Power, Influence and Authority in the Torah


I have been writing a series of papers on the contemporary university which I will continue now that I am back in Toronto. I went to Torah study upon my return yesterday morning. We were at the end of the Book of Exodus reading Ki Tissa. Rabbi Splansky wanted to place the discussion within a larger compass and pull back rather than focus on any minute detail After reading two short excerpts about Shabbat, we turned to reading the final chapter from Jonathan Sacks’ 2010 book Covenant & Conversation – Exodus: The Book of Redemption called “Exodus: The Narrative Structure” (329-337) Sacks is the brilliant ex-Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a prolific author. The book itself justly won a National Book Award.

He claims, with much justification, that Exodus is the transitional volume in transforming a family into a nation. Though he focuses on the theme of moral courage in a time of crisis, on the emphasis on “the power of individuals, driven by justice or compassion, to defy tyrants and change the course of history,” I want to cut across his discussion of politics and morality to unpack his conceptions of power, influence and authority embedded in his thesis.

Before I do, I begin with where Rabbi Splansky began, with a reading of 31: 13-15

יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
13 ‘Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.
14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
טו  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת. 15 Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

and 35:1-3

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’ {P}

Does this identification of fire with work have anything to do with God first appearing to Moses as a burning bush (Rubus sanctus) on Mount Horeb in which the flames burned brightly, but the bush itself did not burn? All of Sinai is summed up as seneh, Hebrew for that particular bush.

In the first extract, one is commanded to keep Shabbat as a sign between God and the Israelites throughout the generations in order to recognize one’s nation as a consecrated or sanctified nation. And, of course, you cannot work or you will be put to death. In the second extract, nothing is said about consecration of the nation but the work which is forbidden is depicted as that which is connected with kindling fire. I will return to these extracts in tomorrow’s blog after explicating Sacks on power, influence and authority.

Sacks first introduces the theme of power when he argues that the major theme of Exodus is a narrative moving from slavery to freedom as a result of God’s intervention in history to challenge any tyrant who seeks “to dominate others by the use of power,” (my italics, what I have previously called coercive power) and a matching theme running in the opposite direction of transferring power to the people in the form of humans assuming responsibility for their own destinies. In this theme, God is an educator working through influence rather than countervailing power in order to displace coercive power with creative power. In this counter current, the text is “less about divine power than about divine empowerment.” Note that the transfer works through influence, through education.

Within this intellectual frame, that thus far has not included any reference to authority, Sacks then moves to unpack the structure of the text according to a chiastic or mirror image. The dominant chiastic pattern is a b c b a OR abcdedcba in which there is a pivot in the centre. Rabbi Splansky dismissed the ABBA structure as not chiastic, but it is, just a different version without a pivot. Different chiastic structures can be located in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as in the Torah. Thus, the story of the flood narrative has a pivot between two wings each with 10 elements:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20)

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)

PIVOT: X: God remembers Noah (8:1)

J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I’: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H’: Animals (9:2,3)

G’: Food (9:3,4)

F’: All living creatures (9:10a)

E’: Ark (9:10b)

D’: No flood in future (9:11)

C’: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B’: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Exodus, according to Sacks, has two overarching arches reflecting one another:

Unjust society (1-6)

Liberation (ten plagues) (7-13)

Division of the Reed Sea (14-18)

Liberty: ten commandments (19-20)

Just society (21-24)

In the tale, Israel was instructed to become an anti-Egypt “predicated not on power but on respect for human freedom and dignity.” (331) Yet Sacks also insists that the “most powerful force tending in this direction [the move from slavery to freedom] was the Sabbath.” (331) The Israelites moved from a hierarchical society of pyramids and the focus on a central ruler to a flat desert “in which nothing intervened between man and God.” (331)

Why is the parting of the Reed Sea the pivot point in this first arch, the link between Moses when he stands alone with God and confronts burning bush and the second in which God appears “like a devouring flame”? One individual, Moses, with God working through him, changes history by means of “the inner dialogue between a single soul and the God of freedom and dignity.” (332) This is a tease rather than a fulfilling answer, but I will expand and explicate it further in tomorrow’s blog.

Sacks then puts forth a second arch, a second chiastic pattern, “less about politics than about spirituality, and the place of God in society. Its symbol is the sanctuary. The chiastic pattern follows:

Tabernacle: instruction (25-31:11)

Sabbath (31:12-18)

Golden calf (32-34)

Sabbath (35:1-3)

Tabernacle: construction (35:4-40)

The pivot point is not the division of the Reed Sea, but the making and worship of a Golden Calf. It is here that Sacks diverts into some questionable Freudian interpretation, that the Golden Calf represents not so much idolatry, but the fear of absence, for when the father is absent, the child feels a mixture of guilt and fear and needs to construct a substitute father as the core mechanism to explain the origins of religion. The Freudian references are Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The Golden Calf is “a substitute for an invisible God and the missing leader and father figure.” (333) Of course, for Sacks, the theory is not a stage in the historical evolution of beliefs, but the eternal recurrence of a repeated pattern thus justifying the continuing role of religion.

In this exposition, Sacks ignores all the anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber and Claude Lévi-Strauss who have heaped scorn on Freud’s theory for ignoring culturally-determined influences in favour of macroscopic universal frames weak in evidence as well as subsequent developments in psychoanalytic theory which rejected the application of individual psychological dramas and tensions to superimpose them on history. Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist, did not, at least initially. However, Róheim eventually accepted Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as discredited, but continued to respect Freud’s theory as a classic.

