The Magic of Names

The Magic of Names

by

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

 

 

God as a Jealous Husband – Numbers 4-7

Parshat Naso: God as a Jealous Husband – Numbers 4-7

by

Howard Adelman

The Torah reading is very long tomorrow morning. It begins with counting the 8,580 clergy that were left out of the previous military census. Then the text shifts to what you do with individuals who are unclean, more specifically with those afflicted with tzara’at. (You wondered about the etymological origins of the Yiddish tsuris! Have I got tsuris! Have I got trouble!) Zarah is to scatter, to disperse as when the Israelites were exiled into the galut. Sārāh means suffering from an affliction as a result of adversity and distress. Zarah will be the result. Sārāh is the symptom of the affliction. When you have “a male discharge,” (a “wet dream”?), then you have both scattered your seed as well as displayed a symptom of an affliction.

But then the text gets into kinds of behaviour that can be regarded as unclean, and where evidence is presented and the alleged guilty offence is proven. This is then followed by a section which is not about proven guilt, but suspected guilt without proof. What actions should a husband take when he suspects his wife of committing adultery. He does not know; he is only suspicious. The woman under the cloud is referred to as a sotah. What immediately follows the section on suspected infidelity is a discourse on the laws governing an ascetic, a nazir, an Israelite who grows his or her hair long, foreswears wine and belongs to a community of ascetics, the precursors of the Catholic monastic orders.

My first question is why this seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of topics – a census of the clergy, a depiction of how you treat persons where liquids are seeping from the body and the body is diagnosed as unclean, procedures and punishments for people found guilty of committing a sin (fines), procedures for dealing with suspicions of infidelity, and then the laws governing ascetics. You have to admit this order of what appears to be unrelated topics, or barely related, seems totally weird. Let’s unpack the topics from the clergy census to the rules governing ascetic orders.

The text seems clear enough, at least on the surface. The conduct of the clergy count seems straightforward. The discussion of the condition of one’s skin (tzara means you are afflicted with a skin disease). Having acne means you are suffering from some kind of tzara’at. Leprosy could be another type except that leprosy is contagious. Tzara’at are not. This is important. For the question is why, if someone is not contagious, he (or she?) should be ostracized, should be banished, not only from going to worship at the tabernacle, but from the camp in the Sinai altogether.

Moses and his sister, Miriam, were both stricken with tzara’at. (Exodus 4) God cures Moses. Moses cures Miriam but still quarantines her for a week. It becomes clear in the relevant texts in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers that the symptom tzara characterized by skin rashes, swellings, loss of pigmentation, are signs that you are unclean. Hence, the association of skin conditions that give off pus with wet dreams. Only a Cohen, a priest, can diagnose the condition, reinforcing the notion that the condition is regarded as a symptom of a body afflicted with spiritual uncleanliness. All the detailed distinctions to define the condition from others are of little relevance, for the section is about the unclean and what you do with people who have the condition.

But what happens when you not only have a symptom of spiritual uncleanliness, but are found guilty of sin? Moses in Numbers chapter 5 is instructed to:
6 Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins against man to act treacherously against God, and that person is [found] guilty,
7 They shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty.

You are fined, with a 20% fee going to the priest. You are not quarantined. You are not ostracized from the community. But look what happens when someone does not give off any symptoms in his or her skin of uncleanliness, is not caught in illicit behaviour and found guilty, but is only an object of suspicion. The text turns to a suspected unclean condition (adultery) where there are no manifestations on the skin. Certainly, or at the very least, it is unlikely that you will be waking up with signs that you had a wet dream. In fact, one might be suspect as an adulterer if your skin was glowing. Clothing, including bedclothes, may also show signs of tzara’at. So can your abode – presumably mold, especially black mold, may be a sign that the house is afflicted. If that is the case, why are gentile homes immune from this affliction? But that is a problem for the Talmud not the Torah. Our problem now is suspected adultery with no evidence to prove guilt.

12 Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him,
13 and a man lie with her carnally, but it was hidden from her husband’s eyes, but she was secluded [with the suspected adulterer] and there was no witness against her, and she was not seized.
14 But a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he became jealous of his wife, and she was defiled, or, a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he was jealous of his wife, and she was not defiled.

Is the problem that the man is afflicted with jealousy or the problem that the woman may or may not have committed a sin?
15 Then the man shall bring his wife to the kohen and bring her offering for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall neither pour oil over it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousies, a meal offering of remembrance, recalling iniquity.
16 The kohen shall bring her forth and present her before the Lord.

So it appears that the issue is getting at the truth of whether or not the wife committed adultery. The issue is not the man’s jealousy, whether warranted or not. The woman has to drink the “bitter waters.”

