Sunday, January 24, 2016

Parshas Besalach - The Bowing of the Moon

The Midrash famously comments on the splitting of the sea that the sea "saw" Arono Shel Yosef, the bones of Yosef and split in his merit. Is there any basis for such a reading in the Torah?

Right before the sea splits, some Jews famously scream at Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?" (Shemos 14:11). This can be read as poetic phrasing, but it could also be viewed as a taunt in response to Yosef's casket proceeding forward.

A casket being carried forward could have inspired the taunt of, "Were there no graves in Egypt".

We are told that Moshe personally took Yosef's bones with him. (Shemos 13:19). Did Moshe, who was then quite old personally dig up or carry the bones? Unlikely, among other things it would have made him tameh/impure. But it does suggest that the casket had a pride of place in the procession.

Certainly if the sea split in response to it, it was at the front.

But we know that Yosef's bones were not the only ones carried out of Egypt. The other brothers are also buried in Israel. Yet Yosef is the only one mentioned. Why did Moshe become personally involved with his remains and why are the remains of the other brothers not mentioned?

Moshe and Yosef had a good deal in common. Both spent time among Egyptian royalty, yet put their fellow Jews first. Both were exiles who were cut off from their families. Both named their sons after their isolation in exile. Both were chosen to save the Jewish people, one by leading them to Egypt, the other by leading them out of Egypt.

Yosef was the first slave, the first Jew to be enslaved in Egypt. Moshe was the last slave, the first Jew to gain his freedom.

Yosef passed on the message, Pakod, Yifkod, G-d will surely remember you, to the Jews and made them swear an oath to bring him up out of Egypt. (Bereishis 50:24-45) That's the same message that G-d directed Moshe to bring to the Jews. Pakod, Pokadti, I have surely remembered. (Shemos 3:16).

Moshe was fulfilling a promise that the Jews had made to Yosef. The last slave was freeing the first slave.

And yet, what does this have to do with the sea? Yosef had many merits, but why would the sea particularly split for him?

As a child, Yosef famously dreamed that the sun, the moon and the stars were bowing to him. His father rebuked him for it. "Am I to come with your mother and brothers to bow to you to the ground?" (Bereishis 37:10). Yosef's mother was dead so the dream indeed seemed impossible.

The moon, representing Rochel, had already faded from the sky.

Yosef's brothers did bow to him. So did Yaakov. His brothers bowed to him because he saved them from starvation. His father bowed to him for the promise that he made to take his father's remains back to Israel for burial. But his mother never bowed to him. And he had not done anything for her.

So how did the dream come true?

Rochel is known as the mother of exiles, the one who pleads for the return of the Jewish people to their land. Slavery in Egypt was the first exile. The original exile. And her son was the only one of the children of Yaakov to be exiled. For the Jews to return, the sea had to split.

What did Yosef do for the moon? The Jewish calendar is lunar. While Rosh Hashana, the new year, is when the new year begins, Nissan, the month of the Jewish departure from Egypt, is considered the first month.

Before the final plague, G-d tells Moshe, "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." (Shemos 12:2) Without Yosef, Nissan would not be the first month. And so the moon "bowed". The tides of the sea split it apart. And the Jews began the long journey home.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Parshas Bo - For Whom Do We Toil

We are all familiar with "Let my people go". But Pharaoh's final sticking point wasn't the people. He first insisted that only the men be allowed to go. But after the plague of darkness, he says, "Go ye, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you."

Moshe however insists, "Thou as well will also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God. Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for thereof must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not with what we must serve the LORD, until we come there." (Shemos 10:24-26)

And for the first time, Pharaoh threatens Moshe with death. After the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh tells Moshe, "Take both your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also." (Shemos 12:32)

What can be the significance of cattle compared to that of human beings? And yet in the plague of the firstborn, along with all of the human firstborn who are slain, "from the first-born of Pharaoh" down to "the first-born of cattle".

Two of the final devastating set of plagues focus on cattle and it is emphasized that, "The LORD shall make a division between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt; and there shall nothing die of all that belongs to the children of Israel." (Shemos 9:4).

Finally, even as the Jews are leaving Egypt, they are given a command to, "Sanctify unto Me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is Mine.'" (Shemos 13:2)

Why are mere cattle endowed with so much significance that G-d not only makes a special distinction between the flocks of the Jews and those of Egyptians, and that Pharaoh even especially notes this. "And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn, and he did not let the people go." (Shemos 9:7)

Why kill the firstborn of the cattle and why is one of the first commandments to the Jews regarding the sanctification of the first born of cattle? And why does Pharaoh make the flocks of the Jews into his final sticking point, being willing to let the Jewish people go, but not their animals?

To understand this, let's go back a little further.

The last message that G-d gives Moshe for Pharaoh, before he enters Egypt, is one that we never see him actually deliver. "And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born." (Shemos 4:22-23)

What is the significance of the first born? It's the portion that belongs to G-d as acknowledgement that everything comes from Him. That was the essence of the dispute between Kayin and Hevel, Cain and Abel. Hevel brought G-d "of the firstlings of his flock" while Kayin just brought offerings. (Bereishis 4:4).