Finally, quite aside from whether Freud’s idea is about a fear of absence, quite aside from the legitimacy of Freud’s idea, whatever it is, there are so many other differences between what Sacks is explicating and Freud, that the interposition of Freud comes off as ludicrous. To give just a few examples:

Totem and Taboo

Sacks Freud
Transition from family into a nation Treating a tribe as if it were a family
Power of individuals to defy tyranny Individual impotence to defy authority
Totem = a time – Shabbat Totem = an animal spirit in space
Why – God consecrates Source of consecration unknown
How – banning work (use of fire) How – banning contact (incest)

There are other differences, but I want to move on to the core exposition of Sacks’ views on power, authority and influence. I will eventually circle back to totem and taboo, especially when linking Sacks’ theories to the psychological and social structures embedded in two movies that I saw last evening, Warren Beatty’s 2016 romantic ‘comedy’ Rules Don’t Apply about Howard Hughes, and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception, a heist sci-fi movie focused on stealing and shifting an individual’s unconscious. In the meanwhile, I will bracket Sacks’ simplistic assertion that Freud is about the longing for and resentment of father figures that explains our political craving for strong leaders. For Sacks, the pivot point is the Golden Calf, not because it is an idol, but because it signifies the disintegration of a nation unready for freedom because of its obsession for a strong leader.

For Sacks, the Sanctuary serves two purposes. It is a visible symbol of the presence of God in the midst of a people to assure them that God was among them and they need not fear His absence. Secondly, in actually constructing the Sanctuary, what we do supplants what is done for us. The whole community builds the Sanctuary. Allowing the Israelites to express themselves as “free and creative human beings,” what I had heretofore referred to as creative rather than coercive power, provides an apprenticeship in liberty. The fire of God was now with the people daily. Further, the building of the Sanctuary marked a turning point from a reliance on prophets for a specific time and place to a reliance on Priests, on individuals solely with authentic authority to those who also had positions of formal authority and, therefore, could offer institutional continuity.

The central thesis: society in general, and Jews in particular, need the presence of God in their midst to avoid repression and corruption. God is the sovereign authority, the ultimate authentic authority for a nation living under God to circumscribe all human power, to ensure that might is subordinate to right. If one forgets to worship God, one opens oneself to tyranny. This second interposition – the first was the reference to Freud’s totem and taboo – is Sacks’ political theory on the roots of tyranny and the method of offering insurance against it.

Sacks went on to paint another chiasma, the use of that pattern to place the social and political within a cosmological context by comparing the pattern in Genesis with that of Exodus. But I will skip the effort at cosmology to sum up Sacks’ theories of power, influence and authority while bracketing the Freudian theory, bracketing the explanation of the roots of tyranny and the mode of insurance against it, and his cosmological exercise.

coercive versus creative, and the energy and labour of the people must be used to consecrate freedom, to embed freedom to create and ensure freedom from the rule of tyrants
Non this issue, Sacks is weak because he only focuses on intellectual inFfluence, on the transfer of thoughts and ideas to a whole community and ignores the role of material influence which is really symbolized by the Golden Calf rather than a substitute for a missing father. (I will expand on this theme when I analyze the two films I saw last evening.)
both authentic (God or God’s voice through prophets) and formal through boundary conditions – the main one, not working on Shabbat, not playing with fire on Shabbat – and exercised through the formal religious structure of priests and a formal political structure of kings and/or parliaments or presidents.

After the expansion of these themes through reference to the two films and critiquing both Sacks’ interpretation and interposition of Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as well as his thesis on the origins of tyranny, I will return to the exposition of the development of universities as the central institutions responsible for cultivating influence rather than authority in a society.

To be continued.


The Magic of Names

The Magic of Names


Howard Adelman

Shemot or Sh’mot at the beginning of Exodus (I.1-6.1) is probably the best-known part of the Torah, even better known than the Garden of Eden story. It tells the tale of the descent into oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt under a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” Pharaoh’s fear of the demographic threat of these “foreigners” and his extreme orders to kill the first-born male children of Hebrew mothers. This is said without getting into the logical paradox of no terminus for such an order, for as you kill the first-born when they are born, then the next-born becomes the eldest and, in some interpretations, eligible to be killed.

The core of the story revolves around the salvation of Moses from this edict as he is floated down the Nile River in his wicker basket made waterproof with bitumen, his being adopted by a princess of the realm and included in the royal household as an adult. As my colleague, Carl Ehrlich, sums up the tale, “A baby boy is born. Owing to a threat to his life, his parents must hide him. Providentially, the baby is rescued and grows to adulthood, when he will perform great deeds and lead his people to glory.”

The narrative shares an uncanny similarity with legends in other cultures, Sargon of Akkad, Oedipus of Thebes, Cyrus of Persia and, the best known of all, Jesus of Nazareth. Given the extreme sparsity of any evidence supporting the historicity of the tale, it seems more akin to a heroic tale of the birth of a nation than a historical chronicle. But that may be its magic, its power, rather than a weakness, rooted in cultural history, in what Ehrlich calls mnemohistory, the way history is constructed and remembered versus what actually took place in the past. The meanings given to names are crucial to these constructions.

Moses kills a particularly vicious taskmaster who was whipping a Hebrew slave-worker, flees, intermarries with the daughter Zipporah, of a Midian priest, Jethro, who will later become his consigliere. Moses is then ordered by God to return to Egypt and preach the message to Pharaoh, “Let My People Go.” In the Black Gospel spiritual, the task is best captured and summarized in in the first two of four verses of the song, “Go Down Moses.”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh
“Let my people go.”

There is a lesser known sub-plot within the larger narrative, the story of Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives ordered by Pharaoh to kill the male children of Hebrew mothers. The section (Exodus 1:15-21) is relatively short and succinct.

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (15)

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃

. .saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (16)

וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (17)

וַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” (18)This raises all sorts of questions.

וַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ׃

The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (19)

וַיֵּ֥יטֶב אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֑ת וַיִּ֧רֶב הָעָ֛ם וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ מְאֹֽד׃

And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. (20)

וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃

And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (21)

The traditional Talmudic interpretation, reflected in the English translation of לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת, is that these two midwives were themselves Hebrews. The phrase could be translated as “midwives to the Hebrews,” but is generally not. As Ana Bonnheim suggested in her commentary, the text could read lam’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “[to the] Hebrew midwives,” but as li-m’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “the midwives to the Hebrews.” The Masoretic text in adding the vowels could have shifted the meaning of the tale.

This raises all sorts of related questions. Why would Pharaoh order Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies? Why would there be Hebrew midwives at all? After all, Egypt was famous for its advances in medicine while, of the professions assigned to the twelve tribes of Hebrew, and contrary to the dictum that every Jewish mother wants her son to grow up to be a doctor, not one tribe is assigned the task of health care. In ancient Israel, health care was probably not as popular a vocation as it became in our contemporary period. Further, in ancient Egyptian depictions of midwives, they worked in pairs. In Hebrew tales of midwifery (Genesis 35:17; 38:28), they were sole professionals, as when Rachel is depicted in giving birth to Benjamin and even when twins were born – Pharez and Zarah.

But if the midwives were Egyptians, why would they defy Pharaoh? The text suggests they were motivated by fear of God. (1:17) In any case, why would Pharaoh even order the Hebrew boys to be killed. If you want a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, this would be it. For the Hebrews were the physical labourers for the Egyptians. Why sever the source of your labour supply, especially since the fear was an anticipated one rather than a response to any actual revolt?

Some believe it does not matter whether the midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew. It is a great tale of civil disobedience, of telling a lie (the Hebrew mothers are vigorous and give birth before we can arrive to attend to them), even an improbable “big fish” story to explain their failure. They tell the “lie” in service of a higher cause of natural justice. If the two midwives were Egyptian, they would qualify for early rewards as “righteous gentiles.” But the last two millennia of Biblical interpretations have not only preponderantly insisted that the two were Hebrews, in Rashi and other accounts, they are just two alternative names for Miriam (meaning bitterness after the sense of the period) and her mother, even though Miriam saved her brother when she was evidently only five-years-old and that story of the salvation of Moses comes after this one. Talk about ethno-centric revisionism!

There is an older tradition that said the two were Egyptians. Josephus overtly said they were. Other dissidents from the medieval view asked why Pharaoh would trust Hebrew women with the task, and, if he did, surely their behaviour would be something expected rather than a case of heroic behaviour worthy of recording in a sacred text. Bonnheim points to “an incredible fragment of a text from the Cairo Geniza (a collection of manuscripts found in a Cairo synagogue, some dating back as far as 870 C.E.) that recognizes Shiphrah and Puah as Egyptians” among a list of righteous gentiles. And we do know that among commentators, such as Rashi who experienced pogroms, there existed a strong propensity to circle the wagons. Suspecting rather than acknowledging gentiles, excluding rather than including them, became de rigueur, so how could such heroic women be Egyptian?

But the Torah is replete with heroic women, with women of valour, who join the tribes of Israelites, women who were not originally Hebrews – Ruth comes to the fore, but she is not the only one. The Egyptian princess in this story is another one, daring to defy the Pharaoh for she knew Moses was a Hebrew child. Further, an underlying, but fairly explicit motif of the whole text, is that it is really women who are the foundation for forging the Jewish nation. Prior to the compact between Leah and her sister Rachel, Jewish brothers had a propensity to fall out and separate. It is the women that were responsible, not only for the birth of Hebrew children, but for the birth of the nation. And this is a predominant theme in this story – the extraordinary role of women, and women who were both Hebrews and non-Hebrews, who came to love the Hebrew God with whom they were in awe. Further, medieval commentators betray not only an extreme suspicion of non-Jews, but they are paragons of male chauvinism who reinforce an emphasis on the role of male, as well as excluding gentiles from the class of the virtuous.

Once we begin to suspect the bias of traditional interpretation, especially of taking Shiphrah to be Miriam and Puah to be an alternative name for Jochebed, a myriad of other questions arise. Why would Pharaoh say to those midwives “when you deliver Hebrew women” if the midwives were not Egyptian. The sense of the text clearly implies they were. If they were Hebrews, who else in this tyrannical age would be helping in Hebrew childbirth? Hebrew women would be expected to be in awe of God, but, in the case of Egyptian women, this would be well worth mentioning and emphasizing.

What about their names? Do not their names pose an insurmountable problem for saying the women were Hebrews? For Rashi, the root source for Shiphrah in Hebrew means “the capacity to make something better, or to improve its quality.” The root source of Puah is a gift of speech, from which Rashi derives the idea that Puah meant a capacity to soothe babies with her words and voice. When the capacity for amelioration is combined with a skill in keeping babies quiet and not revealing their presence, we find the source motif for why Hebrew male children were saved.  One cannot help but admire Rashi’s inventiveness and ingenuity when he characterizes them as good-hearted equivalents to Judah, able to master the mechanisms of survival. His acolytes even expanded on the tale and insisted that the two were so ingenious that they convinced Pharaoh to allow them to continue their work otherwise, if they killed the babies after they were born rather than allowing the infants to die in childbirth, the mothers would no longer tell them their due dates so they would never ever be able to be present during childbirth.

Is this not the definitive argument that the two midwives were Hebrews and not Egyptians because their names were Hebrew? After all, Jews do not assign Hebrew names to gentiles when referencing them. Take a closer look at the names and their meanings. We already have Rashi’s – Shiphrah, the do-gooder, and Puah, the instrument for succeeding in those good works by keeping the babies quiet. There are a plethora of other meanings given to their names.