18 Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen’s hand.
19 The kohen shall then place her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and you have not gone astray to become defiled [to another] in place of your husband, then [you will] be absolved through these bitter waters which cause the curse.
20 But as for you, if you have gone astray [to another] instead of your husband and have become defiled, and another man besides your husband has lain with you…”
21The kohen shall now adjure the woman with the oath of the curse, and the kohen shall say to the woman, “May the Lord make you for a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord causes your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell.
22 For these curse bearing waters shall enter your innards, causing the belly to swell and the thigh to rupture,” and the woman shall say, “Amen, amen.”

If she drinks the bitter herbs and she is guilty of adultery, she will get both a bloated belly and a hip put out of joint. The latter reminds one of the passage from Genesis (32:25), “When the angel saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” This is what happens when neither prevails. In the case of the former, the belly is the heart of the spirit and it will swell out of all proportion as a result of drinking in bitterness.

So the order of the sections now becomes clearer. You start with the depiction of the number of priests. There is then a depiction of one function they have to perform when individuals, their clothes and their home are afflicted with symptoms. Then the fines are described for people whose guilt is proven when they commit sin. But what happens when a husband lacks any of these clues but suspects his wife of adultery? Well the Kohenim perform their voodoo and if the drink tastes bitter to the wife under suspicion, her guilt is established. Alternatively, if she is innocent, her husband’s seed will make her pregnant. And if the husband is wrong in his accusations, nothing happens to the person afflicted with jealousy. Not very appealing to any feminist worth his or her salt.

27 He shall make her drink the water, and it shall be that, if she had been defiled and was unfaithful to her husband, the curse bearing waters shall enter her to become bitter, and her belly will swell, and her thigh will rupture. The woman will be a curse among her people.
28 But if the woman had not become defiled and she is clean, she shall be exempted and bear seed.
29 This is the law of jealousies when a woman goes astray to someone other than her husband and is defiled,
The order is then:
1. The priests.
2. The evident symptoms of uncleanliness in the skin.
3. Punishment for proven acts of sin.
4. Procedures for dealing with the suspected sin of adultery.
5. Recourse to asceticism to avoid the possibilities of sin.

Other than the voodoo part, that all seems to make sense if you think the section is all about the purity of individuals, the way of dealing with sins of the flesh, evident in that flesh, proven and unproven and one preventive response. But what if the story is really a metaphorical tale of the relations between God and humans? It helps make sense of the section of the man who “suspects” infidelity but cannot prove it and there are no symptoms in the flesh After all, the Israelites are depicted as the wife of God. What if the real issue is God’s suspicion that in their hearts the Israelites have been unfaithful but God has no proof? The Israelites are not found to be making and worshipping idols.

Then it makes sense why God – who always confesses he is a jealous God but until the Greek era was not considered omniscient – is never punished for feeling jealous even when the jealousy is unjustified. God has to follow a procedure to test the faith of the Israelites. What are the bitter waters the Israelites are forced to drink? Are the Israelites really guilty of being unfaithful to their God – in which case, they will be destroyed – or is this a matter of a temporary breach between God and his people, between God and his wife who is suspected of jealousy.

Even if the Israelites – or some of them – flirted with worshipping another God, grounds for suspected adultery are present, but no proof. The proof, in fact, will be in the pudding. Will Israelites be able to multiply and flourish or will they remain barren? If the Israelites are flirting with another, then they will taste the bitter waters of exile from the land promised to them. If they are free of adultery even in their thoughts, then the water they drink will taste fresh and they will not have bitterness in their hearts and/or in their treatment. Exile then, the bitterness, is for the religious a depiction of a crisis in the marriage where there is no definitive judgement whether God’s jealousy is warranted. If the people remain faithful to their God in spite of the trials and tribulations of galut, then they will have proven that they have maintained their fidelity to God.

That is why the asceticism follows. One joins a monkish-type order of ascetics, not because you are closer to God, but as an expression of the alienation between a people and its God. It is a retreat, an escape from one’s responsibilities as a wife. It is a retreat from the obligation to flourish and multiply. It is a confession of lack of faith in one’s God and the ability of the people to be reconciled with their God. That is why the tzara’at precede the test of adultery, for you either display symptoms of sinning or you actually sin and pay a fine. But it is a sign of a lapse not of a final divorce. God carries a big stick really only when He does not know and only suspects. Otherwise, in the end, He is relatively mushy.

