Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Vaera (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for January 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Promises of Redemption

As there are a number of things I’d like to add about last week’s parashah, I will comment on this week’s parashah only briefly (in any event, the two parshiyot are closely interconnected).

More than half of Vaera is devoted to the first seven of the Ten Plagues—a series of events devoted, on the one hand, to showing God’s might and His rulership over the world, specifically to Pharaoh; and, on the other, to bringing out the stubbornness and intransigence of Pharaoh, who progressively “hardened his heart” (and, in the later plagues, was helped along in this process by God), in order to increase his culpability.

The opening verses are perhaps the most interesting and richest—theologically, philosophically, and also, to my mind, in terms of our theme. God, in his Holy Name of YHWH, announces to Moses that He will redeem the people from Egypt, describing their approaching liberation in a series of four or five “languages”—verbs—of redemption: “I shall take you out (והוצאתי) from beneath the enslavement of Egypt; I shall save you (והצלתי) from their servitude; I shall redeem you (וגאלתי) with an outstretched arm… I shall take you (ולקחתי) to me as a people… I shall bring you (והבאתי) to the land I have promised to your forefathers” (Exod 6:6-8). Whether this passage constitutes four or five “languages” is an issue of some halakhic importance in light of its role as a model for the four (or five) cups of wine to be drunk at the Passover Seder; for a detailed discussion of this issue, and of the various aggadot on the subject, see HY XI: Tzav–Hagadol=Tzav [Aggadah).

It seems to me—and I hope that I am not constructing here an overly artificial framework—that these four or five phrases may serve as models for the stages entailed in building community. It is true, as I suggested last week, that the fact of oppression and subjugation can itself build a certain type of group consciousness among the oppressed, but that is only a beginning, a potential catalyst for action. Real community requires several things: first of all, freedom, both of the group and of the individuals therein, from outside constraint and coercion. We are told that in Egypt this took the extreme form, not only of forced labor, but of oppressive and capricious conditions (סכבלות מצרים, “the sufferings of Egypt”—e.g., denying them basic building materials and expecting them to meet quotas nevertheless); hence, liberation from this involved two distinct stages: delivery from the harshest elements of oppression, and being freed from slavery altogether. Second, territorial freedom, which also involves two stages: no longer being located in the same place as one’s erstwhile oppressors (“I shall redeem you,” conventionally identified with crossing the Sea of Reeds—i.e., no longer being under the Pharaonic jurisdiction); and having a place of one’s own: “And I shall bring you to the Land.” (This territorial freedom may also have its personal counterpart on the individual level, e.g., having “a room of one’s own.”) Finally, community must be informed by a certain set of values, a vision, a covenantal relationship with the Transcendent, a striving that guides the community as a beacon while involved in the often petty business of the here-and-now: “And I shall take you to Me as a people, and I shall be your God.”

POSTSCRIPT: Shemot as Moses’ Biography

As I noted last week, Parshat Shemot runs along two parallel tracks: the story of the oppression and enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt, and the early life of Moses: a kind of mini-biography of Moshe Rabbenu up until the time that his life became fully entwined with that of the people.

I have been interested for some time in the issues posed by biography: How does one begin to understand an individual’s life—that of another person, or for that matter one’s own? There are perhaps two basic questions: What was this person’s life about: what was his essential contribution to society and to culture? And, second, how did he/she become who he/she was?

Some readers may remember my attempt to plumb these questions regarding Shlomo Carlebach (see HY VIII: Lekh Lekha–Supplement). It seems to me that in the lives of most people, particularly those whose lives are in some sense memorable, there is a decisive moment, a particular event or decision, that may be seen as a turning point, that in retrospect is seen as having determined or at least focused the direction of that life (or that upon which the author chooses to focus as such—the writing of biography, like that of history generally, being a matter of interpretation). Thus, students of literature will remember that, in the Confessions of St Augustine, often regarded as the very first autobiography in history, he presents his religious conversion as the crucial turning point in his life.