Shiphrah: brightness (Jeremiah 43:10); beautiful (Genesis 49:21 and Psalm 16:16); fairness (Job 26:13); pleasing (Jeremiah from the root שפר shapar), meaning to be pleasing and related to the shofar, the horn blown on Yom Kippur; from the Indian, Sifra, daughter of God as used in Christianity; Shiphrah can be said to mean the horn blown at childbirth by a midwife who brings clarity as well as charity, calm and care at a very stressful time.  Shiphrah is also represented as an anagram pulling together all the qualities needed for a calm and relaxing childbirth:

S   serene

H  heavenly

I    idealistic

P   patient

H  hospitable

R   radiant

A   amenable or easy-going

Puah:     splendid; gift of speech; a human equivalent to a horse whisperer; mouth, but used as a name for a male as in the father of Tula תּוֹלָע בֶּן-פּוּאָה from the tribe of and the second son of Isssachar, a judge (Genesis 46:13; Numbers 26:23; Judges 10:1; Chronicles 7:1)

The name of a person is intended to express the quality of the being represented by and identified with the name, to reflect an individual’s personality and to offer a pointer to what that person should become. Names are not then simply conventions for designation, an arbitrary sign, but have an intrinsic connection with the character, especially one who will become an agent in history. Or, at least in mnemohistory, the history that has the power to direct and guide a nation through millennia.

And that, of course, is why they must have Hebrew names even if they happened to be Egyptian. For they became Israelites; they learned to live in awe of God. Their names conveyed the power and mode of salvation.

There are three other names of individuals in this specific narrative whose name gives them magical qualities even more than their deeds. Pharaoh’s daughter gives “Moshe” an Egyptian name, explaining, as she does, “I drew him out of the water,” (Exodus 2:10) – water, the symbol of change, of transformation, of the conversion of a people with a slave mentality to a nation that carried the torch of freedom. When Moses first encountered God, he hid his face “for he was afraid to look at God.” The princess knew that Moses would become a famous transformative agent.

Moses, when he married Zipporah, had a son whom he named Gershom for, he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land,” (Exodus 1:22), a sojourner, one who does not belong in that place but in another, an adumbration that even Egypt was not a “natural” place for Moses.” Ironically, if Moses is the name for his future and his son’s name is the term characterizing a past he must escape, the third name is about a presence, an ever presence, and, therefore, is not about a man at all, but about God.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃

And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ יְהוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם וְזֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר׃

And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, This My appellation for all eternity. (Exodus 2:14-15)

First, God now has an all-encompassing name that goes beyond all the names that attribute personal characteristics to God.  He also has a very personal, not a generic, name – YHWH. That name is considered so powerful that the person who invokes it, acquires tremendous power, That is why it is taboo to use it; it is too dangerous. (For a much longer, more scholarly and nuanced analysis, see Rabbi Farber’s commentary: TheTorah.com <TheTorah.com@mail.vresp.com> This is the reason that the stranger/God wrestling with Jacob would not reveal His name to Jacob. But Jacob himself received a new name and became the father of the nation of Israel.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that two Egyptian midwives were given Hebrew names when they expressed their unity with the Israelites, their awe for the God of the Hebrews and, in their personalities, demonstrated the very characteristics those names embodied.

With the help of Alex Zisman



llusions, Delusions and Leadership – B’shalach. Exodus 13:17−17:16

Illusions, Delusions and Leadership – B’shalach. Exodus 13:17−17:16


Howard Adelman

The story of the Israelites flight from Egypt, crossing the Sea of Reeds, looting the bodies of the drowned Egyptians and making their way across the Sinai is so well known that it requires no rehearsal even for non-Jews and non-Christians. Cecil B. DeMille and Disney took care of that. So I will zero in on only two verses and related items, though I could also discuss Moses’ magic in more detail as when he struck the rock and brought forth water.

The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud and the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. (Exodus 14:19-20).

When and why does the angel of leadership shift from the front of the line to the back? What does a cloud of mist, also moving from front to back, tell us about leadership? And the darkness? What is this business about casting a spell on the night? Is that just poetic license or does it have some significance? It seems to have served a very functional purpose – separating the Egyptian army from what is now referred to as the army of Israel. What kind of army is it if the people in that army bear no arms? But, of course, a community of ants is also referred to as an army.

David Brooks also wrote on leadership this past week. (NYT, 19 January 2016, “Time for a Republican Conspiracy!”) For Brooks, neither Trump nor Cruz, the two leading candidates for the presidency, have a chance in hell of winning. Why? First of all, because both are men who would endanger rather than protect their own nation, the latter being the first requirement of leadership. Second, from different vantage points, authoritarian populism (Trump) or Tea Party terrorism (Cruz), solipsism (Trump) or inflated egoism (Cruz), neither has any contact with reality. Trump builds castles in the sky; Cruz destroys structures on the ground.

What did Brooks call on the leadership of the Republican Party to do? First organize – involve the membership in collective action using the internet and community rallies to get behind a single candidate not dedicated to tearing the party and then the country apart. Why have Trump trumped and Cruz cruised? Because less-educated voters are, in Brooks words, “in a tidal-wave of trauma.” For America, it is because labor force participation is dropping, wages are sliding, heroin addiction is rising, faith in American institutions is dissolving. This is simply an elaboration of what Barack Obama in his 2016 State of the Union Address regretted he had not solved, reaching out and overcoming the alienation of these Americans.

But if these factors traumatized Americans, what happened to the Israelites who left both the horror as well as the security of slavery? And then to have your male children killed only to go through a series of plagues and praying you will emerge unscathed. Then fleeing with the whole Egyptian army behind you and escaping by the skin of your teeth as the literal tidal-wave of trauma drowned those Egyptians just as you barely made it to dry land. Talk about trauma! That’s trauma.