Like any husband who reconciles with his wife after he has an unjustified fit of jealousy.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Divine is in the Details

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 – 40:38) 

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening at our synagogue, we were treated to a dialogical discussion about specific biblical texts and commentaries – eight were offered and four were actually discussed – between Rabbi Mark Fishman from Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Montreal, an orthodox rabbi, and Rabbi Yael Splansky, our Reform rabbi. They have been having these dialogues once a month in the Canadian Jewish News and Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the paper, chaired yesterday evening’s session. Fishman is a very personable rabbi and feels quite relaxed addressing any Jewish audience. He does not seem to have any trouble or qualms about addressing a Reform congregation. He even went further in an angular response to a congregant who wanted the differences between Orthodox and Reform brought into sharp focus and discussion. As Fishman responded, he was interpreting text as a rabbi, not as a representative of orthodoxy. He presumed that and respected Rabbi Splansky for doing precisely the same thing. I hope I can offer due respect for what they said since I did not take notes and have had to rely on my memory.

One of the texts discussed last night was Genesis 43:29-33 and, more specifically, verse 32 that reads, “They served him separately and the Egyptian who usually ate with him separately.” The verse occurs in the context of the return of his brothers to Egypt for the second time, this time with Benjamin in tow as commanded. The brothers still do not recognize Joseph, the top government official in Egypt.

26 When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground.27 He asked them how they were, and then he said, “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?”

28 They replied, “Your servant our father is still alive and well.” And they bowed down, prostrating themselves before him.

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

31 After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”

32 They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. 33 The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. 34 When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.

What did it mean that Joseph ate alone? Rabbi Splansky suggested that it meant that, although Joseph had reached the heights of success in the Diaspora, without being amongst his own people as well, he was utterly alone. Without explicitly referring to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, she cited a dominant expression from that text – “only connect.”

Rabbi Fishman, if I remember correctly, focused more on the fact that the passage described how Joseph, who usually ate together with the Egyptians, then chose to eat alone. And we are told that, for the Egyptians, eating with the Hebrews was an abomination. The implication was that he was caught betwixt and between, for he could not eat with his brothers or the Egyptians would have been appalled. But if he ate with them, he would have effectively joined the group that Egyptians found it vile to eat with, the Hebrews, and then what would happen to the esteem in which they held him? In that sense, loneliness, just when you are supposed to break bread together, was his only option. One interpretation focused on Joseph’s emotional state while the other focused on the politics of the situation.

I myself had a third interpretation, more in line with Fishman’s, but with a twist. Joseph chose to eat alone because he wanted to send a clue to his brothers that he was not an Egyptian. It was not simply that he was being forced between two unacceptable choices and choosing a third as the least bad of the three options. The choice he made was a positive one consistent with his playing with his brothers prior to revealing himself, as he clearly longed to do as indicated when he went off alone to weep profusely at the sight of his younger brother, Benjamin. The issue was not primarily about incompatible political and moral choices nor about an existential crisis of loneliness, but about playful politics.

Now none of these three positions are incompatible with one another. Unlike the possibilities of Joseph eating with his brothers, eating with the Egyptians or eating alone, which are mutually exclusive choices, the above three interpretations are all possibly true at one and the same time, but the emphasis shifts from existential angst, to moral politics to manipulative politics.

A second passage for discussion was offered by Rabbi Fishman, the famous passage in which Adam and Eve had just eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God goes looking for Adam who has gone into hiding. When God come across him, Adam explains that he hid because he was naked and afraid. The passage given to us followed: “And He [God] said, ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.’”

In Fishman’s interpretation, God was testing Adam and Adam failed the test. Instead of accepting responsibility for what he had done, he blamed what he had done on Eve and, indirectly on God Himself for it was God’s idea to give Eve to him as a helpmeet. I tried to remember whether Rabbi Splansky had a different take on this, but I could not recall. I do recall one person in the audience raising the question of the counterfactual – what if Adam had passed the test and owned up to what he had done? Fishman offered an interesting answer. There were two possibilities. In one, Adam and Eve in the company of God could have returned to enjoy the pleasures of paradise. But he suggested that this was unlikely, because God wanted them to leave the garden.

I confess that I found the discussion disappointing. For this is one of the most iconic and important portions of Torah text and is about something even more fundamental than the message about accepting responsibility and not projecting blame onto another, though it is surely about that. What was the original command? Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for if you do you will surely die. Note the following:

  • Neither Adam nor Eve dies, though they certainly now know they are mortal; just because he was made in the image of God, Adam has now come to recognize that he cannot be God whose essential character was that He was disembodied and could not die
  • The command was not a categorical moral commandment but a conditional one – If you do x, y will follow.
  • As Fishman said, the other tree was the Tree of Life; why was there a fear that Adam and Eve could have eaten of it and achieved immortality? Why did they not eat of that tree?
  • Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil meant Adam and Eve had sex and sex introduced both to a radically different kind of knowledge than knowing and naming objects; it was about coming to know another person and, in the process, thereby coming to know oneself, seeing oneself in a mirror as it were and seeing oneself as embodied.