All this by way of posing the question: What was the decisive moment in Moses’ early life? Offhand, the obvious answer would be: the encounter with God at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3-4:17), where he received the call from God to redeem the Jewish people—a story parallel, albeit different in circumstances, to other “calls to prophecy” in the Bible, such as those to Samuel (the “Seer”), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others. After fleeing from Egypt, he was essentially living an ordinary life in Midian, shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks, raising a family, etc., when suddenly he saw an extraordinary sight—a bush that “burned but was not consumed” (the symbolism of this sight is a subject for another time)—and then received a message from the angel of God from within the flame. The rest, as they say, is history. But if we look more closely, we will find that there was a series of significant events prior to that which shaped Moses’ consciousness (whether or not these fit the rubric of inner preparation for prophecy, conscious or not, described by Maimonides in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1 ff.).

In Chapter 2, following the details of Moses’ birth and his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, we read: “And Moses grew and went out to his people…” This phrase is strange, as we are told but one verse earlier: “And the child grew and was brought to Pharaoh’s house”—2:10. Why is “and [Moses] grew” repeated here? The former clearly refers to physical growth—that the child no longer needed a wet nurse; here, the text alludes to moral, emotional, psychological maturity (I thank my friend Steve Copeland for this insight). In two or three terse verses, we are told, first, that he came upon an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave and, outraged by this maltreatment of a fellow Jew/human being, he struck the man dead; the next day, he saw a quarrel between two Hebrews and interfered, asking “the wicked one” (the stronger one? the aggressor in the brawl?) “Why do you beat your brother”—and is answered sarcastically. As a result of the latter’s answer, he realizes that Pharaoh is out to have him killed as a trouble-maker, and he flees to Midian. There, too, the first thing he does is to save a group of young women (one of whom later becomes his wife) from a / gang of shepherds who are chasing them away from the well and perhaps worse. In all these incidents, Moses displays a fledgling sense of justice, of responsibility, of caring about others, of being unable to see one man exploiting and oppressing his fellow man and to stand idly by.

If Moses took these action, there must have been some inner readiness for them; they reflected some existing facet of his character. We may imagine that they were the fruit of a gradual process of maturation, of observing life and of how the world works, of thinking, of developing a moral code—possibly without even being consciously aware of doing so. For, in fact, there are no sudden changes in life: so-called dramatic changes, when examined more closely, turn out to be the result of a lengthy process of thinking, of reflection, of half-formulated thoughts and feelings which coalesce into action at an appropriate moment. (Speaking personally, I may add that such was surely the case of certain important and seemingly dramatic decisions in my own life.)

Returning to the Burning Bush: throughout his encounter with God at the Burning Bush, Moshe repeatedly raises objections: about God and His Name, about the readiness of the people, about what He will tell Pharaoh, and finally—and one suspects this may well have been the heart of the issue—about himself and his own supposed inability to lead the people: “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10-14). At this point, God is infuriated—realizing, perhaps, that all of Moses’ objections to this point have been no more than excuses for his own fears and cowardice. Following this, he finally does set out to return to Egypt—taking with him his wife, his children, his donkey, and his staff, on which we will say more later. (At this point there is a weird incident in which God seeks to kill Moses at a place where they stop for the night, and he is only saved by his wife Zipporah circumcising their small child: 4:24-26. What has this to do with what goes before? And why is circumcision so important precisely now?)

Upon arriving in Egypt he goes with Aaron to speak to Pharaoh, with the demand that he send the people “to celebrate a festival to the Lord in the wilderness” (5:1). The latter “tightens the screws,” taking away the straw they needed to make bricks, and insisting that they continue to meet the same quota. The people complain, and Moses tells God that “Since you have come to your servants, things have only gotten worse and you have not saved your people!” (5:23). God responds to this in the opening verse of our parashah: “I am YHWH; I appeared to [the patriarchs] with My name of Almighty, but by My Name of YHWH (i.e., He who Is—e.g., some say, the Root or Essence of Being itself) I was not known to them” (6:3). The Bible critics read this verse as an indication of the multiplicity of strands or documents that went into the Bible—J, E, P—since the name YHWH clearly does appear in Genesis in connection with each of the Patriarchs; philosophically and mystically-inclined traditional commentators delve into the meaning of the various Divine names, and speak of a unique manifestation of the Holy name of YHWH at this point. The midrash (Exod. Rab. 6.4; alluded to in Rashi at 6:2) has a very different reading, seeing this as a rebuke to Moses: “’I appeared to the patriarchs as Almighty, and was not known to them by my Great Name’—yet they did not lose faith in Me, but trusted in Me, and did not complain notwithstanding the numerous difficulties and disappointments they encountered in their life—unlike you, to whom there has been revealed the true meaning of my Holy Name, in its realized sense—and yet you still complain all the time!” (my paraphrase).