But that was just the trauma of the conditions from which they were fleeing. What about the challenges they faced? In flight, they were also being bounced back between hope and despair. They were going to a promised land. And where were they? In a place seemingly without any obvious food and water – in the Sinai desert! So, although God had set the ultimate destination, even if Israelites retained faith in that – and that was far from certain  – could they trust the angel as a navigator, as a strategist, to choose the best path to that goal? So a pillar of cloud separated the column of Israelites and the angel. But they also sank into despair in looking behind, for the army of Pharaoh was pursuing them. So the angel and the cloud pillar shifted from leading from the front to leading from the rear

If you want a leadership challenge, that is it. Candidates for the American presidency have it remarkably easy by comparison. But the story does tell us very clearly the three different types of challenges faced by leaders:

  1. In ordinary times, you lead from the middle. That is when the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the symbol of God’s leadership for the Israelites must be carried in the midst of the people. But this was not an ordinary time.
  2. In other times, when threats from man or nature have subsided relatively, but the biggest danger is an uncertain future, then you have to balance hope and fear; too much hope and one’s constituency becomes indifferent and insensitive to the fears that lay beneath the ground on which they are walking; too much fear and they are paralyzed. Obama was a leader who overemphasized hope to win the presidency and could never recover and win everyone’s faith that he has a very realistic assessment of the fears underneath and for the future they faced and for which he needed to stir the American fighting spirit.
  1. At still other time a leader deliberately moves to the back as he or she recognizes powerful enemies are preparing to strike at the rear and the leader must give sufficient hope to prevent them falling into despair, but prop up enough fighting spirit to ensure a victory in battle, for the enemies are real and pose a terrible existential danger.

So how does Brook’s recipe for leadership compare to the challenges facing God and Moses? The Israelites faced an existential threat. Americans do not. The country’s largest threat comes from the divisions within, not the mad fanatical terrorists living on the fringes of society and on the fringes of the civilized world. The challenge may have been much greater for the Israelites, but the requirements of leadership may be constant.

As I diagnose the requirements of leadership as put forth in the Torah, the first principle is demarcating what the challenges are that must be faced by the people you lead. Are they everyday challenges which require leadership from the centre when the Mishkan in normal times, is carried in the midst of the people? If there is a tremendous danger, is it one that faces us or one that is coming up our rear?.

Those are the different challenges leaders face and the right leader must be chosen for the challenge at hand. Thus, there is no universal formula for selecting a leader, but the leader must have the following attributes and skills to meet any of these challenges. When Parashat B’shalach opens, God is dividing the Reed Sea to deliver the Israelites from slavery to freedom and drown their enemies. Celebration and exultation are in store.

“The Lord is my strength and might; He has become my deliverance (Exodus 15:2)

This soon gives way to despair as the Israelites recognize they have no food and water sufficient to move forward

“For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

God delivers manna. Moses does not take the credit for recognizing the cocoon of the parasitic beetle Trehala, manna from which trehalose gets its name. These are cocoons which are found hanging from thorn bushes in the Middle East. God responds by sending manna to earth out of nowhere, as if it came from heaven, the white crystalline carbohydrate made of two glucose molecules joined together and one of a very few naturally occurring molecules that taste sweet. The first obligation of a leader is to be able to understand what is in this earth and how to get at it to provide sufficient food security for his people, sufficient nutritious food and water. Think of both the imagination and the courage required of the natives of Borneo to harvest the nests of sparrows from the walls of the deepest caves in the world, nests made from sparrow saliva that provide the rich and nutritious ingredients of bird’s nest soup found in the finest Chinese restaurants. Manna was “white like coriander seed and tasted like a wafer made with honey.”

“When the fall of dew lifted, there over the surface of the wilderness,
lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” (Exodus 16:14)

But it is not enough for a leader to recognize the nourishment this planet provides, but it must be distributed so that there is sufficient for each person to have his or her basic needs filled. The principle for the distribution of the manna was to each according to his needs. (Exodus 16:17-18)

When some thinkers suggest that the requirements of leadership do not depend on the position from which one governs or the different challenges peoples face at different times, they are wrong. True leadership is not simply defined by “the possession of a strong character, a clear vision, flexibility, and an ability to react to a crisis at a moment’s notice.” Rather, it is to be in the right place at the right time and, an important ‘and’, an ability to analyze how to meet the challenge. Some leaders are better at fighting. Other leaders are better at achieving consensus. Still others excel in understanding challenges that face a society and devising the innovations necessary to meet those challenges.

Note further that the cocoon of the parasitic beetle cannot be stored, cannot serve a capitalist economy which depends on accumulating and storing goods to be sold at the right time for the right price when demand is high. For manna within two days waxed hot and melted, rotted and filled with worms. This was fortuitous when a centrally directed polity might have otherwise been necessary to ensure enough food was stored away in good times to meet forthcoming shortages, as in the case of Joseph advising the Pharaoh. What was needed at that time were practices that forged a people into a nation. The manna, the “fine, flake-like thing” like frost and white like coriander seed that the Israelites ground and pounded into cakes and then baked into wafers as if they had been made with honey, was perfect for that time and place.

Invention, innovation and discovery do not only mean uncovering something very original, but also finding new uses for an old product. Thus, manna, tetrahalose, was discovered by Bruce Roser to be excellent as a preservative for antibodies, vaccines, enzymes and blood coagulation that is so beneficial for Third World countries without refrigeration. In its natural condition, manna, however, can last just two days, sufficient to provide for both Friday meals and shabat, but not any longer.