Bringing the "firstlings of his flock" was the essence of religion at the time because it worshiped G-d by stating that everything came about because of Him and that human labor was only made productive by G-d.

The first born of human beings were priests who brought the first born of cattle and fruits as offerings to G-d. Israel was G-d's "first born son" that was meant to serve Him. "Israel is the LORD'S hallowed portion, His first-fruits of the increase; all that devour him shall be held guilty, evil shall come upon them, saith the LORD." (Jeremiah 2:3)

The flocks mattered because they were the ultimate statement that Israel served G-d. Many people pay lip service to religion. They say things, but don't really mean them. It's what people do with the first products of their labor that show where their priorities are. Possessiveness is corrupting.

Pharaoh wanted to hold on to the Jews badly enough to destroy Egypt. He would rather kill them than let them go. And if he had to let them go, he would at least hold on to their flocks. By sacrificing to G-d, the Jews would be saying that their labor all along had been for G-d, not Pharaoh.

They had never been truly enslaved by Pharaoh. They had only been in Egypt because G-d had decided it. This would retroactively nullify everything that Pharaoh had done to them.

Sacrificing to G-d was the "abomination of Egypt" (Shemos 8:22). It was the opposite of a culture of slavery where the Jews were meant to be toiling for Pharaoh and their Egyptian masters. There was no room for G-d in such an arrangement. Pharaoh was willing to let the Jews go to worship G-d, but to let them take all their flocks would mean a final sundering of his power to over them and his rivalry with G-d.

Pharaoh refused to give over his first born cattle to G-d and acknowledge that Egypt had only survived because of the divine help through Yosef. He refused to allow G-d's first born to serve Him. And in the final extremity he refused to allow their labor to be for G-d, rather than Pharaoh.

The fundamental question of human life is for whom do we toil. Do we toil for institutions and corporations, for pharaohs and governments, to satisfy the desires they create for us, or do we toil for G-d?

That was the fundamental question of the Exodus. It's still the fundamental human question. The flocks were the physical expression of human labor. To have faith, was to believe that they had come about through G-d. To have faith, was therefore to toil for G-d. Every man did not have to be a priest, but every man and woman had to acknowledge that the work of their hands had come from G-d.

This was the abomination of Egypt, unacceptable to a slave culture, where men worked by the will of other men to produce unearned wealth. The question of the Exodus was whether the Jews would serve G-d or Pharaoh. The plagues did not settle the question, neither for Pharaoh or the Jews. It's still the question of human history for all of us, Jewish and non-Jewish. Force alone does not settle the question. It only temporarily clarifies it for tyrants. The final answer must come from the human heart.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Parshas Vaera - A Man's House is His Palace

With Parshas Vaera, the process of subjecting Pharaoh and Egypt to a series of plagues begins. Certain plagues Pharaoh resists. Others he is intimidated by and submits to.

Is there a pattern?

Moshe and Aaron turn the Nile to blood, and despite the disturbing threat to the survival of a nation that depends on the river, we are told that "Pharaoh turned and went into his house". (Shemos 7:23)

And so for the next plague, G-d sends a more personal threat to Pharaoh. The frogs will "go up and come into thy house, and into thy bed-chamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading-troughs."

G-d places the order of the infestation as the order of importance that these events have to Pharaoh.

When his people were suffering, Pharaoh retreated to his house, his palace, and let his people dig for drinking water. But now the plague, even though seemingly less harmful and threatening, will impact directly on him, and make its way into his most intimate quarters leaving him no place to retreat to.

If he enters his home, the plague will be there. If he locks the door of his bedchamber, he will not escape it.

For the first time, Pharaoh surrenders. And he pleads with Moshe to "take away the frogs from me, and from my people". First comes Pharaoh. Then come his people.

The next plague contains no mention of Pharaoh's home and so he does not surrender. But the plague after that, wild beasts, does. It first comes "into the house of Pharaoh" (Shemos 8:20) and once again Pharaoh frantically submits. And Moshe, very aware by now of Pharaoh's set of priorities, promises that the plague will be removed from, "Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people".

The next plague kills all the cattle, but does not affect Pharaoh and so he does not submit. The plague after that causes plenty of human misery, but again does not seem to affect him in particular either.

After that, G-d sends a more direct message to Pharaoh, "I will this time send all My plagues upon thy person, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people". And yet this time the plague, hail, does not appear to affect Pharaoh particularly. Yet once again there is a mention of houses.

"Now therefore send, hasten in thy cattle and all that thou hast in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought into the house, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.' He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses;" (Shemos 9:19-21)

The moral was a simple one. Each time Pharaoh had determined his response based on what the personal impact upon him was. If the plague affected his "house", he summoned Moshe and pleaded for relief. If it didn't, he allowed his people to suffer.

"House" had come to stand for selfishness. A personal space that a man could use to shut himself off from the pain of others.

Pharaoh's house was his ego.

The plague of hail offered Pharaoh and other Egyptians a chance to save not only their livestock, but their servants, as long as they were willing to listen to G-d and open up their houses. If they wouldn't, they would ultimately suffer.

