Friday, January 25, 2013

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Beshalakh 5773 - Moshe's Musings (Revised 5760)

Dear Diary:

It's been a few days since I've had a chance to find the time to write. So much has happened. As I wrote, He did this terrible thing as he had told me he would, and struck down in the night all the first born sons of the Egyptians.

Soldiers arrived in the middle of the night and dragged me and Ari to the palace. Pharaoh could not even look me in the face. "Go!" he said. "Get out! And take everything you have with you." And then he made the strangest request - that we ask G"d to also bring a blessing upon him. Pharaoh was asking his slaves for a blessing. Oh, how mighty our G"d is! Or is that how wimpy is Pharaoh and his gods? Or is that just Pharaoh hedging his bets? I never know how sincere he is, especially with G”d meddling with his thoughts.

Let me tell you, getting this group organized and on the road was no picnic. Details, details, details. We were literally on our way out the city gates when a group of elders stopped me shouting "The Bones! The Bones! We have to take the bones!" Oh, great, I thought, another delay. "What bones," I asked. "Why, Joseph's bones, of course. He was promised his bones would be taken home, as he did for his father Jacob." I resisted the urge to say out loud my thought that Joseph was the one who had connived his way into this whole mess in the first place, but I figured I'd better not upset the elders. Besides, I guess I must be a distant relative myself.

But it wasn't just the bones. You'd think after centuries in slavery they'd be in a hurry to leave. But no. They were so brow-beaten that mustering energy and pride was difficult. As usual, He must have been listening to my thoughts, for He told me that we shouldn't head north, lest the people fear they'll run into the Philistines. So he told me to take them towards the Sea of Reeds. I have to be honest, diary, I thought for a minute He must be crazy. How are we ever gonna get through there? This was not just any swamp. It was so massive it was like a sea of its own. You couldn't see through to the other side - all you saw was a horizon filled with reeds.  So that's what we called it - the Sea of Reeds. Yam Suf.  But I had seen enough of G”d's wrath, so I figured I'd better just be a good boy and follow instructions. He's a cookin' something up.

It was pretty easy because He led us as a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. Pretty hard to miss. Pretty easy for the Egyptians to follow too, I thought silently.

As if on cue, like He's always doing, reading me mind, He tells me to turn the whole kit and caboodle back towards Pi-hahiroth, next to the swamps, and make camp there. And then He said it yet again, those dreaded words I have really come to dislike. "I'm going to stiffen Pharaoh's heart." As if we hadn't heard that enough times already. What are we-playing pieces in some divine game between a bunch of deities? And it wasn't enough to stiffen Pharaoh's heart and make him come after us. He had to make us camp in an obvious place from which escape was unlikely. "Are we all about to be slaughtered?" I wondered. But then I got cocky again, remembering the events of the past few days. "You and what army, Mr. Pharaoh? Your going to take on my G”d? Ha!" I know I shouldn't have thought that way, and I'll probably pay for it later, because I know He's always listening. Oh, well. Gotta stop writing now and get some sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be a rough day.

Dear Diary:

You are just not going to believe this. I can hardly believe it myself. Right now there's a big party still going on in the camp. Sis has all the women out dancing and singing-they'll probably be at it all night.

Well, here's the story. Just like clockwork, the moment some people spotted the Egyptians, a whole bunch of people, including some of those troublemakers like Korach and his gang come running to me in a panic and accuse me of bringing them out here to die. I had to put aside my own personal misgivings and I gave them standard speech number two, and told them He would take care of them. It worked, sort of. But I knew in my own heart I was unsure. He knew, too.

After I had finished placating the crowd I wandered off to my tent, and He said to me "why are you crying out to me?" G”d forbid anyone ever finds this diary and turns it into a book. How is it going to look, after just giving this rousing speech to the people, if G”d says to me "why are you crying out to me?" Heck, if any of the personal stuff in you, dear diary, ever gets out, I don't think I'm going to be remembered as such a perfect leader. Well, maybe it is better that way. Better people should know that even their leaders aren't perfect.

