Saturday, December 21, 2013

Shemot (Modernity)

“Remember that You Were Slaves in Egypt”

This week’s parashah begins the story of the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt, and the redemption therefrom. The Exodus occupies a central role in Jewish thought and theology; in many places, the Torah reiterates the commandment, “You shall remember that the Lord your God took you up out of Egypt,” or its variant, “you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

A number of reasons are given for these two closely related commandments. The former, which is invoked as the reason for such things as Shabbat, the Passover celebration, tzitzit, and others, is explained by many rishonim and commentators as teaching the most basic theological principles: that God created the world and acts therein according to His will; hence we must appreciate and acknowledge God’s greatness, our dependence on Him and our gratitude. We must know that without His redemptive involvement “we and our children and our grandchildren would still be slaves in the land of Egypt” (to quote the Passover Haggadah). But alongside that there is an ethical explanation, mentioned in connection with such mitzvot as Sabbath observance, both of ourselves and of our household servants and even our animals (Deut 5:15); granting a freed slave a generous parting endowment (15:15); the festival of Shavuot (16:12); leaving olives and grapes that fall during the process of harvesting for the widow and orphan (24:19-21), and more. In brief, we must identify with the poor and helpless and misfortunate and downtrodden, remembering that we ourselves were in a like situation in the closer or more distant past, and to empathize with those in a like situation today.

This latter aspect is particularly important in a time like our own, in which many if not most Jews enjoy a reasonably comfortable and economically-secure life style. In the United States, the Jews are by and large a successful middle-class group, even disproportionately so, with numerous of its members in the professions and business, and many Jews having significant accomplishments in science, media, government, culture, academic research, and other intellectual endeavors (it is said that 20% of Nobel Prize winners over history have been Jews). Israel, not withstanding ongoing threats to its security and the Palestinian problem, has created a successful economy, is a world leader in hi-tech and in medical technology, and much of its population enjoys a reasonably comfortable middle-class life style.

Yet we often forget our past, and turn or back on those less fortunate than ourselves. Specifically, I want to mention two highly disturbing things happening in Israel in recent months:

1. Bedouin Settlements—Praver’s Law: Israel’s Knesset recently passed a law intended to “solve” the problem of the Bedouin population in the south. The Bedouins, traditionally a nomadic, rural people, have traditionally lived in small villages; even though they are no longer shepherds as their main occupation, almost every family owns one or several goats or sheep. The new law, which was adopted without consulting with the Bedouin themselves, will displace tens of thousands of people from their homes, forcing them into a modern urban way of life which is alien to them, while their own lands will be used to build Jewish settlements. The justification for this is that their ownership of their property has not been proven legally. But, as a traditional culture, they have not been overly meticulous about written documents; nevertheless, in most cases these lands have been passed down within the same clans, for generations if not centuries. There is hardly need to elaborate upon this miscarriage of justice, even if formally lawful.

2. “Infiltrators.” In recent years, tens of thousands of refugees from Northeast Africa—Darfur, Sudan, Eritrea, and other places—have come to Israel, seeking a safe refuge. In many cases, the very lives of these people were threatened in their homelands, because of their being on the wrong side in religious, ethnic, or political conflicts. The Israeli government has by and large refusal to recognize them as refugees seeking asylum – which it seems clear that they are—and instead refers to them as miztanenim—illegal immigrants, or infiltrators” (often, because the government itself has not allowed them to undergo the procedures needed in order to be recognized as refugees—a kind of “Catch 22”). In any event, under recent policy, the government has decided that all those entering Israel illegally will be sent to “waiting centers,” which they will be allowed to leave during the day but where they will be unable to work and must report back every evening—in brief, a sanitized name for a kind of prison.

Have we, the people who celebrate the Seder every year, become comfortable, quasi-European middle class people who look askance on others who are poor and homeless, especially if they have a dusky skin color? As aliens, viewed only as potential nuisances, as somehow not as human as ourselves, not deserving of consideration? Are we behaving any differently than those countries who turned back desperate Jewish refugees from Europe during WW2?

True, there is a problem in south Tel Aviv. The Africans have concentrated in neighborhoods populated mostly by poor and/or elderly Jews, where they are seen as a disruptive, disturbing element (indeed, as many of them are unemployed or prevented from working; young, male, many unmarried, there is no doubt truth to these accusations). But surely some other, more humane solution may be found other than sending them to what is in effect a prison, without their having committed any crime, without a trial or appeal or any attempt to establish them as productive citizens. Perhaps thy can gradually begin to replace the myriads of foreign workers brought into Israel every year from Far Eastern Asia and other places to do those jobs, often menial and low-paying jobs, which native Israelis don’t want to do. “Remember that you were servants in the land of Egypt” is, first of all, a call to exercise our human imagination and to begin to see ourselves in the place of these people; the rest will follow.

“And It Happened on the Way”

In the middle of this week’s parashah, we find have one of the strangest passages in the entire Torah. Following Moses’ dramatic encounter with God at the burning bush, where he is given his charge to return to Egypt to redeem the people, while he is going there with his family, we read the following:

And it happened on the way, at the inn / sleeping place / resting place, God met him and sought to kill him. And Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his legs, and said: “For you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” And he [the angel?] left off him; then she said “A bridegroom of blood for circumcision.” (Exodus 4:24-26)

Why, when Moses was specifically setting out to fulfill / carry out the mission imposed upon him by God, did God seek to kill him? On the face of it, God appears here as an arbitrary, almost demonic figure, who kills people without rhyme or reason. And even if, as seems to be implied by Zipporah’s response of circumcising her son, this had t do with circumcision, why was this suddenly a matter of death penalty: why did God seek to kill him? (and who was the “him” referred to in v. 24: Moses or his infant son?) And what is the meaning of her strange words about him being a hatan damim, a “bridegroom of blood” (and again, does this refer to Moses or to the infant? And was the blood the blood of circumcision, or the blood that would have been spilled otherwise?) And what is meant by the gesture of touching his feet? And, finally, what is the relation of this passage to its surrounding context? These three verses seem to have little relation to what precedes them or follows them; the narrative could have progressed equally well, or even better, without them: Moses would have concluded his dialogue with God in 4:23, and went towards Egypt, meeting Aaron in the wilderness (4:27 ff.).

