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

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