood for circumcision.”

Almost everything about this passage is difficult to fathom, beginning with the numerous pronouns of ambiguous reference. But first and foremost: God appears here in an almost demonic guise, suddenly seeking to kill Moses, with no explicit reason given. Why? This is doubly puzzling in light of the context: God has just engaged in a lengthy dialogue with Moses, in which He attempts, over numerous objections, to persuade him to serve as His emissary on earth in executing His world-historical plan to redeem the Israelites from Egypt. In the end Moses, however reluctantly, agrees and sets out on his way. Why, at this point, should God contemplate killing him? In a strange way, one could even read this as a kind of inversion of the Akedah, in which Abraham was asked to kill the son who meant everything to him, and who was to continue his great life project. Here, God Himself is shown seeking to kill the person whom, only days earlier, He had made the key figure in His “life-work.” It simply makes no sense.

I found the traditional commentators and midrashim not particularly helpful in unraveling the mysteries of this passage (though I have not had the time to read as thoroughly as I’d like). Some of the answers given only open new questions. Buber says some interesting things about it in his book Moses, but best discussion I’ve seen so far is that of Shmuel Klitzner in his book Wrestling Jacob (pp. 148-177).

The key to the solution must, it seems to me, relate to its location in the text. The incident seems a direct continuation of God’s anger and frustration with Moses in the burning bush scene. Though that conversation ends with both God and Moses in seeming agreement, it was not really so; all that was required was one small misstep on Moses’ part for God to react with fury. Moses was very resistant to his mission. We may recall the midrash comparing him invidiously to the Fathers, who showed far greater faith and followed God without raising objections every step of the way (see Rashi on Exod 6:21, quoting Sanhedrin 111a). Perhaps when God saw Moses setting off on this mission burdened with his wife and kids, He felt that he wasn’t taking his mission seriously; after all, this wasn’t a picnic or a family holiday, but a life-and-death encounter with a cruel and sadistic tyrant. With all due respect to the value of the Jewish family, some tasks are best done alone—moving lightly and quickly, unburdened by domestic needs and obligations, and free to focus exclusively on the task at hand (one is reminded of many of the Jewish immigrants to America before World War I, among whom the man often came first to “set himself up” and only then sent for his family). When God saw that Moses did not understand even this obvious thing by himself, He was infuriated and thought—perhaps only for a moment—to be done with him. Or perhaps He wanted to give Moses a really good scare to “pull him into line”—although the words ויבקש הציתו (“He sought to kill him”) admittedly mean something far stronger and unequivocal.

But what then does the act of circumcision signify, at this juncture? Perhaps, perhaps—and all this is pure speculation—that Zipporah, the daughter of the pagan priest, the woman who was perceived by God as a possible burden and obstacle to Moses, was the one to most quickly realize the full sense of covenantal responsibility!... (so I too have left many questions unanswered…. zil gemor!)


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