Same old same old. That rod again. I was supposed to hold it up and part the waters of the swamp  so we could all walk right through and across the swamps. I have to tell you, I had my doubts. Even after all I had seen, this seemed like to much even for Him. But I held my rod up and a strong wind began to blow, and it blew all night, driving the waters apart and leaving a muddy but walkable path between them. I'm not sure where He was during all this, though I had reports that the pillar of fire had moved to our rear and was holding up the Egyptians so we could cross the sea. Good thing, too, because it took some real cajoling to convince the folks to walk through the swamps! Thank goodness for that Nachshon, Aminadav's kid. Everyone was just standing around, afraid to go forward. The crazy kid steps off a hillock starts wading into the water. He's about up to his eyeballs when suddenly the winds start driving the water back and the path opens up. A couple of other young men followed Nachshon, and soon everybody was heading across the swamp.

It was freaky. I was so out of it I'm not even sure how I got to the other side, but I did. It took almost the whole night to get everybody through. Those Egyptians were so hopping mad they didn't even stop to think twice and started heading right into the swamp behind us once their way was clear. "Oy, just great" I though to myself. Well, as you know, I'm never thinking to myself, cause obviously heard me and out of nowhere the Egyptians chariots and horses to move forward, totally mired in the mud, as if the ground had soften after we passed over it. Finally, after all of us were safely across, He told me do the rod thing again. I have to tell you, diary, I was not prepared for what happened then. The waters came rushing back into the swamp, closing the trail on which we had crossed, trapping the Egyptians.  Some of them tried to escape, but it looked almost as if an unseen hand was driving them back into the swamp. I swear the waters of the swamp were deeper and more hillocks were underwater than before this all started. In a few minutes it was all over. So many dead. So many drowned. On top of all those who had died during that last plague. It was hideous. I mean, I know they enslaved us for a few centuries, but still-to kill them all like that. He could have just let them go home. I doubt they would have ever bothered us again. I could even hear some of the Egyptians soldiers saying they had better flee home, because our G"d was obviously stronger than their gods. But I guess any G"d who is willing to wipe out a whole bunch of first born sons is liable to do anything. And, now that I stop and think about it, not only did He wipe out their first born sons-but probably most of their other sons, too. Because who else could all those soldiers who came chasing after us with Pharaoh, only to drown in the swamp? Oh, it's just too painful to think about.

I guess not many people think like I do. That's the trouble with being so philosophic. And I have lots of baggage. I mean, back when I was still an Egyptian prince, I murdered an overseer who had mistreated slaves. He had it coming, but I still feel guilty about it. Changes your outlook, killing someone. I don't think anybody but me was even thinking about those poor Egyptians. The people were just dumbstruck. But He sure did accomplish one thing...this time the people were really convinced He was on our side and would always protect us. It might be too much to hope for, but maybe now they'll follow the instructions He gives me for them without questioning them all the time. We'll see.

Ari broke me out of my reverie, and brought me back to my sense. "Look, brother, I don't know what's troubling you, but just look at the people! You have got to go out their and lead them in a song of praise to Him. They are just blown away by what he just did, and now's the time to get them all fired up so they'll be less trouble." Well, that made sense, so I quickly tried to think of the right words to say and the right melody to sing them to. We hadn't done much singing in Egypt, so I thought that it would be real appropriate to get everyone to join me in a song of praise. I was having a little trouble when Sis wandered in and asked what I was doing. "You, sing?" she laughed. "With that stutter and that voice?" "Stop making fun of me and help me write something, Sis,” I said. She was always better at this than I was anyway. Try this, she said, and sang a pretty tune with these words: "Sing to G”d for He has been victorious. Horse and driver he has hurled into the waters of the swamp." "It's a good start," I said "but pretty short." "So finish yourself, smart-aleck," she said, and stomped out. So I did. I thought of this really great line "Who is like You, G"d, among all those other gods?" I think it was even better than what Miriam wrote, if I must say so myself. It was a pretty good song. Easy to learn, and I taught it to everyone, and then everybody sang it with me. I thought, for dramatic effect, I would refer to the swamp as the Yam Suf, but then I thought it might be even more dramatic if I just called it Hayam, the sea.  "Horse and Rider He has hurled in the sea." Now that sounds dramatic. Nothing wrong with a little spin now and again. Anyhoo, I wrote it all  down and I'll stick it in between your pages here diary, so I can look at it again when I'm older.

