Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shemot (Wanderings)

Setting the Stage

Most of this issue is devoted to a special essay, entitled “Kol be-Isha Ervah —‘A Woman’s Voice is Lewdness.’” I will, however, preface it with a few remarks about the beginning of the Book of Shemot (Exodus).

Perhaps I’m belaboring the obvious, but it occurred to me recently that our Torah is both “Our Holy Torah”—an integral, inseparable unity, each of whose parts complements the other —and Hamisha Humshei Torah, “The Five Fifths of the Torah”—five separate books, each one of which is an entity in its own right, with its own central theme or themes, its own style and character, its own literary structure, and its own beginning and end. Thus Bereshit (Genesis), the Book of Beginnings, starts with the very origins of the universe, continues with the beginnings of humankind through a series of archetypal stories that seek to typify the nature of this strange creature called Man (a kind of philosophical anthropology through the medium of myth or legend), and whose major bulk, from Chapter 12 through 50, is devoted to the sage of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, ending with this modest-sized clan or tribe living peacefully in Egypt.

The opening chapters of Shemot may be read as setting the stage for the central theme of enslavement and redemption, much as Genesis 1 and 2 set the stage for the story of humankind, and Abraham’s family within it. “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt….” And: this is how the Egyptians came to turn against them and enslave them, including a plan to murder all the male infants; this is how the midwives outwitted them; this is the early life of the great leader, and how he became whom he became. And, after the whole story of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, the book concludes, at length and in great detail, with the fulfillment of the religious goal of all these things—the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness as a dwelling place for the Divine presence. The final verses of Shemot, with the cloud symbolizing or embodying the Divine presence, represent a kind of climax, a sense of closure and completeness in and of itself. (Might there be two very different “goals” to the Torah: the Divine Presence coming to rest in the midst of the people, and the settling of the people in the land of Israel/Canaan, to which so much attention is given, especially at the end of Numbers and throughout Deuteronomy? We shall return to this question later.)

I will, with the Almighty’s help, return to this question of the beginnings and ends of each of the other Humashim and their internal unity when the time comes. Meanwhile, a few comments on some central themes of these opening, “stage setting” chapters.

The Book of Bereshit concludes with Yosef’s culminating conversation with his brethren and, in the final verse, “And Yosef died aged one hundred ten years; and he was embalmed, and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (Gen 50:26). At the beginning of Shemot, straight after the list of names, we read, “And Joseph died and all his brethren and all that generation” (1:6) and thereafter, “A new king arose in Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (v. 8). Yosef was a kind of Archimedian point in Jacob’s family, a focal point, a center.

I see him as the first in a long series of Jews who served as advisor, as counselor to kings and to the mighty of the earth. A person who comes seemingly out of nowhere, gifted with tremendous talents, who advises and guides policy, whether economic or diplomatic and geo-political. He himself does not occupy the center of the stage, but works more-or-less behind the scenes—but his wisdom is instrumental in the success of the regime and of the country. “And all that he did, God made successful in his hands.” One may think of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin D’Isreali, Bernard Baruch, Walter Ratthenau—and, long before them, Shmuel Hanaggid and Don Isaac Abravanel (who, in addition, to being an important Biblical commentator, was financial advisor to the kings of Portugal and Spain: Ferdinand almost begged him to convert pro forma so that he could remain in the country after the Expulsion of 1492). (A somewhat cynical aside: Perhaps our problem in Israel is that we don’t have any covert Jewish advisors, but our leaders are themselves Jews, who are overly impressed with their own cleverness; a rank newcomer starts his own party, rather than working his way up from within—assuring a needless divisiveness within his own sector.)

The second theme here is the beginning of anti-Semitism. Once the unique Jewish advisor is gone, people begin to fear the Israelites—their talents and successes, and their sheer numbers. Their natural fertility is described as “swarming,” comparable to rodents or vermin. The fearful Pharaoh decides to murder all infant boys, who are only saved by the natural morality and decency (“fear of God”—1:17) of the midwives. I was impressed here by the striking similarity to Nazism: as far as I know, prior to Hitler there was never a comprehensive racist action in which an anti-Semitic leader attempted to kill every Jewish child, whether of one or both sexes—yet we have it here.

The third major theme in “setting the stage” is, parallel to the story of the oppression, and beginning from within it, the early life and shaping of the future redeemer: his birth, his being saved from death, his adoption by Pharaoh‘s daughter, his awakening sense of justice which led to bold, even rash acts, which in turn lead to his lengthy exile in Midian. There he married Zipporah, there he may have learned certain kinds of wisdom from Yitro—we don’t know—and there he spent long hours wandering the hills and mountains with his sheep: thinking, reflecting, achieving a certain stage of readiness and maturity. All these reach their culmination in what I see as the real beginning of the book, in terms of its theological–redemptive message: Chapter 3, in which Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush.

For more teachings on this parashah see the archives to this blog for 2005_12_25, as well as January 2007, 2009 2010, and 2011 (scroll down).


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