And it came to pass that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one; and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. (Exodus 16:22)

This portion of the Torah teaches us another lesson about leadership; it is best carried out by a division of responsibility and a division of power. Power was divided among God; the angel; Moses and Aaron. Aaron was the prophet, the one who delivered the bad news and was the tough cop when dealing with enemies. Moses provided the political leadership for the people, the role generally identified with leadership. But leadership also requires a strategist and the angel served the role of navigator. God provided the vision and ultimate goal. There is one other part of leadership which Obama pointed out in his 2016 State of the Union speech. Leaders cannot lead alone. Leaders cannot lead unless the people follow. And the people need one of them to witness to the truth, like Nachshon ben Aminadav who raced to the front and jumped fearlessly into the sea leading his tribe of Judah to follow him.

When all these ingredients are in place, Amalek, the eternal enemy, can and will be defeated.

So be wary of pieties that insist on only one kind of leadership and one kind of character providing such a leadership – such as restricting leadership to the role of God in the Exodus story, providing goals and values, providing an eternal vision and serving as a protector who neither slumbers nor sleeps. God is insufficient.

So how accurate and perceptive was David Brooks about leadership in the Republican Party?  If the membership and institutional leadership consists only of those who surrender and those who jump on what appears to be the fastest train, there is no chance. However, if the Party has to rely only on tacticians, then a Trump or a Cruz can win because, whatever their destructive propensities, they offer magic and spells. Brooks also wrote that, “What’s needed is a coalition that combines Huey Long, Charles Colson and Theodore Roosevelt: working-class populism, religious compassion and institutional reform.”

Brooks confuses the need for spells and magic with populism. Populism is precisely the inability to differentiate between charms and spells, between fakery and the true magic of discovery and innovation. Brooks is correct that the Party needs concrete policies that serve the people, policies consistent with conservatism, but a conservatism that is also progressive, such as, “ideas to help the working class, like wage subsidies, a higher earned-Income tax credit, increased child tax credits, subsidies for people who wanted to move in search of work and exemption of the first $20,000 in earnings from the Medicaid payroll tax.” These will not be found by fake leaders who offer a pig in a poke in a quasi-authoritarian guise with its central metaphor of a wall rather than a path on solid ground through the tidal waves of stormy waters. Leaders who growl at the world only offer anger and exclusion of the other rather than a leading light and hope with which to march into the future.

I myself think it is probably too late for the Republican Party until the Party encounters an overwhelming defeat, a severe trauma. For the Republicans have been the engineers of their own self-destruction trying to create a polity on a foundation of resentment, which Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out was the key driver of disaster. When a civilized and sensitive Republican, leader like Nikki Haley can only mouth the clichés of the cold and compassionateless right, then it has been infected with a disease that could be immune to any known antibiotic. Any party that denies social science in its attacks on Obamacare, that denies natural science in the attacks against those who recognize the significance of climate change, does not want to govern, but only destroy. It is a party that offers only resentment and divisiveness and is beyond saving itself at this time. For its products are illusions and delusions: cutting taxes, losing jobs and increasing the deficit and the national debt. It is the know-nothing party of our day.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnam and Canada: Journey to Freedom Day

Vietnam and Canada: Journey to Freedom Day


Howard Adelman

(NOTE: as with all my blogs, receivers are free to circulate this blog. In this case, I hope they will circulate it, especially to other members of the Canadian Vietnamese community. I always welcome feedback.)

Last week I received an email forwarded to me from the Honourable Jason Kenney requesting my signature on a petition in support of Bill S-219, originally called Black April Day, and retitled Journey to Freedom Day (Journée du Parcours). An introduction to the bill, its historical context and the explanation of its purpose of the bill can be found at: http://www.jasonkenney.ca/news/petition-the-journey-to-freedom-act-bill-s-219/. The bill was very recently passed by the Senate of Canada and is currently before the House of Commons for its approval. (www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=…) The bill is intended to officially recognize April 30th as Journey to Freedom Day in Canada in commemoration of the flight of tens of thousands of Vietnamese from Vietnam who found refuge in Canada after 1975.

Though Kenney is a senior minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, the bill is a private member’s bill rather than a government bill; members of each party are free to vote on the bill independent of the party of which they are a member. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Conservative Party members voting against the bill when it is strongly supported by a high profile cabinet minister and was initially sponsored by an ethnic Vietnamese member of the Senate, Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, who was appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper. Senator Mobina Jaffer, a Liberal, also strongly supported the bill.

Why the full press? The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and can easily pass the bill. Why has such a bill become controversial? Is it because the bill has led to a spat with the government of Vietnam as newspaper headline writers have suggested in reporting on the bill?
When I open my laptop daily, including this morning, picture after picture of the beauty of Vietnam, taken by my friend Truc, pass before my eyes. Nancy’s long visit there reinforced a fondness for that country, a fondness that is only somewhat painful for personal reasons – because of the death of a friend of my son in a road accident when my son was traveling with him south of Hanoi. Nevertheless, I feel a great love for that country, even though I have never visited. So I am very bothered by a dispute between Canada and the Government of Vietnam.

Yesterday, on my first full day in San Pancho, Mexico, as I listened to the Pacific waves crashing on shore, I also opened the 5 December 2014 minutes received by email of the meeting of the Indochinese Refugee Movement Project Steering Committee Meeting of which I am a member. The Project is intended to provide an archive of documents on the Indochinese refugee resettlement, an oral history, a curriculum, a website, a docudrama and initiate commemoration efforts in 2015 on the 40th anniversary of the beginning of that movement. That meeting was coordinated by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. I was unable to attend the meeting, even by Skype, as, at the time, I was en route to Marin County, CA heading for Mexico.

The minutes opened with a discussion of the controversy surrounding the bill with the suggested explanation that the media had framed the bill as an act that would cause a “diplomatic spat between Canada and Vietnam”. The minutes expressed a concern that the controversy might taint the efforts of the project to archive a documentary record of that refugee resettlement by entangling its aims with that of the supposedly “controversial” bill, even though the project had nothing to do with the bill. The concern of the committee seemed not to be the spat with Vietnam over the bill, but the effects of the bill on the other communities of Indochinese refugees (Cambodians, Laotians, ethnic Chinese from Indochina). The Project wanted to be clear that its focus was on all Indochinese Communities represented by our project.