Sis must have been awfully jealous at the way everyone loved my song, cause after we were done, she and a bunch of the women started singing and dancing and playing tambourines, just chanting that one original line of hers over and over. What the heck, I figured. Let her have her moment in the sun. Good night, diary.

Laila tov,
Dear Diary

I haven't had a chance to write again for a few days. I've been busy shepherding this ungrateful bunch. That's right, you heard me, ungrateful. After the other day, I figured they'd be happy and easy to please. But noooooooooooooo! Just three days later we're out in the wilderness of Shur and we couldn't find any water. Oh,  there was water at this place called Marah, but it was putrid. "Now we're going to die of thirst" a bunch of people whined.  So I asked Him for a little help and He showed me this branch which he told me to throw in the water and it would purify it. As usual, it worked. Gee, thanks, G"d. At least no Pharaoh’s heart to meddle with here.

A little while later we made it to Elim, where there was lots of water and shade and fruit, and everyone was happy. It was so nice I was even tempted to stay there a while, but I knew we had to press on, so we headed out in the Sin wilderness. Well, after two weeks of walking, our stores had run low, and people starting whining again. So I asked Him for help and he said he would make meat and bread appear. After that sea thing, I figured He'd come through. "But," He said, there's a catch." He said He would make bread fall down from the sky for six days, and everyone was to gather it up, only as much as they needed-except on the sixth day, when they were to gather a double portion, because on the seventh day there would be no bread. He Said He had created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh, and we should do likewise out of respect for the effort. Made sense to me. I guess.

As usual, He delivered, and quail appeared for us to eat that evening. Then during the night He made this dew form on these strange little plants, and in the morning it had condensed into this kind of flaky food. Tasted good, too. Ari and I told everyone to gather just what they needed. Naturally, a few were greedy and saved extra, but overnight it rotted. Serves them right!
So for five days we gathered this great food and ate it. On the sixth day we reminded everyone to gather a double portion, but those who had done it the first day were afraid it would rot like it did then. "Oh, would you just stop doubting G"d already," I told them. Sure enough, the stuff lasted overnight and there was food for all. Even so, a couple of people went out looking for more of this stuff. Naturally, they didn't find any and I scolded them for their lack of faith. I don't know who started calling it manna but it doesn't matter now, because that's what everyone is calling it. Not a bad name for that stuff. Tastes like cookies dipped in honey. Yummy. I could get used to this stuff. But tomorrow, we have to press on.

Dear Diary:

Sorry again I haven't written, but things got busy for a while. First, when we got to Rephidim, the wells were dry and people starting griping. Again! Can you believe them? Such whiners. He must have infinite patience, because I asked Him yet again to help. He told me to touch this rock and make some water come out, and it worked.

Then a scout brought word that Amalek was leading his people to attack us. Oy, that's all we needed. Between you and me, I wondered if G”d was hardening Amalek’s heart. I didn’t have the nerve to ask, though.

