Friday, January 07, 2011

Bo (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_01_05_archive/html as well as January 2007, 2008, February 2009, and January 2010.

“The Voice of my Beloved is knocking”

In this week’s parashah, the story of the Exodus reaches its climax in Moses’ challenge to Pharaoh, in the tenth and final plague—the death of the first born, and in the actual departure from Egypt. Thus, we read here of the birth of the people. Prior to the Exodus per se, the people—each family unit in its own home—celebrates the ritual of the Pesah, the Paschal sacrifice—a ritual which, however it may have been observed in its original context, serves as the template for the future Passover Seder which, as we know from Rashi at the very beginning of the Torah, is the very first “real” mitzvah for which the Torah was given, as least as a legal codex.

The centrality of the Korban Pesah is demonstrated by another halakhic fact. We know that there are many mitzvot—thirty-six in all—which carry the particularly severe sanction of karet, of “excision” or being “cut off” from one’s people (the exact significance of this term is rather ambiguous and has been subject to many interpretations—but this is not our concern here), but the vast majority of these are negative commandments: e.g., many of the prohibited forms of sexual union carry the sanction of karet, as do profanation of the Temple and its sacrifices, and such central rituals as doing labor on the Shabbat, eating hametz on Passover, or violating the fast of Yom Kippur. But only two of those mitzvot which carry the sanction of karet are positive mitzvot (interestingly for our theme—here too, one pertains to the individual and one to the community): circumcision—the bodily mark of the covenant on the individual’s flesh, an act of initiation into the Jewish people usually performed shortly after birth; and Korban Pesah—participation in the paschal offering, as an annual commemoration of the birth of the community. Thus, this ceremony serves as a basic act of communal identification and collective memory. Put in sociological terms, one might say that celebration and ritual are among the key elements constitutive of community.

What is the essence of the Pesah? A group of people—an extended family, or a group of friends, perhaps several inter-linked family units—band together to buy a lamb or goat with moneys collected among themselves; they take it to the Temple on the 14th day of Nissan and slaughter it during the course of the afternoon; in the evening it is roasted and they eat it as a group, with unleavened bared and bitter herbs, in as sacred meal. Special laws govern its preparation and consumption; in addition, the meal itself is marked by the singing of songs of praise to God (“the song shall be to you as on the night when the festival is sanctified”—Isa 30:29), known as Hallel; and (most probably this element was added somewhat later) telling the story of the enslavement and liberation of our ancestors in Egypt—in brief, the rudiments of what we know today as the Passover Seder.

It is interesting that this ritual of commemoration takes the form of eating—of performing one of the most ordinary of human acts. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik once spoke on the concept of the meal in relation to Pesah, contrasting the meaning of the meal or feast in Judaism and in Western culture. In the Euro-American culture, the emphasis, certainly in a festive meal, is on two central points: the aesthetic (the setting of the table, the food itself, with its gourmet preparation, unusual recipes and ingredients, etc.) and etiquette. In Judaism, the two points most emphasized are: the law and discipline involved in the act of eating (e.g., the laws of kashrut, the numerous special laws governing Korban Pesah, the hand washing & blessings before and after) and the words of Torah said at the meal. “Any meal at which three sat and did not exchange words of Torah, is as if they ate from the sacrifices made to the dead” (Avot 3.4)—and at no meal is this more the case than the night of the Seder, which is structured around the recitation of an aggadic text which invites elaboration, commentary, questions, and innovative and free-associative additions by all the participants. In the later part of the Seder, one moves from talk of Torah to singing psalms and hymns of praise to God.

What does all this mean? Community is constituted, on the most elemental level, by the simple act of eating, of breaking bread together—which in turn moves to celebration, to standing in relation to God (“this is the table which is before God”— [Ezek 41:22}; or, as the Kabbalists like to say, the Passover table is itself shulhan gavoah, in some mystical sense a partaking of the Almighty’s table), and from there to remembering, to teaching, to learning, to deepening our understanding of the basic lessons of our history.

Another thought about eating as a communal, covenantal act. Modern culture is marked by secularization. This is the strongest characteristic of modernity generally, but it particularly marked are the secularization (and privatization) of such basic bodily experiences as food and sex. The “sexual revolution” of the ‘60s transformed sex from a sacrament, celebrated in marriage sanctified within the community, to a private act of pleasure for the two people directly involved (or better, perhaps, of the two individuals pleasuring themselves and one another—note the subtle but significant difference). As for food: it would seem that the family evening meal, in which all sit down together at the table every day, has become more and more unusual in Western culture. Its place is taken by quick food, whether at a quick-food “restaurant” of the MacDonald’s variety, or food taken quickly and separately at home by each member of the family upon returning from their manifold activities, popped into the microwave to be rewarmed.

