Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

Parashat Bo: Darkness and Light

The final three plagues that occur in this week’s sidra, appear on first reading to be difficult to categorise until we see a thread that connects them – that of darkness itself. The swarm of locusts cut out any light from the sun, forming a thick cloud of living destruction. The bible tells us “they cover the eye of the land so that no one can see it”. The three days of darkness of the ninth plague meant that the Egyptians could not see each other or to move around at all – “they could not get up from where they were”. And the last terrible plague, that of the killing of all the first-born, took place at midnight.

What is the nature of darkness that links these events?

The ninth plague of darkness lasted for three days, imprisoning the Egyptians in their homes and completely isolated from each other. The Egyptians had refused to allow the Israelites three days of freedom to journey into the wilderness to worship God (Exodus 5:3) were now being given a sort of measure for measure punishment. The darkness is so thick as to be tangible, a suffocating total absence of possibility; no connection, no sense of self or other, can be experienced within it.

Darkness seems to be a metaphor for slavery, for whatever is the opposite of freedom to be. It is the metaphor for isolation, for fear and complete helplessness. The first thing that God does at the Creation is to bring about Light, separating it from the primordial swirling atmosphere. Without light nothing else would be possible.

The Midrash, commenting on the first verse of psalm 22, which reads: “To the chief musician: upon the rising of the morning star, a psalm of David: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Why are You] so far from saving me, from the words of my roar?”
tells us that it is darkest immediately before the dawn:

“At night, though it be night, one has the light of the moon, the stars, the planets. Then when is it really dark? Just before dawn! After the moon sets and the stars set and the planets vanish, there is no darkness deeper than the hour before dawn. And in that hour the Holy One answers the world and all that are in it: out of the darkness God brings forth the dawn and gives light to the world.” (Midrash Tehillim)

It goes on to play with the words ‘shachar’ meaning ‘dawn’, and ‘shachor’ meaning ‘blackness’. The worst state to be in, spiritually and emotionally, is in the place of deepest darkness, yet it is also the place from which God responds to us, and from which we can begin again.

All of us have times when we feel the lack of freedom to be, when we are isolated from others or anxious or hopeless or depressed. We all understand the words of the psalm, when we feel forsaken and drowned out by the roaring in our minds. This is never a good feeling nor one we want to stay in for any length of time, but it is part of the human experience and something we can use on our journey to understand ourselves and our lives.

It took the darkness – the three different kinds of it – to bring Pharaoh to an understanding of the power of God. It takes the darkness in our own lives to really help us understand how good so much of our lives actually is.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in his essay  “To Hold With Open Arms” wrote:
“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.
It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings.
In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we. How precious- how careless. This has been the refrain sounding in me ever since.”

Darkness and light. We need each of them to understand the other. And with an awareness of both, we are able to reach out towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

Parashat Bo

The sidra opens with a challenge – the word we use to name this narrative – Bo. God is saying to Moses “Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

In Hebrew there are two different verbs – la’lechet which means ‘to go’ and which was the imperative used when God first met Abraham – Lech Lecha! And la’vo meaning ‘to come’ which is the verb used here to Moses. Come to Pharaoh!

But at the end of the sidra last week, Moses was outside the city – so from the usage of this verb we can only understand that while Moses was outside and away from Pharaoh, God was within, and close to Pharaoh.

The thirteenth century French commentator, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, noted this strange usage, and suggested that God was saying that when Moses went to Pharaoh, God would be there with him – in effect he would not be alone as he faced the increasingly paranoid and terrifying king.  This is a lovely reassurance to Moses, but it begs the question – why at this point does Moses need the reassurance? Is he in doubt that God can do what is promised? Does he fear that he will be led into a trap from which there is no escape?

Moses knows from later in the same verse, that God has hardened the heart of Pharaoh yet again. Maybe he was holding on to the hope that Pharaoh would finally yield to the wishes of his advisors, that he would understand that he was in a battle he could not win. But God has put paid to that hope – Pharaoh would, for certain, rebuff him. And this too would be part of God’s plan.

How difficult must it have been for Moses to go through with this. How much must he have wanted God to be actively present alongside him. And then the plagues themselves when they came were all of them about darkness, isolation and terror. As we feel today feel conflicted about God strengthening Pharaoh’s resolve to take the battle between them to the ultimate conclusion, how much more so must Moses have felt, a frightened human being shuttling between the two of them?

An ancient battle is being played out – between Good and Evil, between light and dark. What is different in this rendition of the mythology is that human beings are part of the thread of the narrative, that we must witness and understand what it is we see, we must go on to remember and to tell what we saw and understood.

Those first two verses set the scene ““Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your child, and of your children’s children, what I have done to Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

The final element of the battle is to happen now. And all must know for all time from the process of this battle that God is the one and only and Eternal God.