I needed a good commander to fight them off. I'd been noticing one of Nun's sons, a kid named Joshua. Figured I'd give him a chance. I told him to organize an army and go fight Amalek. He was a little skeptical at first. I thought quickly, and came up with an idea to persuade him. "You go fight," I said, and I'll stand up there on the hill with my rod, like I did back at the sea, er, swamp (how quickly we begin to believe our own exaggerations!), and G"d will protect you." Guess that convinced him, and off he went. Thankfully, He was listening too, and He came through. Joshua had no trouble at all defeating Amalek, even though they fought pretty dirty. So dirty, in fact, that G"d told me to tell Joshua He would blot out the memory of Amalek. (I’m still suspicious – G”d might have made Amalek fight dirtier than he had intended. I wouldn’t put it past Him.)

I am gonna keep my eye on that Joshua kid, He could come in real handy.

Oh, one last thing, diary. I am still pretty worried about the future. He may have promised to wipe out the memory of Amalek, but somehow I think we're going to run into lots of people like him, over and over again. Probably long after I'm dead, too. So before I go to sleep tonight, I'm going out to built a little altar here to G"d. I'm going to call it "G"d is my sign." It'll help remind me and future generations to be on the alert for future Amaleks. I hope we never meet his ilk again. Good night, diary.

As ever,

Shabbat Shalom to you and yours.

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Beshalakh 5772 - Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd's War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd


Friday, January 18, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5763 - Dear G”d…Love Pharaoh

I was raised to believe I was a god. I knew, in reality, that I was a mere mortal, yet my office demanded that I keep up the pretense. My people needed to believe in me. I’ll admit I’m not the easiest guy in the world to deal with. I can be impetuous, whimsical, sarcastic, demanding, insufferable – but then, You know all about that – because that describes You, too! The difference is that you really believe that You are G”d.

I don’t doubt for one moment, at least, not any longer, that You are a god, and that you are very powerful, perhaps-no probably-more powerful than all the gods of Egypt (myself and my dynastic ancestors included.)

Nevertheless, I have to argue with your methodology. Was it really necessary to interfere directly with my emotions, and cause me to harden my heart on all those occasions when I was surely ready to surrender-at least for the moment? Did You really need to inflict all this damage and pain upon my people and my country?

I’ve heard tell that you did this all purposefully, just to demonstrate that You were indeed a more powerful god – in fact, according to You and Your people, the one and only G”d. C’mon. If you are really the One G”d (and yes, my people have experimented with this model before, so it’s not entirely impossible for me to consider) isn’t that just a little petty? If all other gods are false gods, no-gods, what do you need to prove? Why should you care if people recognize you and worship you?

Look – if you are the One G”d, then it is You, and not Hapi (or maybe You knew her as Saptet,) that makes the Nile flood every year. We certainly don’t believe in You or worship You, yet still You give us the life-sustaining waters, You gave us victories against our enemies, gave us years of plenty and years of famine. So don’t go telling me that You need to be worshipped before delivering the goods that enable Your creations to thrive (that is, assuming You created us, and didn’t just happen upon us fully formed and decided to be a god to us.) You do it on a whim or a fancy, You let us pray to our gods and let us think they were doing the work, when all the time time it was You, right? So why the big fuss now? Why are you suddenly feeling starved for attention? Can’t you just be happy pulling the strings in the background, and letting us foolish mortals worship our make-believe gods?

Yes, we have and have had dozens and dozens of gods. Could they all have been, as my ancestor Akhenaten (and I could get in big trouble just for saying his name, so maybe I should refer to him by his original name Amenhotep IV – the IV is silent, I guess) simply manifestations of just one godhead? At least for a brief period in our history, we got there. Go visit what’s left of Amarna. That was an opportunity you missed. We were ripe for one god – could You not have come to us then? (Or maybe that really was You, though we called you Aten, and You’re mad at us because we went right back to our many gods in short order so You gave up on us?)

These Ivri, these Hebrews, these, well, slaves-they seem to be important to You. Why you have chosen them, from all the peoples of the earth, for some sort of special relationship, is a puzzlement. I will not presume to understand Your choice. Egypt is a mighty civilization, and we’ve been around a long time – thousands of years. Why not us? Is there something we lack? Is there something we have done that displeases You? Yes, frankly, we’re not as mighty as we once were – though perhaps we will be again – but surely we were worthy of Your attention. If You had but come to us, we would have been building pyramids for You rather than the gods we now or have worshipped (and yes, I admit there have been changes in our belief system over the millennia.)

