The Right to Leave – Exodus 9:13 – 11:10

The Right to Leave – Exodus 9:13 – 11:10

by

Howard Adelman

There are four plagues more, the three cosmological plagues (hail, locusts and darkness) and then the plague of the first born. The last three follow the rhythmic pattern of the first six in a 2:1 ratio – two plagues with warnings and a third without any prior announcement. And what plagues! What drama! For the battle now centres so much more clearly on a determined God with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand versus a stubborn Pharaoh unwilling to give way to God’s will, even if, by then, it is clear that he and the gods behind him are no match for YHWH. Resistance now becomes clearly an act of self-destruction.

Recall what this and the past parshah are all about. They are about the right to leave – not to stay, not to return, but to leave. The right to stay is about security. The right to return is about identity. But the right to leave is truly about freedom. The battle between the God of the Israelites and the gods of Egypt had now become a cosmic battle for the whole world to observe, the battle for freedom, the battle over the right to leave, the battle to leave one sovereign realm and live under another. The fight is over the right to emigrate.

I quoted the first verse of the American Black spiritual last time. I begin with the second verse this time.

“Thus spake the Lord,” bold Moses said:

Let my people go.

If not I’ll smite your first-born dead,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt land,

Tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.

O let my people go.”

If the issue was the freedom to leave, why was it cast as a “request”? Why did the Israelites need Pharaoh’s permission? Or was this not about Pharaoh’s permission at all, but about Pharaoh’s action. “Get out of my way,” saith the Lord. “Get out of our way.” Stop intervening. It was “let,” not in the sense of permission, but in the sense of stop being an obstacle. Further, it was not about gaining freedom after one left. For the point of God insisting that the Israelites be let go, was so that they could worship God (9:13) It was exchanging one form of bondage to the Pharaoh to a new form of bondage to God. How can bondage in one sphere be slavery but in another sphere be freedom?

God says to Pharaoh, I could have committed genocide. I could have wiped all the Egyptians off the face of the earth with a disease. (9:15) But if you are eliminated, you would not be around to extoll my name, to extoll me as the One, the most powerful God. It was not enough to have the Israelites bound to me by a covenant, but I need the Egyptians to give me recognition though not obeisance, “so my fame can resound throughout the world.” ((9:16) And God warns Pharaoh. Get everyone inside, all your people and all your animals. For if they remain outside, they will surely die from the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen upon Egypt.

So a distinction was made between those Egyptians who feared God and went inside and took their animals with them and those who scoffed at and ignored the threat only to die in a hail of hail the next day along with thunder and lightning. One cannot read the words but imagine how spectacular a storm it had to have been. This was a battle between the god of thunder of the Egyptians, the god that symbolized force of arms and the ability to exercise that coercive power. God was taking on the equivalent of Indras (Hinduism), Zeus in Greek mythology, Jupiter in Rome, Perun in Eastern Europe, the son of Odin among the Norse of the north. The god this time was the head of all the armed forces, the commander-in-chief of the might of a nation. This was the god of weather, the god of storms.

In Egypt, God was now challenging Montu (mntw), the Egyptian war-god, the falcon-headed being with a human body but also with a head of a bull as well as of a falcon, for Montu was headstrong and bullheaded. Montu did not strategize. Montu simply plunged forth when a red flag was waved before him. He charged before he thought. Montu knew nothing about strategic thinking let alone diplomacy. When Montu was falcon-headed topped by a sun disc, tall abstract plumes of gold rose straight up from above the disc. This was not a symbol of thought or reflection, but of a burning sun and the rays given off. This was a symbol of certainty, of conviction. But when Montu was a bull, his face was black rather than red with rage even though he had a white body. He was indeed, as Egyptian generals were known, a Mighty Bull, something even more ominous than a mad-dog.