And, as these things become more isolated and private acts, they seem to return to their basically biological, even animal aspect. Civilization might be defined as the conscious transformation and transmutation of the merely biological into the human, the cultured. And, if I may put I thus, it seems to me that we are seeing before our eyes the erosion of civilization in important senses. Civilization is not just “high culture”—the academy, the library, the theater and the concert hall—but is, primarily, the civilizing and humanizing of everyday, at core biological acts. And part of civilization is these acts taking place in communal contexts: in the case of sex, the act itself is by nature a private one, but one that occurs in a communally sanctioned setting; in the case of food, the idea of whenever possible breaking bread with one’s fellows, of the meal taking place in a larger and or smaller group setting, whether family or, on special occasions, of expanded community.

One final idea about the Paschal sacrifice, and by extension about Passover as we celebrate it: even if consumed in small family groups, the group is somehow seen as a microcosm of Knesset Yisrael. “All Israel are befitting to eat a single Korban Pesah,” just as “All Israel are befitting to sit in one Sukkah.“ The division into haburot, into discrete groups, is a necessity that follows from the physical limitations of a single lamb or goat, that only contains so much flesh, of which each participant must eat a certain minimum amount—but in principle, on a certain metaphysical level, all Israel partake together of the Pesah.

VAERA: Postscript. The First Three Plagues

It is well known that the ten plagues are divided into three groups of three, with the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn, sui generis (I believe that Rashbam was the first to observe this). In the first of each group Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh at the Nile, in the second they go to him at his home (“go To Pharaoh—bo el Par’oh; the title verse of this week’s parashah, is repeated from the 2nd and 5th plague as well), and in the third of each group they simply perform the act that precipitates the plague without any prior warning.

But the groups involve different realms of life—water, livestock, plant life—and are of increasing severity. The first group of three, in particular, has a number of interesting and unique features: first, that Pharaoh’s magicians attempt to duplicate Moses and Aaron’s act, with some success; second, that these plagues affect equally the Israelites and the Egyptians, whereas from the second group on God makes a distinction between the two groups; and, third—and this I find most interesting—they are all performed by Aaron, using Moses’ staff. This same staff, we will remember, was the only artifact Moses was asked to take with him from Midian (along with his family and his donkey; Exod 4:20). Why then is Moses’ unique instrument associated here with Aaron?

Perhaps—and this is my own speculation—Aaron is perceived as a kind of magician, and the staff (originally, an ordinary shepherd’s staff) as a kind of magic wand, raised heavenwards to perform the various miracles (it would be interesting to analyze more closely the use of this staff throughout the Torah). Only after establishing their credentials as “colleagues” or counterparts of the hartumim do the two of them move on to the next step: demonstrating the uniqueness of the God of the Hebrews, who does not “do magic,” but acts without the prompting of any theurgic acts. The One God transcends the type of “mysticism” (improperly called thus) which involves human manipulation of the cosmos in the hope of gaining some sort of advantage. Yochanan Muffs, in his book The Personhood of God and elsewhere, makes the interesting point that the Biblical God is not an abstract, “unmoved mover” like the god of the philosophers but, on the contrary, has a powerful, passionate personality, deeply involved in the lives of human beings. His uniqueness lies elsewhere: that He transcends the world of nature and arbitrary fate—unlike the gods of Greece or of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; His will is all-supreme.

A word about theurgy: that is, the belief that one can manipulate events by various acts which supposedly “force God’s hand.” This mentality is one that is very hard to shake off. It lies at the heart of paganism, both ancient and modern, but it appears in folk religion in all times and of all faiths. It reemerged in Judaism in practical Kabbalah and in Hasidim, with the wonder-working abilities of the “Zaddik” often more important to his followers than his spiritual message or his personal model of piety. It exists today in the red “Kabbalah strings” sold on the internet for a handsome price; in mass pilgrimages to saints’ graves in Morocco, Poland, Ukraine and Isreal; in amulets, holy water, paraphernalia, and blessings dispensed by “holy” rabbis and Kabbalists—again, for large sums often given by those who can least afford it. Israeli television has a mid-day program called “Time for Mysticism,” which features a Tarot card reader, astrologer, ”channeler” and numerologist, all of whom claim the ability to “see” the future and dispense personal advice through their particular expertise. I understand that even New Age Judaism, in the seminars run by Eilat Hayyim, includes a course in “Jewish Shamanism.” It would seem that they have rejected Orthodoxy and halakhah on “post-modern” grounds, but have come full circle to paganism!


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