Look, after those first few plagues, I was quite ready to let the Hebrews go. I knew from the start it was a ruse – that Moses was interested in more than just going out into the wilderness to worship You. It was all such an obvious ploy. Nevertheless, I was ready to give in. You stopped me! I could feel it – feel my heart hardening, my mind changing. I felt like a puppet. It wasn't enough for You to do it once, You did it over and over again, each time inflicting worse punishment on my people and my land. You got something with the number 10, maybe?

How petty, too, that you so deflated my people that they were disposed to let these slaves walk off with a good portion of all our wealth.

While I’m ranting, did you have to pick Moses to be the thorn in my side. There’s quite a bit of baggage between us already, as You must know. Sigh.

Now You’ve left me with no choice. Yes, I’ll put on a good show of being angry and lead what’s left of my army to chase these Hebrews and either bring them back or run them into the sea. The fact is, I’m dispirited, I don’t have much fight left in me, but once again my position requires me to do the right thing for Egypt. I’m sure you won’t make it easy – in fact, I’m quite sure I won’t succeed, and will have to return in disgrace – if You even let me live, which You might not. I’m prepared for that. Not happy about it, but prepared. You’ve set the scene, and now we must both play our part in this charade. I have to pretend it matters – pretend I have a chance of success when I know I don’t. Well, I’ve been faking being a god to my people for years, so why not?

I have to tell You – given Your behavior, tactics, ethics, and all, I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to worship You. You are a pretty flawed god from my perspective. So maybe it’s all for the best that we part ways.

You have fun guiding these people back to the land they say You gave them back in Canaan. I’ll just bet they do something to piss You off enough to give them a really rough time of it. You might even give up on them entirely and find another people to champion. Do me a favor. I’m on to You. We’re on to you. Don’t come back to us.

Pharaoh  Winking smile

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bo 5772 - Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 - Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 - Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 - Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You're...Well...
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5773 - Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama

This week’s musing is in two parts. The first is an unabashedly moral and political screed. The second is a question of 1,2,or 3.

Let Our People Go

Each of the tragic shootings that have occurred over the past decades – they are to our society as the plagues were to Pharaoh and Egypt. How long must we endure? Why does each plague seem to only harden the hearts of those who stand in opposition to our freedom from gun violence?

Newtown, MA (Elementary School)
Portland, OR (Shopping Mall)
Milwaukee, WI (Sikh Temple)
Aurora, CO (Movie Theater)
Tuscon, AZ (Political Rally Outside Grocery Store)
Ft. Hood, TX (Military Base)
Binghamton, NY (Immigrant Community Center)
Virginia Tech (College Campus)
Rural Alabama (Spree spread across two counties)
Lancaster, PA (Amish School)
Columbine, CO (High School)
Long Island, NY (Commuter Train)
Killeen, TX (Restaurant)
Jacksonville, FL (GMAC Office)
Fullerton, CA (College Campus)
Edmond, OK (Post Office)
San Ysidro, CA (McDonalds)
Austin, TX (College Campus)

There are so many more than ten plagues here, and it is, at best, an incomplete list. Will we ever reach the final plague that will finally convince our modern-day Pharaoh to relent? If the Newtown tragedy isn’t enough, if it isn’t the equivalent of the slaying of all the first-born of Egypt, what will be?

G”d was, according to our Torah, certainly to be found in the plagues. Where is G”d in these modern-day plagues of senseless killing made possible by weapons that have no business being available, licensing and purchasing regulations that are far too easy to circumvent, and a mental health system that is woefully inadequate? The answer is, of course, the same one we might use to answer “Where was G”d in the Shoah?” The question to ask is not “Where was G”d?” but “Where was humankind?”