This was a battle of true titans for all peoples to record and hear and witness. How does Pharaoh react after the hailstorm? He pleads guilty. He confesses he has been in the wrong. ((9:27) I and my people have been in the wrong. So Moses replied that he would stop the hail storm, stop the thunder and the lightning and clearly establish that Montu was all temporary flash but was now impotent. Moses also said that he would do this even though he knew full well that deep in his heart Pharaoh still did not stand in fear of the Lord, that his courtiers too did not accept God’s awesome power. “So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as God had foretold through Moses.” (9:35) Both God and Moses knew that Pharaoh was acting in bad faith.

Moses once again went to Pharaoh and conveyed God’s message: “Let my people go so that they might worship Me,” (10:3) and he could have added, and, “not you and your gods.” This was a battle not simply for survival, but for recognition. It is not enough that God remove you as an obstacle, but you, Pharaoh, must remove yourself; you must recognize the Lord as the most powerful God.

The eighth plague sent was of locusts –  – in Egyptian hieroglyphics. These were not the lice or sandflies, symbols of tenacity and courage sent in the first set of plagues. Locusts filled the sky, and, unlike the hail, invaded all the houses, got into the clothing of all the Egyptians, quite aside from destroying all the crops that remained. Locusts took over heaven and earth. Ramses II depicted the armies of Hittites as locusts, for they “covered the mountains and valleys and were like locusts in their multitude.” Locusts were the only insects using the power of numbers that could block the all-powerful sun. “Someone flies up, I fly up from you, O! men; I am not for the earth, I am for the sky. O! you local god of mine, my double is beside you, for I have soared to the sky as a heron, I have kissed the sky as a falcon, I have reached the sky as a locust which hides the sun.” (Ancient Pyramid Text) The falcon, Montu, could reach the sky, but locusts could block the sun.

You, Pharaoh, are blocking the way of my people, are preventing the Israelites from going forth and worshipping Me. Montu was represented as a nomad. The full story of Exodus was being adumbrated. For though the Israelites would spend forty years in the wilderness as nomads, that was not their destiny. They would build cities and become the centre of a civilization. Divine power would rule on earth and not just shine forth from heaven above.

The Pharaoh’s courtiers had now become convinced. But not Pharaoh. He would concede to let some go. Moses and Aaron were asked to choose. (10:8) But Moses replied, “We will all go.” We all must go to worship out Lord. The action of the entire community was a precondition of exit. But once again Pharaoh grew stubborn. The men could go, all the men, but the women and children must remain. Without warning came the ninth plague, no longer just hail accompanied by thunder and lightning, no longer locusts that would block the sun while invading every crevice on earth, The ninth plague was darkness, not simply blocking the sun, but total blackness, God had taken the Egyptians back to Genesis when darkness covered the face of the earth, before God said, “Let there be light.” For there was no light, no light at all, not the sun nor the moon nor the stars. Only all-encompassing blackness, a darkness so black it could not be seen but only felt and touched. “But the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (10:23)

How was this possible? Why was the light that shone in Goshen not reflected even faintly in the night sky as when we look towards a city in the far distance and see how it has somewhat lightened the heavens to a small degree? Pharaoh in the face of this darkness once again conceded. He would not simply let some of the men go. He would not simply let all of the men go. He would let all the people go, but not their flocks and their herds. The domestic animals of the Israelites had to be left behind. Pharaoh still had not learned his lesson. Pharaoh still wanted to bargain, still wanted to make a deal, when the whole issue was that God had made a covenant with the Israelites and that is the only covenant that counted. Pharaoh, enraged when Moses would not negotiate, took the part of God. “Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” (10:28)

Pharaoh was not the Lord. Moses did not die. But Moses never saw Pharaoh again. The all powerful war over recognition was about to be won. Only God would be recognized as the supreme ruler over the Israelites. The Israelites would freely choose to be in bondage to God and grant no ultimate and absolute fealty to any sovereign on earth, would grant fealty, but only when the covenant that the Israelites had with their God was recognized. Israelites would always live in the diaspora with a dual loyalty.

God had one more plague up his sleeve, a plague that would convert the Egyptians, temporarily at least, from an obstacle blocking the right to leave into a driving force of ethnic cleansing to expunge the Israelites from Egypt’s land. The very instrument of stoppage would become the means of setting forth the Israelites as a flood heading into the desert. Not only will you leave with your herds and your flocks, but each Israelite will be instructed to maximize their credit limits, to borrow all the silver and gold they could but renege on any responsibility to repay. The Egyptians would be left bankrupt.

