On Multiculturalism and Lying Bshalach: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

After the slaying of the first born, Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to go. Not only the Israelites. Last week’s parashat read that “a mixed multitude went up with them” (Exodus 12:38) as they [the Israelites] fled Egypt. There were non-Israelites who also fled. Perhaps others also enslaved. Or still others who accepted the power of the Israeli God and painted blood on their doorframes. Or perhaps those who married a Hebrew and took up Hebraic practices.

לח  וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב, עָלָה אִתָּם, וְצֹאן וּבָקָר, מִקְנֶה כָּבֵד מְאֹד. 38 And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.

In the beginning of God’s creating heaven and earth, 3) God said, “Let there be light.”; and there was light. 4) God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 5) God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening (dusk) and morning (dawn) a first day.” The Pharaonic Egyptians were the people of darkness, as Amalek would also prove to be. The Israelites were the children of light. The others who escaped with the Israelites were people of the dusk, of nightfall, and perhaps people of dawn, of the morning. These people of the dusk, of the evening, were the ones who made those in flight into a mixed multitude, gam erev, ְגַם-עֵרֶב.

However, it seems that only the Israelites stripped the Egyptians of their gold bowls and silver candlesticks on the pretext that they were just borrowing them for use in the worship service to their God. The departure was based on a tripod of lies: that the Israelites were leaving only for three days, that they were leaving so that they could worship their God in the desert and that they needed those valuable ornaments for a ceremony appropriate to their God. As powerful as God may have been, it seems He could not (or would not) free the Israelites without Moses telling lies.

If the Israelites wore stolen Egyptian clothing when they fled, was this an issue of self-camouflage and, therefore, of misrepresentation as well as lying and stealing? When the non-Israelites who fled with them had painted their door frames red and then hid amongst the 600,000 who fled, were they also engaged in mis-representation? Or were the people of the dusk distinctly different than the people of light? In Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the framing metaphor is of a bird that is cruelly painted and then driven out of the flock because of its difference. The irony of this powerful tale of misrepresentation and intolerance was that the story itself was not a memoir of a Jewish survivor and refugee from the Holocaust, but a fictional tale plagiarized from a popular Polish folk tale and an act of willful deception in a double sense, for Kosinski himself had never endured what the boy allegedly experienced as a persecuted painted bird during WWII but was hidden and well cared for by a well-off Catholic family.

The Israelites fled with Egyptian clothing and valuables, but they did not take enough food and drink. Unleavened bread would not sustain them for long. And they were soon complaining that Moses had led them into the wilderness based on a false promise. Why had he turned them into refugees without proper shelter and a secure source of food? They had been misled. The promise of freedom was a hoax. Was this tale of escape from slavery into freedom itself a hoax? Lying and misrepresentation seemed to be the order of the day.

On the one hand, I do not know of a refugee who escaped who has not had to lie to survive. On the other hand, when I lived in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, made up of 95% Somalis, refugees from Ethiopia surreptitiously approached me to tell me they were Ethiopian and not Somali and that they were being persecuted by Somalis within the camp. The question of who belongs and who does not is not just a matter of states deciding who to admit and who to exclude, who to treat with equality and who not to, but is an issue of any society of humans.

Moses had lied to Pharaoh. Had he also lied to his own people? We are all aware that lying is part of what it is to be human. We tell our children that there are tooth fairies, that Santa Claus brings gifts to every child in all parts of the world, in one night no less. Words are used to misinform as well as inform. As Stendhal wrote in The Red and the Black, “Speech has been given to man to hide his thoughts.” In the novel, using deceit and hypocrisy, Julien Sorel wears the black collar of a cleric even though he seems bereft of any faith, but it serves as a guise to rise from his humble origins into the middle class during the Bourbon Restoration after the Napoleonic period.

Sometimes, instead of lying, people evade. When the interrogators of the Un-American Activities asked Berthold Brecht whether he was or ever had been a member of the Communist Party of America or knowingly associated with members of that party, he did not lie. He dissimulated. He acted outraged and asked in turn, who had developed such a preposterous question. Indignantly and self-righteously he charged the Committee with being infiltrated by communists. As a died-in-the-wool communist he misled them, mirroring their words and their zealotry to mock his inquisitors. But he did not lie. He never said that he was not a member. However, he went further. By mirroring their own fraudulent claims and charges, he not only openly mocked them, but had them eating out of his hand as they apologized profusely for the misunderstanding.

Is dissembling for self-preservation a moral good? Certainly, in nature both plants and animals use camouflage as a self-protection device. I will be travelling to Spain in March and April and have always been fascinated by the Conversos, forced converts to Christianity who may have been baptized, attended church regularly and went to mass and even confession, but in secret continued to practice their Judaism. When caught, they were burned at the stake even though they had formally converted to Christianity. Is dissembling that goes even further than simply self-protection to reveal a moral evil even a virtuous as well as virtuoso performance?