Most of the rest of the planet has found a more sensible approach to the question of gun control. How ironic that the quintessential American actor who played Moses is the same one who became the major spokesperson for the Pharaoh that continues to ignore these plagues. When, NRA, when spineless politicians, when tunnel-visioned champions of the 2nd amendment to the Constitution, when will you finally let the people go?

Rendezvousing With Rama

The great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote a series of books about humanities encounter with an alien civilization, the Ramans. I was thinking about this book as I was ruminating over the story of the ten plagues.

As many of the commentators note, the first nine plagues occur in groups of three. In each triad, the initial plague is publicly announced as a warning to Pharaoh; the second is presented in direct confrontation to Pharaoh; the third plague in each triad is simply brought about by Moshe in public with no announcement.

The commentator Abarbanel (aka Abravanel, 1437-1508) suggests that the first plague in each triad was meant to persuade Pharaoh that G”d was real; the second to persuade Pharaoh of G”d’s ability to take action within the living world (what we know as “divine providence;) the third to persuade Pharaoh of G”d’s power.

It has been suggested by some that, within each triad, and overall within the plagues, they become increasingly more threatening and harmful. I’m not entirely sure this is the case. Some commentators suggest there is a progression similar to the order of creation – starting with water, and working its way onto land. Perhaps. In some ways, I think it might have made more sense to save the Nile for nearer the end, considering its importance to Egypt.

There are parallels. In the third plague Moshe throws dust in the air and it becomes lice. In the sixth plague, Moshe throws soot into the air and it becomes boils. For the ninth plague, Moshe merely holds out his arms skyward and the darkness comes. Unlike the lice and boils, the darkness comes ex nihilo. (It is said that the days of creation and the ten commandments also have parallelisms. Seems this is characteristic of our sacred texts.)

The “rule of three” has been utilized in writing and literature since the earliest times, and persists in present times. Comics use threes. Speechwriters and speakers use threes. Authors use threes. Playwrights use threes. The rabbis liked threes. Al sh’losha d’varim…on three things-though they disagreed on which three things. The prophet Micah liked threes – doing justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

If three is powerful, then how much more so is a trio of threes, as we get in the plagues? (Yes, I’m ignoring the tenth and final plague, but I believe it is really in a category all by itself – and the capstone to the triad of triads – for the 12 (or 13) plagues just wouldn’t have the same ring.

I realize I’m treading on dangerous theological ground here, because the next logical thing becomes a Triune G”d. If one G”d is good, then surely three is better? (As for two G”ds, well, there has certainly been a lot of speculation about there existing some sort of female consort for the Hebrew G”d, even if it was more in common household practice than in the “official religion.” ) I guess I’m not surprised that our theological offshoot went the Triun G”d route, though I am glad that we didn’t.  Because there’s a problem with threes. In a three situation, balance is more difficult, because a tie-vote is impossible. What would we add to yezter tov/ra as the third leg of a triad? What would we add to dark and light, night and day, wrong and right? Threes may be good in literature and rhetoric, but they’re not the best in every situation.

Clarke’s fictional Ramans seemed to have a biology and society that was based on threes. This became evident from the first moment when the humans entered the Raman ship through a series of three locks. The humans explored the ship which was passing its way through our galaxy. It was largely dormant at first, but parts of it began to awaken as it neared the sun. Then it finally powered itself up it performed a slingshot maneuver around the sun to take it out of our galaxy to its next destination somewhere in the Magellanic cloud. Though people suspected it was deliberately contrived to prepare for possible sequels, Arthur C. Clarke always maintained that the last line of Rendezvous with Rama simply seemed to fit:

And on far-off Earth, Dr. Carlisle Perera had as yet told no one how he had wakened from a restless sleep with the message from his subconscious still echoing in his brain: The Ramans do everything in threes.