I will give my explanation for the controversy after I discuss the contents and the context of the bill and also offer my evaluation of the bill itself. April 30th is commemorated by the Vietnamese community in Canada because, on 30 April 1975, Saigon fell to the combined forces of North Vietnam, officially called the People’s Army of Vietnam (not North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam (the Viet Cong). (Ironically, Vietnam means southern Viet.) As the members of the sixties generation well recall, the Vietnam War was a defining issue in North America from 1964, when U.S. President Johnson used the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident to get Congressional approval for the USA to send military advisors to the South Vietnam government in 1964 and then intervene with ground troops in 1965. The controversy only ended in 1973. Henry Kissinger, as U.S. President Nixon’s Secretary of State, had worked out a face saving Paris Peace Accord (27 January 1973) to permit the American troops to withdraw from South Vietnam in what many regarded as the faint hope that South Vietnam could survive as a separate country, much as South Korea has.

It was not to be.

Bill S-219

The bill is described in its opening section as: “An Act respecting a national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.” In the Preamble, the following contextual items are mentioned:
• the role Canadian forces played in the UN supervising force;
• the bill refers to the military forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front invading (my italics) South Vietnam that led to the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Government;
• cites the UNHCR as blaming deteriorating economic conditions and abuses of human rights as contributing to the exodus of Vietnamese refugees – the Vietnamese “Boat People”
• the privately-sponsored refugee project assisted 34,000 Vietnamese refugees [NOTE: this phrase could mean ex-citizens of Vietnam or refugees from Vietnam who are ethnic Vietnamese not refugees from Vietnam] coming to Canada while the Canadian government resettled 26,000;
• notes the major and sustained contribution by the people of Canada to the Indochinese exodus was recognized by the UNHCR which awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to the “People of Canada” in 1986;
• members of the Vietnamese community refer to April 30 th as “Black April Day”, or “Journey to Freedom Day”
• April 30th should be designated as Journey to Freedom Day to remember and commemorate a) the lives lost,
b) the suffering experienced during the exodus,
c) the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees into Canada,
d) the gratitude of Vietnamese people in Canada to the Canadian people and the Government of Canada for accepting them,
e) contributions of Vietnamese-Canadian people — whose population is now approximately 300,000 — to Canadian society.

Some elaboration:
• Other than supplying military supervisors to observe the so-called peace provided in the Paris Peace Accords, the Government of Canada stayed out of that war and did not, as Australia did, contribute troops to the American-led effort to support the South Vietnamese government against the insurgents;
• The Socialist Republic of Vietnam Government was created on 2 July 1976 when North and South Vietnam were formally united, and though North Vietnam did invade South Vietnam, contrary to the terms of the Paris Peace Accord, and captured the province of Phuóc Long in December 1974 beginning a full scale offensive, reputable historians would not describe the National Liberation Army (the Viet Cong) in South Vietnam as “invading” South Vietnam for, though supported by Hanoi, the Viet Cong insurrection was a civil war begun in the late 1950s as a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the corrupt Diệm government;
• The UNHCR rarely enters into a political analysis of the causes of an exodus. It was not involved in dealing with the exodus of Vietnamese, largely Catholic, from the north in 1954 following the French withdrawal from Vietnam and its division into South and North. In Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response, W. Courtland Robinson’s official history of the Vietnamese (and other Indochinese refugees), based on full and complete access to UNHCR documents, Robinson concluded that, in 1974, UNHCR became involved with Vietnamese refugees to assist in the return and reintegration of refugees (my italics) resulting from war. Hence, UNHCR opened an office in Hanoi. In 1975, for example, violence broke out in Guam as several hundred Vietnamese refugees demanded the right to return to Vietnam just as many others began to flee. After the fall of Saigon, UNHCR became involved with helping the refugees (35,000) who, according to UNHCR, primarily left Vietnam between 1975 and 1978 for ideological reasons because they were on the losing side in that war, a view which was strongly at odds with that of the USA, which insisted that it was an exodus of people fearing persecution by the Communist government. Only in 1978, when the renewed and much more massive outflow was the result of many factors, including intolerance of ethnic minorities (the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam), religious intolerance, government oppression and the dislocation caused by extensive economic “reforms”, did the refugees become the “Boat People”. I have only included this very condensed summary to indicate that the preamble in the bill with respect to UNHCR’s involvement really refers to the massive exodus after 1978;
• Though Canada took 5,608 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1978, 16% of the exodus, it only became a leader in resettling the refugees in 1978 with the arrival of the huge freighter, the Southern Cross, in the Philippines, and the arrival in December of another freighter, the Hai Hong, in Hong Kong; Canada’s involvement escalated to the role of a leader of Vietnamese “Boat People” resettlement;
• In 2006, the ethnic Vietnamese population in Canada was officially estimated at over 180,000 so it is difficult to reconcile this figure with the current estimated population of Canadians of Vietnamese origin of 300,000 or the figure of only 60,000 Vietnamese refugees brought to Canada since 5,608 came in the first wave (1975 to 1978), an estimated 50,000 in the second wave (1979-1980), and many more in the subsequent third wave;
• There is a confusion in Bill S-219 between refugees from Vietnam and Vietnamese refugees, who may either be ethnic Vietnamese or ethnic Chinese from Vietnam;
• The bill seems to be sensitive to the feelings of the Thai, Malaysian and other regional governments, which often pushed the refugee boats out to sea until Western countries pledged to resettle the refugees, for there is no mention of the role of these governments in Canada’s decision to resettle the refugees;
• The bill ignores the other Indochinese refugees and the different causes of their plight and subsequent exodus, including the pushback of 42,000 Cambodians from the Thai border in June 1979.

