Monday, January 03, 2011

Shemot (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah see the archives to this blog, below, at 2005_12_25_archive.html, as well as for January 2007, 2009 and 2010.

Individual and Community

With this weeks’ parashah, and the beginning of the book of Shemot /Exodus, we turn from the story of the family of Abraham and Jacob to the history of the nation taking shape from their descendants, “the people of Israel.” Interestingly, in terms of our theme, this parashah runs along two parallel tracks, that converge at the end: we are told of the life of the people, as an impersonal, anonymous, undefined mass, and the beginnings of its enslavement in Egypt; and of the early biography of one individual—the hero, the redeemer, the future prophet, lawgiver and leader—Moses. This latter story culminates in the encounter with God, that turns him decisively onto the path of leading the people whom he had left many years earlier when he fled from Pharaoh’s threat to kill him.

Israel’s beginnings as a people, as shown here, are ignominious. They are portrayed as an anonymous, inchoate mass. Last week we mentioned that one of the first verses in this parashah after the list of names echoes the final verse of Vayigash. But there is an important difference. In Genesis 47:27 we read: “And Israel dwelt in the land of Goshen… and they were fruitful and multiplied greatly” (ויפרו וירבו מאד). In Exodus 1:7 we read: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and were very greatly strengthened, and the land was filled with them” (פרו וישרצו וירבו ויעצמו במאד מאד). While we are told so explicitly, the latter verse clearly seems to be written from the Egyptian viewpoint, and it conveys the feeling that the Israelites were perceived both as very threatening, and as being animal-like, or even insect-like: they “swarmed” over “the entire land.” Their salient trait was their great fertility, causing their vast numbers, the unspoken fear (common to all kinds of racism since time immemorial) is their fruitfulness (=animal-like sexuality) and that they might soon outnumber the natives.

Aviva Zornberg, in her book on Genesis, notes the counterpoint in the Creation story between the various lower species, which “swarm” in the water and on the land, living undifferentiated species life of sheer proliferation, like an ant-hill or beehive, and human beings, who stand erect, sign of their singularity and individuation. Here, on the eve of their subjugation, after the death of the talented administrator who had saved the country in the time of the great famine, what strikes the Egyptians about the Israelites is their sheer numbers. It is at this time that the double solution—of killing the man-children, and subjugating the adults and the females—occurs to them. Forced labor, so as to break their morale and thereby prevent them from functioning as a ”fifth column.” (Interestingly, at the end of the parashah, when Moses returns to Egypt with the message of liberation, he meets as much opposition from the Israelites as he does from Pharaoh, albeit of a different kind.)

In Chapter 2 the scene shifts to the biography of Moses: his birth, his being saved by his parents’ placing him in a water-proof little ark, his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, and his coming into maturity and consciousness of his people’s lot through daring acts. This is followed by his exile to Midian, with the story of how—like Yaakov, and like Yitzhak through the surrogacy of his father’s servant—he meets his future wife at a well, performing an act of courage and sensitivity to oppressed womankind.

At this point, just before the decisive encounter with God at the burning bush, the Torah interjects three short verses that take us back to the masses of Israelites suffering in Egypt, Exodus 2:23-25. “And in those many days, and the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned because of their labors; and they called out, and their cry ascended to God from their labor.” Rav Soloveitchik once noted that this verse does not speak of the Israelites as actually praying; rather, they groaned and cried out in pain, and that was enough; God hears, and is sensitive to, human suffering. “And God heard their cry, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God saw [them], and God knew.” This last phrase “And God knew” (וידע אלהים) is particularly poignant: God does not need detailed prayer to know man’s travail; he simply knows the human condition, in general and at any particular time and place. (These few verses use four different words to indicate their cries and sufferings: ויאנחו...ויזעקו... שועתם...נאקתם. I don’t know how to define the precise nuance of each one.)

