Master and Slave: Independence

Israel’s Independence Day starts next Wednesday evening at sundown and is celebrated on Thursday 19 April 2018, a shifting date on the English calendar, for the date is set in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th day of Iyar 5778. In Hebrew, it is called Yom Ha’atzmaut, יום העצמאות. Yom means day and ha’atzmaut means independence. If we want to understand what we are celebrating when we take joy in the festivities – whether Jew or gentile, whether Israeli or member of another nation – we must understand what independence means for a nation, and, before that, what it means for an individual.

A week from today in the evening, the holiday of Yom Hazikaron, יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן, begins, that is the Memorial Day for soldiers who lost their lives in battle or otherwise in the defence of Israel and for those who have been victims of terrorism – Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם זִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה).  It is a very solemn day.  For 24 hours, everything is closed; it feels like Yom Kippur. A siren sounds this evening Israeli time at 8:00 pm and all traffic stops for two minutes of silence. This is repeated on 18 April at 11:00 am Israeli time. The end of the siren wailing is followed by a memorial service and recitation of prayers at military cemeteries. If we want to understand what independence is, we must understand what sacrificing one’s life for a nation means.

Further, both holidays follow less than two weeks after Passover, Pesach, פֶּסַח, the week when Jews celebrate their exodus from slavery in Egypt and the quest for freedom. It is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of Matzah, the festival of freedom from slavery. To understand the point of these two holidays next week, it helps to have a brief review of the holiday that just passed.

Passover is a celebration of God’s efforts to bring Jews forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow and pain into joy and happiness. Likewise, next week we repeat and reinforce the experience over two days of going from mourning into festivity. As we celebrate Pesach to re-enact this redemption, this movement from slavery into freedom (Exodus 13:8), the moment must be re-experienced, must be repeated over and over. We must re-experience that journey. We must recognize that it is a spiritual and physical trip that we ourselves must make. We must recognize our personal redemption. We are obligated to see ourselves as if we left a state of bondage for freedom. (Deuteronomy 6:23)

What does it mean to experience being a slave in Egypt? One can think of it as simply physical slavery. Eritreans fleeing their oppressive country have often been enslaved by traffickers and held for ransom until they were redeemed. Slavery does mean enforced servitude. Freedom means being free of such external coercion. But that is not all it means. When a slave is in bondage to a master, he or she is not only forced to work for and supply the needs of the master, he or she must also recognize the master as his Lord and Saviour, he upon whom the preservation of one’s life depends. Further, he or she recognizes the master as his or her superior, and, therefore, himself or herself as his inferior.

This recognition is double-sided. Mastery supposedly defines an ideal. The slave is in bondage to a false idol, another human perceived as superior to oneself. ‘Freedom from’ will mean both freeing oneself from physical bondage, but also freeing oneself from the mental bondage branded into one’s soul so that one is conditioned for a long time to retain a slave mentality, to see oneself as dependent on another for one’s life and to perceive that other as the epitome of life.

That is NOT accomplished by following the guide of Yerachmiel Israel Isaac Danzigerof Alexander (Poland 1853-1910) who in the Yismach Yisrael Haggadah (p. 107a) interpreted the obligation to re-experience one’s freedom from slavery as a process of recognizing one’s “essence,” atzmo, citing Exodus 24:10 – “It was the very essence (etzem) of the heavens for purity.” To quote: “This is an allusion to the inner divine spark found in each of us. A person must strengthen this holy spark no matter how low a state he reaches. In Egypt, we were so deeply mired in impurity that the Prosecutor said ‘both the Israelites and the Egyptians worship idols.” If strengthening the “inner spark” sounds retro as well as new age, it does. I suggest that etzem has nothing to do with an inner spark, and nothing to do with a process of purification, though it certainly has to do with casting off idolatrous propensities.

Exodus 24:10 reads:


י  וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.
10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

The phrase the “like of the very heavens,” the translation of וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם

is interpreted by this commentator in a Platonic way, envisioning transforming and raising up an inner spark into a purified state akin to the heavens, a variation of realization of a pure pre-existing form. However, is we read the biblical text where etzem appears, independence as in Yom Ha’atzmaut, יום העצמאות, the reference is indeed to sameness, but to physical sameness.  Genesis 2:23 reads:

 
כג  וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת. 23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

Etzem of my etzem, bone of my bone, עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי

Genesis 2 follows the six days of the creation story with the seventh day of rest. The earth still did not have humans nor, for that matter, any vegetation or crops. For it had not rained. Then a mist went up from the earth to water the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, breathed into his nostrils, and the man became a living soul, that is, a man of flesh and the breath, the spirit of life. There is no discussion of purity. There is no reference to an inner essence, a divine spark. The imagery is water, earth (flesh) and air and not fire. Then God planted the Garden of Eden and placed man in it to groom the trees and plants.

Three things then happen. God tells man that he is free, free to eat whatever he wants from the garden. With one exception: “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.” Why? Because if you eat of it, you will have knowledge of your certain and inevitable death. Second, God made birds and beasts. And Adam gave them their names – cows and goats. Third, Adam was put to sleep. Why? Because God saw that man needed a help meet. Not man. Adam did not even know he was lonely.  When Man was asleep, woman came into being for Adam. Woman for Adam is a projection of his unconscious. In Adam’s dream, the woman was an extension of himself, made from his own rib. It is then that man pronounces that woman is “now bone of my bone,” etzem of my etzem: עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי

If etzem means independence, but woman is here envisioned as simply a physical extension and projection of man, one might reasonably conclude that these are opposite states. To be merely viewed as a physical extension of another would appear to be the opposite of independence. How does this make any sense? Unless, of course, the tale is read ironically. Though the woman is perceived as an extension of man’s physical self, she in reality is the true expression of his real self. The real self is not a hidden spark within, but a real presence of another outside whose independence and otherness is not initially recognized. Man discovers his own independence by and through discovering the independence of another. Initially that independence is that of a woman.