Pharaoh’s order to kill the first-born of every Israelite had been thwarted, had been sabotaged by two of his own, by two midwives who subverted his orders. Now that order would come full circle and the first-born of the Egyptians would be the target. It was not sufficient that the Israelites escaped. Pharaoh had to pursue them in their escape, to at least recover the wealth that the Israelites took with them, and be drowned in the effort to recover that wealth.

But that is for another parshah. This parshah is ultimately about the defeat and death of primogeniture among the Israelites. The tales of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been about second-born sons winning over first-borns. This defeat marked the death of the principle of primogeniture altogether. For henceforth, merit and aptitude would count in leadership and not the order of birth. And in doing so, the Israelites would inherit the double portion, the wealth of the Egyptians as well as their own wealth. Jacob’s tricking Esau out of his birthright was but a sign of what was to come. Thus, an upstart nation would henceforth steal the birthright of a civilization that had already lasted several millennia. Israel, God’s later-born, would take the place as God’s firstborn. And the Israelites would move from bondage to a human-god to a God who would gradually become humanized, a God of wrath and coercive power who would become a God of mercy and influence.

To live under the sovereignty of influence rather than coercive power would be the route to full freedom for the Israelites and for all of humanity. And it is a route that is not established between one individual dedicated to service to the authority of influence rather than coercion, but of a whole community, a whole society. For without that collective commitment to this process of revelation, there is no individual freedom. I cannot be free, you cannot be free, we cannot be free unless we worship the same God, a God that in the days of the Israelites in Egypt who was a God of coercive power but over time revealed Himself to be a God of influence, a God of dialogue and discourse rather than commandments from on high.

But it was through coercion that the community came to be in the first place. The freedom of the individual, the freedom to think and choose and believe and express oneself, are all dependent and conditional upon the prior existence of such a collective covenant. The freedom of the autonomous self is not a condition of democracy, of the modern enlightenment world. Rather the modern enlightenment world, the world of a nation-state that grants freedom to the individual, is the primary precondition.

Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

Part II: Cases

 

  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society

“Solidarity Forever,” written by a member of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Ralph Caplin, in 1915, and sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the most widely belted out tune by the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) when I was a kid. It was the anthem of the Jewish communist organization. It was popular among unions and socialist groups. We sang it at our non-communist summer camp and it was adopted by the social and racial protest groups of the sixties in which communists played a very minor role. When I was active in the cooperative movement in my twenties, however, the “Battle Hymn of Cooperation” was sometimes sung as a substitute and rival. The words of the original are as follows:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.

 

CHORUS:

Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

Solidarity forever,

For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.

Chorus

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;

Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;

Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;

But the union makes us strong.

Chorus

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.

We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.

It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

While the union makes us strong.

Chorus

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong.

Chorus

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,

Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

The themes are simple. The lone individual is weak. The collective – in this case the collective of the trade and labour union – makes us strong. Why do we need that unity and strength that comes through membership in a worker’s union? Because the employers, the capitalists, the greedy parasites and idle drones, are exploiters who would, if they could, turn workers into serfs, even though what you see all around you has been built by those workers and is ostensibly owned by those workers. Yet when times get tough, workers are dispensable even though what has been constructed, what feeds us, has been built and supplied by those very same workers. The only way we can repossess what was once rightly ours is to break the power of the capitalists. The only way to do that is through the union, through solidarity. That is the only way that the exploitive character of the capitalist system can be overthrown and a new world order rise from its ashes.

Why were we singing this song in camps in the forties and fifties and in the protest marches against nuclear testing and then against racial segregation in the sixties? The words did not match our positions, our beliefs or our role as students, at least for the vast majority of us. We did not think of capitalists as slave drivers and exploiters, idle drones and parasites. Workers in unions were earning good wages. Nor did we in the New Left believe that the individual was powerless without belonging to a collectivity.