G”d may be big on dualities, but it seems G”d likes to do some things in threes as well. At least when it comes to plagues. Maybe Pharaoh could have figured that out and saved himself some grief. Then again, G”d was playing puppet-master here, so G”d was controlling things and clearly wanted to play out all ten plagues to make a point. That’s a whole different discussion (which I have taken up in other musings.)

So the question arises – if G”d does some things in threes, like the Ramans, which version of G”d’s creation are we? Will we get another chance if we blow this one, or is this it? Seems to me that we have no choice but to live every reality as if it is the only one, lest we be tempted to slack off.

A G”d of threes. A G”d of twos. Most importantly, a G”d who is One. That’s enough for me.

Shabbat Shalom

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Va'era 5772 - Got It!
Va'era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You

Friday, January 4, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5773–Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities

You never know who is watching. That’s one rationale for acting appropriately for doing rightly, justly. For doing a mitzvah. However, we are often taught that the highest good deeds, the highest mitzvah, is one done privately, without anyone knowing. (The Rambam – Maimonides – extends this further in his hierarchy of charity when he teaches that one of the highest levels is when neither giver nor recipient know who the other is.)

Part of the problem with the “you never know who is watching” idea is that is can too easily been seen as a negative, cautionary approach. Be wary lest you be seen failing to do the right thing. Can it just as easily be framed in a positive light? Perhaps. It can certainly be viewed this when we thinking about teaching our children (or even just teaching others.) We lead by example, and when we do the right thing, it helps to reinforce the idea for others who see it.

Parashat Sh’mot presents us with an interesting contrast on being seen. Moshe looks around to be sure no one else is around, and then proceeds to kill and hide the body of the overseer. Only when Moshe learns that people know of his deed does he flee. (it’s interesting to note that our text says nothing about G”d’s awareness of Moshe’s deed. Did not the overseer’s blood cry out from the ground like that of Avel? Or was G”d willing to overlook this instance of vigilante justice? That is what it is. There’s no whitewash for it. No matter how heinous the overseer’s treatment of one of the Hebrew slaves, was it a capital offense? Did Moshe have the moral authority to be judge, jury, and executioner? Moshe’s actions don’t meet the as yet unstated lex talionis in which the punishment matches the crime – eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life – for the overseer had not killed, merely mistreated. True, it may have been habitual mistreatment - though that is only conjecture – but is it sufficient justification for Moshe’s killing him?) How would the story be different if Moshe had gotten away with slaying the overseer? Might we still be slaves to Pharaoh today? Might there have been a slave rebellion with Moshe as its leader, rather than as an agent for G”d?)

Right after killing the overseer, Moshe gets an opportunity for some sort of moral redemption. Perhaps his act of kindness is not enough of a moral equivalent to offset the killing of the overseer, but the concept of moral equivalency is a difficult one to quantify. Moshe protects the daughters of Reuel (or is it Hobab or Yitro? Will we ever get that whole name mess sorted out? Was Reuel actually the grandfather and Hobab/Yitro the father, or was Reuel the father and Yitro/Hobab a brother to Tziporah? Blast those annoying details. Keep us guessing, Torah! It may be on of your greatest gifts to us, as frustrating as it is.)

Moshe, in this instance, is a stand up guy. (Literally – the Torah says “vayakom Moshe” –  Moses got/stood up.) He drives away the shepherds and allows the seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Reuel/Hobab/Yitro/John Doe) to water their flock and return home. The daughters report this chivalrous act to their father(?) and Moshe is rewarded with an invitation and a wife! Did Reuel/Hobab/Yitro realize they were giving Tziporah to a murderer? Did Moshe ever tell the whole sorry tale to his wife, his father-in-law, his new family and friends? For that matter, did he ever tell them he was Jewish? Did he tell them he was a prince of Egypt?