It is this which causes Pharaoh to submit for the first time, even though he isn't personally threatened, with a unique admission of guilt. "And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: 'I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are the wicked ones."(Shemos 9:27)

With the next plague, locusts, with its threat of them filling "thy houses and the houses of all thy servants", Pharaoh attempts to preemptively surrender, but then hardens his heart. The final plague strikes all of Egypt, including the house of Pharaoh, so there is "not a house where there was not one dead."

The climax of the selfishness, the lack of empathy which had brought Pharaoh and his people to this pass, their lack of concern for anyone outside their own "house" was that every house had to suffer the ultimate price.

In sharp contrast to this are the midwives who defied Pharaoh's decree to kill the Jewish firstborn. As a reward, "And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses." (Shemos 1:21).

"If the Lord does not build the house, its builders labor in vain." (Psalms 127:1).

Pharaoh exploited Jewish labor on massive construction projects for his own glorification, only to see it all come apart. The Egyptian ruler had put his trust in physical houses, in fortifications that he could use to leverage his power, hiding behind walls, but G-d could penetrate those walls in any number of ways.

The House of Egypt was built on selfishness, on disregard for others, and so its punishment lay in forcing Pharaoh to recognize his own guilt, not his hostility toward the Jews, as neither he nor the Egyptians would have considered that a crime, but his disregard for his own people and everyone who wasn't him. This was the point that G-d made in the plague of hail. G-d showed more regard for the Egyptians, even as He was punishing them, than Pharaoh ever did.

Jewish houses were built by G-d based on values. They could not and would not endure without them. The houses of the midwives were dynasties, not mere buildings. Many of the houses of Egypt still survive as curiosities and wonders, but the people are long gone while the dynasties of the midwives still endure.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Parshas Shemos - No Religion Without a Nation

In Parshas Shemos, G-d's message to Pharaoh isn't so much, "Let my people go" as "Let my people go for three days".

While G-d's message to the Jews is that he will bring them to Israel, His message to Pharaoh is, "And now let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our G-d."

Why does G-d tell Moshe to try and trick Pharaoh, a trick which doesn't work in any case? Since G-d already tells Moshe that Pharaoh will only let them go after a great deal of punishment has been meted out, why bother with the ruse?

To understand that, let's examine why Pharaoh didn't want to let the Jews go. Pharaoh's plan for enslavement begins with the fear that the Jews will escape Egypt. But why worry about the Jews leaving if they haven't even been enslaved yet?

And if Pharaoh wants to enslave the Jews, why does he then start trying to kill them?

If the goal is to rid Egypt of Jews because they are becoming numerous, letting them leave would have solved the problem. If the goal is to benefit from their slave labor, why kill them?

Pharaoh's behavior toward the Jews is contradictory. Moshe's three day proposal exposes that contradiction.

If Pharaoh is only interested in exploiting the Jews as slave labor, the three day proposal is no great loss. Especially compared to the economic losses of the actual plagues. When Pharaoh shows that he is willing to take great losses rather than let the Jews leave for a brief holiday, he is demonstrating that he is not motivated by economic considerations.

Pharaoh's response to Moshe begins with an extended rejection of G-d. He lashes out at the Jews as lazy for wanting to worship G-d.

The three-day proposal is not really intended for Pharaoh. It's a demonstration for the Jews, that Pharaoh is not just a greedy tyrant who wants slave labor, not does he just hate them as a purely xenophobic reaction. He would rather see Egypt destroyed than allow Jews to live by their faith.

What was the real purpose of slavery? Had Avraham committed a sin that his descendants were destined to descend to Egypt and be enslaved?

Egypt was a lesson. It was a lesson that the Jews had to live as a nation in their own land. Even the nicest exile would decay into hostility and hatred over Judaism. The Pharaohs might find Jews useful as financiers, officials and tradesmen, but no matter how they adapted, religion would always remain a source of friction.

The paradoxical hatred of the Pharaohs for the Jews embodied the contradictions of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh feared the Jews would leave, but wanted to destroy them. He worked them to death, but accused them of being lazy. He would rather see Egypt ruined than allow them to worship G-d.

When the Sages state that one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael, it is as if he has no G-d, it was recognizing the fact that Jews would not be able to fully worship G-d without their own nation. 

Before Egypt, the children of Israel might have thought that they could go on as they were in a nomadic existence and still worship G-d, that they could have a religion and a people without a nation.

Pharaoh's refusal to even release them for three days at the cost of the destruction of Egypt showed them that the freedom to worship G-d is also dependent on physical freedom. To fully worship G-d, they also had to have the freedom to do by having their own nation.

G-d's three day offer to Pharaoh showed the Jews that Pharaoh did not just want slaves, but that his anti-Semitism was motivated by a hatred of their religion because of G-d. In later times, some Jews in the desert would complain that they had been forced to leave Egypt. The three day offer was a reminder why. If Pharaoh couldn't allow them to worship G-d for three days, then they could only truly live as Jews in an independent nation that would always leave them free to worship G-d.