I raise this issue for two reasons. First I want to introduce the vertical bar of power and the horizontal bar of solidarity. The premise of the song is that the less power you have, the closer you are to the bottom of the vertical bar of power, the wider and the more unity needed in the horizontal cross bar of solidarity. The undisclosed ironic premise was also that, in such a world view, more coercion was required to maintain and enhance that solidarity. The union was not just the aggregation of individual interests, but a larger entity to which the individual owed his or her proportionate rewards.

The second reason is because I want to telegraph a theme – the incongruity between what we said and sung and our own predominant values. In the sixties in the nuclear protest movement and in the striving for the rights of those who suffered from racial discrimination and social injustice, we did not identify with their struggle because we experienced the absence of power at the root of their suffering or because we shared in their interests. Nor did we believe that the ruling order was intent on blowing us all up or even were just lackeys of the military-industrial complex. Nor were they drones and exploiters. They were just politicians inattentive to our priorities, values and concerns. Countervailing power was not needed to bring them around. Pressure and education would be sufficient to influence them. Nevertheless, we sang the old Wobbly union song to express our solidarity with the downtrodden and those who were racially excluded or segregated in inferior situations. We wanted solidarity among people with very different interests and we did not believe that we needed power to challenge power.

These incongruencies and contradictions are apparent in periods of historical transformation. In the sixties we were in the final stages of society’s transformation from a modern society based on rights and freedoms. Solidarity played a very ambiguous role no longer linked to the acquisition of coercive power. The secular religion that developed vied with a secularist religion which relegated both morality and traditional religion to the private sphere as it manipulated to acquire and hold power in partnership with economic interests that worshipped at the feet of the idol of the free-market. This was the new postmodern world. In this world, traditional religion was sidelined. The two forms of religious secularism occupied the main space. To understand the character of this shift, it is necessary to offer a very potted overview of fundamental paradigm shifts in the structure of our beliefs, thoughts and passions. But first a note on coercive power.

Solidarity is horizontal. It attacks the problem of how one achieves unity among a myriad of individuals. There are three dimensions to that effort. The first is power, the vertical bar discussed above. It has two faces – the creative use of the energy of each of the members of the group and the group as a whole, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the way coercion is applied to exclude outsiders, identify outsiders as threats and enemies, and promise security and protection for the members within the collectivity.

The second dimension is influence. That influence may be material focused on how an organization serves and enhances the material interests of its members to maintain their sense of identity and inhibit a desire to leave – exit. Alternatively, that influence entails ideas and ideology, a common set of principles and values to bestir loyalty and a system for ensuring input to defining those values. The third is authority which also has two faces.  On the one hand, there are the formal rules and regulations by and through which the organization is run. The tensions between the coercive versus creative uses of power and the competing interests and ideas are provided with boundaries by those rules and regulations. However, those same rules and regulations do not let us discern whether the leadership is authentic behind that exercise of authority or whether the authority is merely formal. Does the leadership represent the interests and articulate the best ideas to allow the organization to persevere with the minimal application of coercion or does the leadership simply pick and choose among rules and regulations as an exercise of power (Adelman 1976)?

How does one know whether the authority of an organization or the state as a whole is being used in a manipulative way or, alternatively, to represent the interests and values of an organization? One clue is whether the leadership emphasizes and exaggerates the role and place of external enemies and plays on the fear of its members about dangers from within or without, and, in turn, induces flight and exit from that collectivity altogether. On the other hand, to what extent are ideals allowed and encouraged, to what extent are interests represented? And how is authority actually exercised? These various dimensions of authority, influence and power determine the degree of solidarity of a group. This essay, will, however, primarily focus on the interaction of power and solidarity and largely bracket the other two dimensions. But a few notes on authority and influence first.

In the case of the solidarity which we praised and sang hymns to in my youth, we were free of any authority of any organizational rules which governed our behaviour. Further, we usually had leaders truly identified with the interests and values of the membership since there were few material or other rewards. Authentic authority counted, not formal authority. In the area of interests, we were fighting for interests that were either not our own (people suffering from racial discrimination or, in the case of aboriginal Canadians, from neglect and material exclusion), though in the beginning in the nuclear disarmament movement we were focused on interests that were our own and, as in the contemporary environmental movement, interests that encompassed us all. We fought battles through ideas, not material influence. But most of all, we fought against the misuse of coercive power that could end up blowing up the whole world in the name of providing for our collective security.