More Thoughts on Racism: Individual and Community

My essay two weeks ago, “The State of our State’s Religion,” elicited a large number of reader responses, both positive and negative. One reader, an old friend, justified the call of the rabbis not to sell or rent to Arabs, based upon the argument that, if there is not an actual state of war between the Jewish and Arab peoples, there has certainly been an ongoing and still-continuing conflict and hostility between the two groups since long before the creation of the State in ’48, focused upon the question: “Whose land is this?” He added that there are certain Arabs attempting to buy up as much land as they can with money from oil-rich Arab countries; that, moreover, the PA has openly discriminatory laws on this subject, imposing the death penalty on any Arab who sells land to Jews. One could also note the idea within Islam that any land that has once been ruled by Muslim authorities is considered Dir al-Islam or even Waqf (i.e., holy land, belonging to Islam), and allowing infidels to rule it constitutes sacrilege. This is admittedly an important part factor in the conflict, little known in the West, and may well lie behind the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to officially recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, in response to Netanyahu’s request to do so (albeit the timing of Netanyahu’s request, as a condition of resuming negotiations, suggests that it was just another avoidance tactic on his part).

But, valid as these points may be in themselves, they miss one essential point which, incidentally, directly relates to our theme for this year. If I were asked to define racism, I would describe it, on the most basic level, as the confusion between the individual and the community. That is, in its quintessential form racism is the attribution to the individual of the traits, real or imagined, of the group (read: nation, race, ethnic group, religion, tribe, etc). True, the organized Arab or Muslim community—the Mosque (if we may speak thus: in Islam, unlike Christianity, there is no official hierarchy or central religious authority), and the various political moments that speak in its name, are openly and actively hostile to Zionism. But Arabs/Muslims are also individuals and, as individuals (or nuclear families) they by-and-large want the same thing as everyone else: a decent home, rewarding and remunerative work, food on the table, a place for their children to grow up in reasonable fashion, etc. To refuse to sell or even rent a house or apartment to an individual Arab, because he is or may be acting in the name of some sinister group called Islam, is attributing to the individual the traits of the group. And, I might add, all this is frighteningly similar to the way certain anti-Semites spoke about Jews in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. (Since writing the above-mentioned essay, there have been demonstrations in south Tel Aviv and in Bat-Yam against foreign workers from Africa and Sudanese refugees from Darfur. As these latter groups are not in any situation of conflict with us, what I wrote above applies to them as well, only more so.)

One more point, from my personal experience. As some readers may remember, this past summer I was ill for several weeks, and even spent a week in the hospital (see “Thoughts on Illness”: HY XI: Ki Teitsei). I subsequently received ongoing medical treatment through Kupat Holim, including appointments with various specialists, blood tests, etc. Throughout this period, the doctors and nurses involved in my care included both Jews and Arabs (one of the latter even bore the highly Islamic name of Dr. el-Haj!). It occurred to me that, were I to take seriously the “ongoing warfare” theory of my friend, I would not have allowed Arabs to penetrate my veins with a needle or an IV device. Just think what they could have done if they took literally the war cry of “Itbah al-Yahud”! Yet, needless to say, these medical personnel behaved in professional manner, exactly like their Jewish counterparts.

If Arabs can be trustworthy enough to care for our sick, why can they not be trusted to rent or even buy a home in which to live with their families? If the principled position of these rabbis is that these people are not to be allowed any place to live in Eretz Yisrael, what are those working in the medical system supposed to do: Fly? It is a fact of life that members of two peoples live on this piece of land, and we ignore this fact to our own detriment.


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