One answer is that etzem means “essence,” the bone marrow of the matter, roughly, the heart of the matter, “the essential fact of the matter.” However, Exodus 12:51 reads:


נא  וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–עַל-צִבְאֹתָם.  {פ}
51 And it came to pass the selfsame day that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. {P}

The same day, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם

Like bone of my bone, the stress is on sameness, not difference, not autonomy, not independence. This is also true of Leviticus 23:14.


יד  וְלֶחֶם וְקָלִי וְכַרְמֶל לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, עַד-עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–עַד הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-קָרְבַּן אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.  {ס}
14 And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. {S}

The sense is that of identity, as oneness with oneself, oneness with another, and oneness with the experience of escaping oppression. Again, in Leviticus 23:29-30 we once again find etzem translated as sameness.


כח  וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  כִּי יוֹם כִּפֻּרִים, הוּא, לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
28 And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.
כט  כִּי כָל-הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תְעֻנֶּה, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–וְנִכְרְתָה, מֵעַמֶּיהָ. 29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people.

What is going on? How is repetition and sameness equated with independence and freedom? How is a woman projected as simply a physical extension of man connected to independence?

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

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My Promised Land.X.GazaBeach

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

by

Ari Shavit

X         Gaza Beach 1991

 

In this chapter Ari focuses on Gaza in 1991, before the intifada broke out just a few years after I and my oldest son crossed from Egypt into Gaza en route to Israel with a first stop a visit to Jeremy’s old girlfriend when he lived on a kibbutz for a year. They had remained friends and she had married and had a child by this time. She now lived on a kibbutz on the border of Gaza. To our surprise – which perhaps showed our naiveté – not one person we met on that kibbutz had ever visited Gaza.

Our introduction to Gaza was very shocking. When we entered from Egypt we were shunted off to one line for foreigners while Palestinians went into another line. We were treated with what then passed for Israeli civility while we watched Palestinians not simply being questioned but questioned in the most demeaning and humiliating way. I could not tell whether this was because the officer was originally from South Africa but I could not keep my mouth shut and reprimanded the officer for his incivility, which helped the Palestinians not one whit. It is to the credit of the Israelis that I was simply told to mind my own business.

Ari describes the successful systematic and determined use of oppression to put down the intifada, but it is possible that the same oppression could have been a factor in the break out of the intifada. Ari was sent there as part of his miluim service (reserve duty) and decided to report on what he saw rather than refuse to participate. He served as a prison guard for the detainees who were mostly “not terrorists but demonstrators and rock throwers”. many of them teenagers. For Ari, the officers were generally decent men trying to do their job. Our observations had been different. There were many different kinds of officers, some very considerate, kind and fair and others just bullies. Ari actually saw the same – some indifferent, some wishing all Arabs were dead and others considerate and humane.

What made my spine tingle was his listening to the beatings of prisoners in the interrogation room. It reminded me of the screams I used to hear from the Police Station at the corner of Markham   St. one block north of Bloor at London St.. We lived one block away on Palmerston   Ave and we could hear the screams in the late forties when the cops beat up prisoners, a practice which seemed to be standard at the time and comes back every time I watch a film noire movie. Ari is correct. “A person who has heard the screams of another is a transformed person. Whether he does something about it or not, he is transformed.” And all the screams of the past re-echo whether watching just a replica or hearing the real thing when visiting philosopher friends in a Tito jail in former Yugoslavia in Slovenia in the late sixties or listening to Tamils being “questioned” in a military base in Elephant Pass in Sri Lanka in 1982 when I myself was under arrest there by the Sri Lankan army.  

As Ari writes, “The interrogation ward becomes part of routine service, as if this is the way of the world.” (my italics) (233) Ari asks, “Are we the soldiers of evil? Are we agents of cruelty? Are we the heartless gatekeepers of oppression?” (234) Ari seems to answer yes but adds that these soldiers doing their duty are victims too. So he asks how all these non-evil people manage together to produce a result that is evil? For, in Ari’s eyes, Israelis were evil in Gaza. Israelis were evil in denying Palestinians human rights and civil rights and national rights. In doing so, the process corroded the souls of the Israelis forced into that situation. .

The question is, forced by the Israeli government or forced by circumstances? Or by both? Ari gets to the heart of the matter when he writes that, “Only our willingness to use force is what keeps us alive here.” (335) This is the real way of the world. The Palestinians have forced Israelis to be evil by rising up against the Israeli oppression. And Ari ends with a variation of his tragic fix. “we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat.” (236) “The tragedy never ends.” (238)

It does. It always has. And it always will.

If some humans make the laws and agree to be governed by the laws they make and through lawful activity express themselves and their thought, there are others ruled by law not of their making. Those are not subject to the rule of law but the rule of force. Life is organized so that the lives of those who live through and under the law can be preserved. Thereby those individuals have freedom and independence. Those governed by the law who cannot live through it completely lack freedom and independence. But the spirit of a people is preserved and enhanced by its pursuit of the freedom and independence of each of its members. It is only when that spirit can be preserved for both peoples in contention and the independence and freedom of the individuals in each can be enhanced can that spirit be a universal and not just a particular spirit.

Until the movement of forces in contention can become universally acknowledged through a peace between the two peoples, only then will every individual in both societies have freedom. Only then will force not simply be externalized but will be recognized for the coercion that it is by both peoples.. Freedom and living under and through the law will become owned and embraced by the contending peoples and forces. Then the tragedy will become a comedy.

Until then we will experience and observe the way of the world.