Sunday, December 30, 2012

Exodus, Plan B

In his very first prophecy,  Moses sets himself apart — as the Torah later describes his unique experience (Ex. 33:11): “And God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow." The term "And he said" is repeated 23 times in 39 verses, but the Torah adds a verb at the beginning of Chapter Four: "And Moses responded and he said." This seems to indicate a tonal shift, and the Midrash (Shemot Rabba ad loc.) indeed notes:

“And Moses responded and he said, ‘But they will not believe me nor listen to my voice’” — at this point,  Moses spoke improperly; God told him, “And they will listen to your voice,” but he said, “But they will not believe me.” God immediately reacted accordingly, giving him signs as he asked.

If so, there is a transition here between Chapters Three and Four, although of course the chapter divisions in the Torah are a later invention (and Christian). In Chapter Three, Moses is to gather the elders, give them the password "I have certainly taken account" and lead them to Pharaoh's palace. Pharaoh will not agree initially to let the people go, but God’s “wonders” will force him to do so. There is only one “sign”:  “And this is the sign that I have sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God upon this mountain.” In other words, Moses will present his bona fides as a fait accompli.   

In Chapter Four, on the other hand, the elders are not mentioned; instead, Aaron is appointed as Moses’ mouthpiece.  There are numerous “signs” to convince the people, and there are “miracles” to sway Pharaoh, but the “wonders” vanish. Moreover, we hear for the first time of Pharaoh's heart issues: "And I will strengthen his heart, and he will not let the people go." The implication seems to be that if the Israelites can be persuaded verbally, then Pharaoh can be moved by God’s wonders. However, if the people require legerdemain, then the persuasion of Pharaoh must be far more elaborate and grand, with miracles shattering his stone heart. Everything has changed because of the crucial words of Moses (Midrash Sekhel Tov ad loc.), “‘But they will not believe me nor listen to my voice’ — verily they are believers born of believers in You, but they will not believe me.”

In this light, we can understand the bizarre happening at the end of Chapter Four, "And it was along the way, at the inn, that God encountered him and sought to kill him.” Moses’ hesitation ultimately delays and complicates the Exodus, and God’s fury is understandable. It is only when Zipporah circumcises their son, symbolizing what is at stake for the next generation, that God releases Moses. However, this is merely temporary, a stay of execution, for forty years. As the Talmud (Shabbat 97a) notes, Moses’ ultimate death sentence for lack of faith (Num. 20:12) is predicated on his statement here: “But they will not believe me.”

These days, as we reexamine the role of government in our lives, we must remember how important it is to have bold and decisive leaders. “Believers born of believers” require their political representatives to believe in themselves above all. A society cannot change if its leaders do not have the faith and the courage to lead.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Jewish Santa

Let me just say this: Hanuka is not a major Jewish holiday, it's just the closest festival to Christmas. (Next year, it starts on Thanksgiving.) It's not even in the top ten. The proper analogue would be Passover, and we have a 3000y-old Santa for that: Elijah the Prophet. He visits every Jewish house in the world at the Passover Seder meal, but not to drink milk--to drink wine! And he doesn't bring the kids presents; the kids blackmail their parents for the afikoman, or the Seder cannot proceed. That's a useful skill! Santa may have a sleigh w/ reindeer, but Elijah has a chariot of fire with flaming horses.

JLI: Justice League of Israel

In response to my previous tweet and after consultation with Mordechai Luchins, here they are: Reuben is Martian Manhunter (firstborn, red rock, anti-fire); Simeon (archer of Gen. 49:23 and ladies' man) is Green Arrow and bejeweled Levi is Green Lantern (they rescue Dinah/ Black Canary); Judah (rich, wise, fierce) is Batman, who gets conned by sultry thief Catwoman/ Tamar); Issachar (studious, industrious) is Blue Beetle; Zebulon (strength from the sea, saved by fish) is Aquaman; Joseph (Egyptian prince, stranger in a foreign land) is Hawkman (and Asenath, Hawkgirl); Benjamin (orphan, last of his kind, solitary, but the first to rule) is Superman; Dan (brings a mystical object out of Egypt, his only vulnerability is his wife, and if you bare his head--he loses his power) is Dr. Fate; Naphtali is the Flash; Gad ("crouches like a lioness, then tears off the arm and head; Elijah's from Gad--immortal truth-seeker with a magic flying machine) Wonder Woman; and Asher (oil-rich, sealed in brass and iron) is Rocket Red.

Peace, Truth and Reconciliation

The Book of Genesis ends with a touching scene between Joseph and his brothers, one of genuine reconciliation – built on a lie. The Midrash Tanhuma (Tzav 10) writes:

Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: “So great is the power of peace that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrote fictions in the Torah for the sake of peace. For when Jacob died… what did they do? They went to Bilha and told her: ‘Get in with Joseph and tell him: “Your father commanded before he died, saying"’ (ibid v. 16), even though Jacob never commanded any of these things; rather, they said this on their own.”

In fact, Scripture gives us some textual clues as well, using the exact same expression to introduce the conflict between Esau and Jacob (27:3) as it does to conclude the conflict between Joseph and his brothers (50:17). Jacob lied to his own father, initiating a rift with his own brother; now, his sons lie, in his name, in order to close the rift with their brother.
 But why do the brothers think that they have to lie? Let us return to Joseph’s revelation in Chapter 45, seventeen years earlier. We, of course, know that Joseph is sincere in wanting to save his brothers, but from their point of view, his motives are a bit murky. He asks if his father is still alive (45:3), then goes on to stress how God has placed his brothers’ lives in his hands, including the ominous (vv. 10-11): “You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be close to me — you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your cattle and all that is yours. I will sustain you there…” We readers know that Joseph is not pretending, but this is not self-evident to the brothers. Maybe he is genuine, maybe not. Maybe he actually wants to reconcile, but maybe Joseph is now debuting a new role: the forbearing philanthropist. Does the continued reference to their lives and the lives of their families being in his hands constitute reassurance, or a threat?
Why should Joseph harbor such a grudge? The brothers know the truth: the original plan was (37:20), "Now, let us go and kill him; we shall cast him in one of the pits and say that a wild animal has eaten him.” Does Joseph know that? He accuses them only of selling him, but it is impossible to know. Therefore (50:15), "Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will despise us and repay us all of the evil which we dealt him.” Also, the term "despise" is used in one place in the Torah outside of this portion (Gen. 27:41): "And Esau despised Jacob for the blessing which his father gave him, and Esau said in his heart: 'The days of mourning for my father are close, and then I will kill Jacob my brother.'" They refer to “all of the evil” which they had planned. For this reason, they offer the compromise of becoming his slaves. If “all of the evil” refers merely to slavery, there would be no reason to plead that their punishment be commuted to that; however, they know they deserve the death penalty.
If so, it's not just a little white lie, whether Jacob asked for anything before his death, there are some big black lies. But all of that is built upon one huge truth: that the sons of Jacob want reconciliation: the brothers want to apologize and Joseph want to save them. "How great is the power of peace" — it gives us the opportunity to get to the real truth, emotional truth, the truth of peace.