I cannot analyze this passage, with the multitude of opinions of both traditional commentators and Bible critics, at this time. Perhaps on another occasion. But I will make one comment. We moderns like to think of God as “nice”: consciously or unconsciously, we like to see the Torah as confirming / ratifying our own values, and we are troubled when religion, Torah, halakhah, etc don’t jive with our own values (which we tend to think of as “ultimate” moral values). This passage is particularly troubling in that respect: God seems here inscrutable, “primitive,” even cruel, for reasons that are not given and that we cannot fathom. More tan anything, this passage is reminiscent of the sudden death of Aaron’s two sons (Lev 10:1-7) and that of Uzza when he tried to steady the ark of the covenant which threatened to fall ((2 Sam 6:3-8). (see HYII: Shemini [=Haftarot]). God’s outstanding quality in these passage is not his His kindness, His love, or His concern for ethics, justice and righteousness, but rather His numinous quality—powerful, mysterious, dangerous, “wholly Other”—that is, utterly outside the realm of the human, and the humanistic.

Apropos the notion of God as "nice," as affirming the best and deepest human ethical insights: I have lived long enough to see several significant changes in what is considered ethical and moral—particularly, in the areas of gender and sexuality, and of what has come ti be known as “politically correct.” I find myself asking the question: before everybody discovered that these new ethical imperatives, were they wrong morally, but everyone was in ignorance? Was the way my parents thought in their middle years (ca. 1940 or 1950?) immoral? Or is everything relative?

POSTSCRIPT: VAYEHI: Ephraim and Manasseh

A few thoughts on last week’s parashah, following a quiet, snow-bound Shabbat at home: One of the enigmatic aspects of Vayehi is the scene (Gen 48) in which Yaakov calls Yosef to him before his death; Yosef brings his two sons (children? lads? young men?), Ephraim and Manasseh, upon whom Ya’akov bestows a special blessing, declaring that each of them shall enjoy a status equivalent to that of the other tribes, notwithstanding their being one generation younger than them. What is this about?

On the simplest level, Yaakov is here giving Yosef, through his children, the “double portion” due to the first-born. In their case, this inheritance was expressed primarily in the division of the Land of Israel: the land was divided into twelve portions among the tribes (there is some dispute among the commentators whether these were equal or not), of which Ephraim and Manasseh each received a portion. (Levi, as the priestly, sacerdotal tribe received no inheritance, so this double inheritance restored the total number from eleven to twelve). According to Radak, this was reinforced by two other factors: Jacob’s intense love for Rachel, which persisted long after her death: she was the one he always considered his ”real” wife (see Gen 44:27: “you know that my wife bore me two children”—as if only she were his wife); hence, after her premature death, Yaakov’s love was transferred, so to speak, to Yosef and Binyamin, his two beloved sons. Thus, once he was reunited with Yosef it was only natural for him to give the rights of bekhorah (primogeniture) to Joseph. Moreover, Radak adds, Joseph was the one that took care of him (and of al the brothers) in Egypt, by virtue of his influential position within the Egyptian royal court. (One is reminded of a situation that occurs now and again in certain contemporary families, in which one child is the one who, de facto, takes care of the elderly parents, more so than the others.) (Another question: why does Yaakov pointedly prefer Ephraim to Manasseh, pointedly switching his hands at the time of blessing, placing his right hand over Ephraim, contrary to the birth order — a scene portrayed in a famous painting by Rembrandt.)

A note on primogeniture: The conflict between Joseph and Judah for primacy is an ongoing theme in these later chapters of the Book of Genesis. I have noted, in wake of Rav Soloveitchik, how the conformation between the two in Gen 44:18 ff. may be read as a covert struggle between the two for leadership of the brothers and hence of the Jewish people. While here Joseph is given material abundance and a double portion, in the blessings of all twelve sons in Chapter 49, Yaakov blesses Judah with leadership of the brothers. Thus, one might say that, in wake of the unstable—although not mean, vicious, or violent—character of Reuven, Jacob’s biological firstborn, the bekhorah was divided among the brothers in three ways: Yosef received the property associated with it, being given a double portion in the Land of Israel; Judah received kingship; and Levi the priesthood.

On a historical level, this may be read as prefiguring (or, as Bible critics might say: projecting backwards into the period of the patriarchs) the actual situation of a split nation. The tension between the tribes of Judah and Joseph led, after Solomon’s death, to the split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel, led largely by figures from the tribe of Ephraim; and the southern kingdom of Judah, which eventually became the royal Davidic house. But perhaps these tensions were present beneath the surface even earlier, in the time of the Judges.

For more teachings on this parashah from previous years, visit the archives to this blog.

Vayehi (Modernity)


Vayigash (Modernity)


Miketz (Modernity)


Vayeshev (Modernity)


Vayishlah (Modernity)


Vayetze (Modernity)