A few thoughts about different kinds of community: At first glance, it is difficult to see downtrodden masses of people, people described here as “swarming,” as a positive community in any sense of the word. It is precisely such dumb, inarticulate, earth-bound groups, who cannot lift their eyes beyond the everyday reality, that seem to form the most striking contrast to the ideal of the strongly individuated person, whether Kierkegaard’s “Single One,” Nietzsche’s “Super Man,” or the spiritual seeker of Hermann Hesse in all his various guises—in short, the individual who deeply feels and thinks and ponders, a kind of archetypal hero of modern culture thought. But God here responds precisely to simple, inarticulate suffering that does not even know how to pray—and it inspire in Him covenantal thought.

One might say that there are two types of community, There is the community of values: community defined by acts of kindness and mutual help, by study of and immersion in a common cultural heritage, by prayer and ritual—such, surely, is the normative definition of Jewish community as we have known it throughout much of history (Torah, avodah=tefillah, and gemillut hasadim), But there is also the community of the oppressed, of the downtrodden and suffering, the wretched multitude, the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"). Such experiences—whether of Jews, Negroes, serfs, industrial laborers, or whomever—are powerful shapers of community.

To be continued.

HANUKKAH: Postscript—On Fire and Water

I would like to share some reflections in wake of the juxtaposition of Hanukkah, the extended drought in Israel (briefly interrupted by two days of intense rainstorms), and the great fire on the Carmel. We spoke at the time of fire as a force with tremendous potential for destruction, and water as a blessing. Certainly, the absence of rainfall for such a lengthy period was uncanny; there was a feeling that the whole country—the soil, the crops that need water to grow, and the people themselves—was longing for water. It seems likely that the drought, the extreme dryness of the trees and the other vegetation, exacerbated the conflagration and contributed to its rapid spread.

But on second thought, fire and water, so often thought of as polar opposites—they are two of the four elements of the Platonic and other ancient world views—each carry the potential for both destruction and blessing. Water is a basic source of life; without water, no vegetation can grow; without water to drink, all animal and human life would perish. Water is seen in the Kabbalah and in older Jewish symbolism as a source of blessing; it is associated with Binah (intuitive understanding), with wisdom, with Torah (“All who are thirsty come and drink”), and with Hesed. In the Psalms, the mystic longing for God’s presence compares himself to a hart longing for water in the arid desert (Pss 42, 63). But water was also the element of the primordial chaos which covered the earth before Creation; in Psalm 29, which we recite in Kabbalat Shabbat, God is portrayed as creating the world by holding back the flood waters that threaten to inundate it; the Flood in the time of Noah was a manifestation of the destructive power of water, which sweeps up everything in its path (indeed, it can dissolve just about everything). In recent years, our world has had its share of such disasters of floods, tidal waves, Tzunamis, and hurricanes, as well as fire. One is reminded here of the words of the old black spiritual, “No more water, the fire next time”—an apocalyptic vision that hearkens back, both to the New Testament Book of Revelation and to the midrash, suggesting a far more destructive and painful apocalypse than that of the Noachide flood!

Fire can also destroy just about everything, as we have seen in recent days. As such, it is a potent symbol of Divine anger, which is portrayed as a “consuming fire”; fire in Kabbalah is equated with Gevurah. But it also symbolizes domesticity: properly controlled, fire is an essential tool of civilization; fire symbolizes “hearth and home”—two of the essential functions of a home is a place where one “comes in out of the cold” to seek warmth (both literal and metaphorical), and where food is prepared on a cooking stove; for us Jews, the light of the Shabbat candles is a central symbol of domestic peace and harmony, the sanctity of Shabbat, and by extension of the Jewish home generally. Interestingly, too, fire symbolizes passion: the erotic love between man and woman (“Many waters cannot extinguish love… Its flames are flames of fire, of the flame of God” —Song of Songs 8:6-7), and the passion of the intense lover of God, whose soul burns with love and longing (Tanya uses fire as a metaphor for intense, all-consuming prayer; Elie Weisel’s book on Hasidism is aptly entitled Souls on Fire). If, without water, life itself is impossible, without fire, one might say, civilization, the grace of domesticity, is impossible.


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