Nevertheless I’ll give Moshe his due, a little bit of redemption, for his kind treatment of the seven daughters. After all, our tradition stresses this sort of kindness. In particular, kindness at wells is a particular theme. We have Eliezer reporting on Rivka’s kindness at the well as his reason for choosing her as a wife for Yitzkhak. No surprise. This was a somewhat nomadic, dessert-based culture. Well, cisterns, pits, et al were important. Water was important.

So how did Moshe get from murderer of an overseer to stand up guy at the well? Are these two sides of the same coin? Did Moshe’s passion for justice and fairness drive him to do both acts? And here we are again, back at balance. At that struggle between yetzer tov and yetzer hara – the good and evil inclinations. The line between them is not always so clear. It’s not as simple as a little angel whispering in one ear and a little devil whispering into the other ear.

Actually, we could even back up a step. How did Moshe get from murdering an Egyptian overseer, to the very next day attempting to stop to Hebrew slaves who were fighting? How can the same person who murdered the night before have such righteous indignation in seeing two of his own nation fight, and then go on to be the hero of the daughters of the priest of Midian at the well?

Clearly, despite Moshe’s having looked around to see if anyone was about, someone had witnessed his killing of the overseer. Did they choose to overlook it and not report it out of some question of moral ambiguity? Was this an early example of the bystander effect? Moshe fled when he learned that Pharaoh knew of his deed, but would he have fled if he thought his people might keep it a secret, believing his action justified?

It’s this moral ambiguity that is so difficult for us. When we factor in Moshe’s killing of the overseer into our discussions about things like gun control and capital punishment, it creates quite a quagmire. (We won’t even get into the coming teleological question of whether so many Egyptians had to die so that Judaism could come to be. We do have to wonder whether a certain amount of moral ambiguity is necessary in order for people like Moshe to accept G”d’s stern treatment of the Egyptians, even to the point of deliberately making Pharaoh more obstinate. Is it Moshe’s acceptance of moral ambiguity, or moral relativism, that enables him to be G”d’s partner in shaping Israel into a people? That’s a somewhat troubling thought.)

So perhaps moral ambiguity, moral relativism, is a necessity, particularly from a biblical point of view. As much as we like to view the Torah (or the New testament, or the Quran) as being a source of clear laws of behavior, ethics, and morality, they are in fact a morass of moral relativism and moral ambiguity. The Torah doesn’t teach us that G”d commands us to not kill, it teaches us that G”d commands us to not murder. It’s an apparently subtle difference that’s not so subtle. The rabbis worked overtime to try and clear up much of the moral relativism and moral ambiguity in our sacred texts.They had their successes and their failures in this regard. And we’re left with the resulting mess.

Here in the US we can’t even be certain what our 226-year-old Constitution means, so what chance do we have with texts as ancient as Torah? That being the case, is it not ultimately ironic how much we seek to interpret our 226-year-old Constitution by utilizing our thousands-of-years-old biblical texts?

Sorry folks. If you’re searching for moral clarity, you’ll not find it here – in Torah. Perhaps that, in itself, is the lesson. We may want to believe in moral absolutes (I know there are at least some I want to accept as absolute) but history, life, reality and experience have taught us that all morality is a bit ambiguous, and a bit relative. Moshe the murderer. Moshe the stand up guy. G”d the Creator. G”d the Destroyer. Can we have one without the other? (I vote yes, but I suspect I’ll be proven wrong in the end. At least until Moshiakh comes.)

Stephen Schwartz nailed in in “Wicked” when he has the Wizard sing:

A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as if they don’t exist.

(The Wizard allows himself to be called “Wonderful” even though he knows he is a complete fraud, perhaps because there there is some greater good being served.)

Can we afford to act as if moral ambiguities do not exist, that right and wrong are black and white? To paraphrase the Wizard by way of Stephen Schwartz again

Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true. We call it - "Torah." *

(*-the original lyric is “history.”)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Sh'mot 5772 - Is Might Ever Right?
Sh'mot 5771 - Free Association IV
Sh'mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 - Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Unconsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 - Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?