Because we ourselves lacked coercive power, because the authority of the organizations were weak and the continuation ephemeral, and because we had never really worked out how to reconcile power and authority while enhancing both material and intellectual creativity, we could sing songs of solidarity with a substantial message that had virtually nothing to do with reality. They were the hymns of the Old Left adopted by the New Left already inhabiting a very different world. The totally apparent contradictions of the hymns offered the best clue that the issue of solidarity in reconciling power, influence and authority had not been resolved.

We were not free of identifying an enemy without (the political-industrial complex), though most of us eschewed such simplistic reification of those responsible for the nuclear arms race. The common interests were usually one-themed objectives – stopping nuclear testing and the production of strontium 90 that got into the milk of babies. The organizations fostered open dissent and disagreement, but had difficulty working out methods of resolving fundamental differences that avoided exit or sectarianism. (Hirschman 1970). For the core question with respect to solidarity is who is included and who excluded. In our modern states, this fundamentally revolves around the basic question of who can and cannot become citizens of that state and the entry or exit routes for that decision.

On the level of solidarity, the major question is one of either exit or participation. There are two basic alternatives:

  1. A normative method, such as in traditional religion or in what I argue are the elements of a new secular religion, wherein every individual is instilled with a common set of rules and practices that are internalized to form habits. In that way, political systems need the least coercive power to attain and maintain solidarity while fostering individual freedom;
  2. Structural control so that system of distribution of power as defined formally wherein that formal system infuses every relationship and provides a hierarchy of power and stratification that defines how power is distributed and how influence, both material and ideological, may be exercised.

There are three routes to travel in dealing with these two alternatives. On the one hand, the principle of solidarity may take from traditional religion the internalization of rules, values and practices, and, via state structures, the system of authority and organization of power in a dialectical tension to promote the self-realization of the individual. Second, one can break away from a system of internalizing rules altogether and foster material self-interest through the discipline of economic market forces now operating globally on the foundations of an ostensible rational choice model. Third, one can build a system which decreasingly rests on the rule of any law, internalized or external, though often using traditional internalized rules and practices to undermine the rule of law, and instead rest authority on a single leader or party, usually married to nationalism, as the way of translating and using the rules of the traditional religion to foster a new one.

This is the case in Putin’s Russia or in Iran’s theocracy or Egypt’s military state or in a host of would-bes, with a particular concentration in states where one sect or other of Islam is ascendant, and corrupt. Authoritarian governments and leaders disrespect internalized norms of traditional religion that foster tolerance and respect for differences. Instead, they use external norms and dress codes to control populations, particularly the population of women. Most of all, these regimes rely on fear to keep their populations in line. Stephen Harper’s divisive efforts in Canada and disrespect for many established democratic norms, however much hated by a majority of Canadians, have been a very weak and insipid version of such mechanisms.

Western democracies faced with these two outliers find that the political party most wedded ideologically to both extremes – the worship of the free market with minimal political input and the worship of an authoritarian leader – also generally emphasize most of all a set of values inculcated through habits and traditional practices, usually religious, to foster solidarity. That religious secularism has the strongest tendency to rely on the politics of fear. That party also faces an opposition that tries to meld market forces that are policed and governed by polities and the rule of law, with political institutions that protect against authoritarian tendencies by marrying the internal coherence of the market with lawful authority through the new religion of universal human rights. Unfortunately, the effort operates as an abstraction representing the actual invisible and internalized practices fostering tolerance in such a society. As such, that opposition lacks the power and appeal of such forces for bonding as nationalism. Inability to foster loyalty and solidarity is the Achilles’ heel of the religious secularism of HRH.

I will next spell out how these tensions manifest themselves in one case study of citizenship rites and another case study of refugee policy in Canada, particularly the policy on the intake of Syrian refugees.