In Wednesday’s Tablet, Majid Rafizadeh wrote an article, “The First Jew I met in Iran: Face to face with the challenges of living a double life under the Iranian theocracy.” (The whole issue includes various articles on Jews in Iran.) Majid tells the story of discovering that one of his students in Iran was Jewish when she started sobbing (quietly) when he mentioned the Holocaust. “Later, I learned that my student, Sara, had relatives on her grandfather’s side who died in the Holocaust. I was saddened and surprised. Many questions raced through my mind: Is she Jewish? The shock of that thought brought on another, important question. Why am I surprised to have met a Jew? Why did I suddenly begin feeling as if I had met a foreigner, someone from another country? Her relatives had actually lived longer than mine in Iran. Why was she hesitant to say that she was Jewish?”

Why did she disguise that she was Jewish? “First, there are systematic and concerted efforts made from the top down by the theocratic regime and several other governments in the region to eliminate Jewish history. There is also a strong push to incite antagonism against the Jewish people. The regime openly encourages debates that revolve around casting doubt on and questioning the authenticity of the Holocaust. They ratchet up anti-Israel slogans, and celebrate national anti-Israel holidays such as Quds Day. They promote and accept Holocaust deniers such as the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the intricate teachings that may imply that Jews are impure (najis). All of these actions, combined with many more forms of intimidation enacted by the regime, not only create a hostile environment for Jewish communities inside Iran, but also abroad.”

The result: “These policies force many families and individuals to have two different lives in private and public, two different names, and maybe two different religions.”… “Some Jews secretly confess that they are indeed living two separate lives. In their private life they practice their faith, but in public they are extremely cautious, avoiding saying anything about their lives. Out of fear or in order to survive economically, socially, and academically, some may convert to Islam on the surface but continue to practice Judaism at home.” Did Moses, raised as an Egyptian royal who fled to live among and marry a Midianite, feel he was a fraud when he was among his own people?

On CNN every evening as one lie after another of Donald Trump is exposed, behind that journalism lies the claim that “facts matter,” that what is most important to a politician is his integrity. As Trump one day says the opposite of what he said a previous day, he is viewed as betraying the notion that a man’s word is his worth. Does the Exodus story also smell of fraud, of dissimulation, of misrepresentation and outright lies? Perhaps with nowhere near the blatancy of the New York huckster and hustler who got himself elected as president of the United States, but is Exodus a tale of momentous deceit, not simply because it may never have happened in history, but because it is not really a story of a people led from slavery into freedom and self-determination, but a story of refugees who rewrite their tale from a story of victimhood to a story of heroism? Is this not precisely what the United Empire Loyalists did who were driven out of the U.S. following the War of Independence but revised that narrative to one about those who left voluntarily in order to live a life of civility and loyalty under the monarch?

Seymour Hersh in his essay, “The Vice-President’s Men,” tells the largely unknown tale of Bush senior as a Vice-President. Ronald Reagan, though a great hero of Republicans, pioneered in playing a role rather than serving as the leader of the free world. He read scripts beautifully – unlike Donald Trump. But he was terrible at improvisation. Like Trump, he never read his briefing books. But unlike Trump, he was a great leader because he delegated real responsibilities to other men of integrity and wisdom and became renown for his statesmanship and decency.

Ronald Reagan won the candidacy of the Republican Party against the wishes of the whole GOP establishment. George H.W. Bush, who went down in defeat at the end after competing in 33 primaries and winning only 4, nevertheless, doggedly forced Reagan to name him as his running mate, not just because he was needed on the ticket as a balance to Reagan’s right-wing extremism, but because, as a former head of the CIA, he knew how stupid Reagan was. George H.W. Bush pioneered in the practice of an inside coup by a Vice-President that Dick Cheney ironically perfected when he agreed to be VP for Bush Jr.  It was only revealed years later that the key mover and shaker behind the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era had been George H.W. Bush who ran a secret war of subverting terrorists all over the world under the radar of both Congress and the president, a war hidden by “flack and misinformation.” (See Seymour M. Hersh, “The Vice-President’s Men.”)

For those who believe that clarity and total honesty are prerequisites, are the saving grace, look at Donald Trump who is unequivocally a liar and a fraud. It is almost impossible not to know who he is and how he conducts himself because his lying is so predominant. On the other hand, in the Torah, the exercise of finding one’s way through the dissimulation to arrive at a greater truth is so difficult. It is a real challenge. For myself, I prefer people of the dusk, those who live on the perimeter of any society.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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