The controversy over the bill between the Government of Vietnam and the Canadian government is significant because the current Harper government is one that strongly supports international trade. Since 2000, following its economic reforms, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world. That may explain the extreme mildness when referring to the Hanoi government, for there is no mention of the almost 200,000 Vietnamese killed or executed by the Hanoi government after it came to power in 1954 or of the tens of thousands imprisoned.

What did the Vietnamese government say in its protest against the bill? Before I get into that, it is important to note that there were other objections to the bill, though very little about ignoring Canada’s other Indochinese communities. The bill, however, is supposedly controversial within the Vietnamese community; the Canada-Vietnam Friendship Association and the Canada-Vietnam Trade Council suggested the bill would create tension. They wanted cordial relations with Vietnam and also wanted to put the past behind them. In addition, Peter Tran, an old friend, opposed the bill because it had never been supported by a referendum within the Vietnamese community.

Note that the bill says very little, in fact, almost nothing about past causes and circumstances, in spite of the Vietnamese ambassador claiming that the bill provides a distorted view of his country’s history. The bill does ignore Canada’s positive bilateral relationship with Vietnam over the past 40 years, especially the economic relations as they have developed over the last fifteen years, but what relevance does that have to the purposes of the bill?

Some argue that we are on a slippery slope; is Canada to have a national day to celebrate every ethnic group? However, this is not a national day celebration, such as Tartan Day celebrated on the 6th of April. It is more akin to Raoul Wallenberg Day, January 17th that commemorates what Wallenberg did to help Jews escape the genocide of Nazi Germany.

There were also process concerns. The Vietnamese ambassador was not permitted to come before the committee and had to register his objections in writing. When the letter was received, delayed because it had to be translated into French, the Senate committee had already reported back to the Senate and did not consider the letter. Witnesses from the Vietnamese community, especially those opposed to the bill, were not invited to the committee considering the bill. Only three witnesses appeared. Further, the bill, after languishing in committee for months, was hurriedly passed by the Senate. The Vietnamese ambassador, Anh Dung, in his letter, accused Ngo of dredging up the past, painting a distorted view of his country’s history and ignoring its positive bilateral relationship with Canada over the past 40 years. “The government of Vietnam disagrees with this negative and selective portrayal and has expressed its concerns privately and publicly…about the language and intent of this bill.” The ambassador, in addition to his complaints about the portrait of Vietnam painted in the bill and about dredging up the past, claimed that the bill, if passed, will have an adverse impact on the growing bilateral relations between Canada and Vietnam. The bill was accused of inciting hatred between Canada and Vietnam and fostering division not unity. And it was not only the ambassador who complained about the bill. Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, Pham Binh Minh, wrote John Baird in June to voice his objections.

I have absolutely no problem with the intent of the bill. Commemorating the suffering of the Vietnamese community in Canada, the huge loss of lives in their flight, yet their very successful resettlement in Canada, is commendable. To call this “dredging up the past” is not only an insult to Canadians of Vietnamese descent, it flies in the face of the widespread belief in Canada that the past must not only be remembered, but wrongs that took place must be pointed out and analyzed. History should NOT be forgotten but recalled. Any country that desires to suppress its past, any country that does not confront its past head on, seriously risks a failure to liberate itself from that part of its past that is despicable. The past must be brought into the present and thoroughly debated.

Articulating and explicating the causes of the exodus of the “Boat People”, however, is not Canada’s task, it is Vietnam’s. Nor is a private member’s bill the place to record and analyze that history. And the bill does not do that. It offers only a very brief passing reference to that history that is 90% accurate, and the one minor inaccuracy can be corrected in committee as the House considers the bill. If the bill has a detrimental effect on Canada’s economic and social relations, then that is a problem for Vietnam, not Canada. Canadian policy in relationship to its own citizens is a Canadian issue, not Vietnam’s, and should not be subject to Vietnam government threats or possible blackmail.

However, there are a number of other issues, all relatively minor, which can be corrected in the committee of the House of Commons considering the bill and then passing an amended version that can then be sent back to the Senate for its approval. Which takes us back to the initial question. Why has the bill been handled so poorly and with last minute haste? I can think of only one reason, but there may be others. Aside from the genuine merits of the bill, it is probably intended both to win favour with the Vietnamese-Canadian community as part of Jason Kenney’s larger strategy of shifting ethnic Canadian support from the Liberal Party to the Conservatives and to place the Liberal party in a conundrum, forcing that party, if possible, to be ambivalent about the bill. Whatever the Liberal Party does, it loses by either supporting a quasi-government initiated bill or placing obstacles in its way. The Conservative Party gains whichever path the opposition takes.

The motives of the Conservative Party may be primarily or secondarily political – domestically to secure support from the Vietnamese community in Canada, and, by making it a private member’s bill, to minimize as much as possible any friction with Vietnam. However, that is insufficient grounds for opposing the bill. So is the fear that often plagues Canadian policy in dealing with different ethnic groups. A policy of apologizing to one group may inundate needed apologies to others. A policy commemorating the experience of one ethnic group may result in a cascade of requests by other groups. The argument is often made that commemorating one group’s past suffering discriminates and ignores the suffering of other groups. It does not. It makes one more sensitive to the history of suffering. The more commemorations for more groups, the better position Canadians are in to both understand suffering and to comprehend the multicultural heritage of this country.

I support the bill and hope there will be some fine tuning by the committee of the House of Commons. If there is not, I would still support the bill. Its merits far outweigh any disagreements I have with how the bill was passed by the Senate or the lack of clarity and even errors in the wording.