The  parashah goes on to recount the events leading up to the final night, when the Israelites prepared for their departure from Egypt, and the instructions given to ensure that this core event in our history will be recorded forever in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

The events leading up to and surrounding the exodus from Egypt are embedded in our narrative in so many ways – Kiddush at Shabbat, the Amidah, the Seder, the Hallel. These are signs and signals for us to respond to, we  must consciously understand what we are doing, and tell and retell the narrative to ourselves and others in every generation. All of this so that we may never forget nor misunderstand that God is God.

There are two big themes in Judaism – there is the universalistic one of the Creation of the World and the Creator of all Things who is God of all people;  And there is the particularistic one of the Exodus from Egypt and the particular relationship we Jews have with God. All of our tradition and theology is balanced upon these two major events, the universal and the particular, the creation and the exodus, the whole and the part, the community and the individual.  We create actions and rituals, stories and prayers, all in order to remember that the Eternal is our God, and everything flows from that remembering. But in the smaller and particularistic scale our activity also reminds us that each of us has a consciousness and lives a life of moment and value, and we should not take any part of that for granted.  Each of us makes a contribution, each of us is a witness and our stories weave into the narrative to strengthen and form it.

If we choose not to be part of the story, then everything is weakened because of that choice. We are in it together, a people, a community, who share our narrative and understanding.  We may fear, we may doubt, we may have good reason for both the doubt and the fear. But like Moses, when we take our part in the narrative we should remember the choice of verb used by God – “come – be with Me, I will be with you, you are not alone in this however terrifying it looks”, rather than the verb used in the imperative to Abraham – Go for yourself. 

 In the two imperatives that God uses to force movement, we have moved from the individual to the communal journey. We are no longer alone. However difficult we might find God to be, we have each other and we have the reassurance of our history that however dark it seems to be, the dawn will come.
 

Parashat Va’era

There is so much packed into this sidra – where to begin? Is it with the conundrum of the name of God as presented here? The new and different kind of relationship that God has with Moses in comparison with the Patriarchs? The insight into Moses’ speech difficulties? The hardening of the resolve of Pharaoh by God – and for what purpose? The sudden placing of the genealogy interrupting the narrative flow? The terrible plagues inflicted on the Egyptians? The most amazing (to me, the mother of a primary school child) that the plague of lice could not be repeated by the powerful magicians who could copy other plagues?

One line spoke to me more this year than any other – Moses repeats the words of God who tells the people “I am YHVH and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, and I will take you to Me for  a people and I will be your God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and I will bring you in to the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I will give it to you for a heritage, I am YHVH” and the people “did not listen to Moses because of impatience of spirit and [their] difficult work” (6:6-9)

Literally the words “kotzer ruach” mean shortness of breath or limited spirit and could mean, as Rashi understands it, that they were physically finding breathing hard, presumably because of the severity of the work they had to do. But I find Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s translation as “impatience” more satisfactory. They did not listen to what Moses was saying because they were operating in a different emotional environment, they were focussed only on the here and now, they could not see beyond the next task to be achieved.  Short termism was all they could manage. The Jews were slaves – and had been for some generations – in a land named Mitzraim, “the doubly narrow place”. They had  become habituated to their surroundings and their lives, they had learned how to survive, and that skill was all about having narrow horizons themselves. They could not possibly imagine a future, let alone a future in a different world where they would be quite different themselves. The generation of the exodus were emotionally and intellectually locked down, they suffered failure of imagination as well as failure of faith, their one imperative was to keep their heads down and keep doing what they had always done. They would allow themselves no awareness outside this behaviour. They just wanted to survive but it seems they no longer knew why it was important to survive or what they were surviving in order to become.

This view of “kotzer ruach” of narrowness of spirit and failure to dream of a better future is one that comes into sharp focus for me as I watch the run up to the Israeli elections. The many shifting coalitions as people jockey for votes, the offerings of quick fixes rather than thoughtful change, the lack of focus on life -critical issues in favour of trivial ones, the refusal to engage with the peace process, the social pressures facing so many of the people, the financial pressures that can surely not be sustained, it is depressing to sit here watching a country I love suffering from kotzer ruach, taking short breaths that allow it to continue from moment to moment, but having lost direction, belief, imagination, purpose. In 1897 Theodor Herzl famously wrote “im tirtzu, ein zo agada; ve’im lo tirtzu, agada hi ve’agada tisha’er’,: ‘If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay”. Because he and others thought and planned and imagined and dreamed, a Jewish State was born, but it requires the thinking and planning and imagination and dreaming of its current leadership for it to continue to be what it was set up to be: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (Declaration of Independence 1948) (1)

Moses offered hope and deep meaning to the Children of Israel, who could not listen to  him or understand what he was offering and so missed a vital opportunity to not only survive but to thrive as a people of God. I hope and pray that we will not suffer such a failure of imagination and will again, and that those who are able to vote in the coming election will make their voices heard for good, so that the promise “I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and you will know that I am the Eternal your God” with all that that extraordinary relationship of covenant and obligation can mean, will happen in our day.

 

(1)  taken from http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Declaration+of+Establishment+of+State+of+Israel.htm