The issue was not that Adam felt ashamed because he had no clothes on, but that he now clearly and unequivocally saw himself as embodied and thereby knew that eating of the Tree of Life was a fantasy. In effect, psychologically and intellectually, he was no longer in the garden of innocence and now had to go on the voyage of discovery of learning what it meant to be an embodied creature, what it meant to make moral choices, what it meant to now really experience the knowledge of what was good and evil. If the first lesson of that voyage of discovery was accepting one’s embodied and non-divine form, the second lesson had to entail assuming responsibility for your actions and not displacing them onto another.

My dissatisfaction was not with the lesson Fishman took out of the passage, but how the form of the discussion had impoverished the potential metaphysical richness beyond it. The divine and the devil are both in the details.

Fishman had offered another passage, Genesis 37:21. “And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his [Joseph’s] life.’” According to Fishman, this is the only time that the Torah tells a clear lie. For the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit to be left to die. Travelers came by, heard his cries, rescued him and took him off to Egypt. Reuben, having felt guilty, went back to save Joseph’s life and sell him into slavery. But Joseph was no longer in the pit. So he retroactively made up a story and rewrote history in terms of his intentions and not in terms of what actually took place.

What unites all three passages is that they are each about accepting responsibility – the first being about Joseph accepting responsibility, not only for the well-being of his brothers, but for himself as a Hebrew with responsibilities for and to his people.

Before I turn to this week’s parsha. I want to discuss the fourth passage of commentary discussed last evening from Genesis Rabbah about a man traveling from place to place who saw a palace aglow/in flames (birah doleket). Did the passage mean that the travelers were appalled that the palace was on fire and the world that is God’s glory was on the verge of extinction, or is it a vision of fireworks, of a celebration of the palace that is God’s world in all its glory? These are two very opposed meanings, but again, they are both possible.

Perhaps trivializing the passage too much, it is seeing the glass half full  –  the fireworks from the palace of God celebrating the glories of this world – or, on the other hand, the glass half empty as we contemplate radical climate change because of human hands and the potential destruction of the world as we know it.

What has all this to do with this week’s parsha? First of all, it is about my own dissatisfaction with the discussion that skipped from one item to another without probing anyone of them in much greater depth. That is probably just my problem. But it is definitely related to this week’s text which is about details and depth.

We all know the expression that the devil is in the details. It has a mirror expression. In Gustave Flaubert’s words, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” (The good God is in the detail.) Is it God or the devil in the detail – or is it details? Surely, it cannot be both. But why not? Don’t the two versions express the same thing, just as the term “detail” can both be a singular and a plural? The divine is in the detail because attention to particulars is critical to the success of any project. If one is to do something right, it has to be done thoroughly with meticulous attention to every detail. For if not, the devil is in the details. Miss out on one crucial item and, instead of the construction of a building of exquisite beauty and engineering, we get a balagan.

Do the divine and the devil both being in the detail point out two sides of the same homily? – if you want something exquisite, pay attention to the detail. If you do not, one detail left out can cause devilish destruction. Aspiration and caution are two sides of the same message. Attending to every small item is critical in accomplishing an important task. Of course, the same expression is cited when offered as an excuse for a delay. ‘It took longer than I thought because I had to pay so much attention to each step of the way.’

But the uses of the expression and the expression itself may be varied, but the meaning is constant. Attention to detail matters. So in this week’s portion we now have the accountant’s summary to add to the architectural and design detail of the mikshan. For accountability means not only taking responsibility for one’s action, but entails transparency and auditing of what took place. The world needs accountants as well as architects, engineers, and set designers. Further, after the architects, after the accountants, then the political leaders have to follow the exact details of their divine instructions. Only then, the Book of Exodus ends with the following:

When Moses had finished the work, 34 the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 36 When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. 38 For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

We return to the depiction of the divine as a cloud where the divine presence so fills the mishkan that there is no room for Moses. But when the cloud lifted, once again the Israelites could continue their journey, a journey that must have continued at night led by a torch for “a cloud of the Lord rested (on the mishkan) by day.” If there is anything where it is virtually impossible to grasp details, it is in a cloud or in fire. So we are faced with a paradox – a section of the Torah that has been all about details of architectural detail and the refined design of the artefacts, about construction details and detailed rules about usage, we are back to an old theme, God as a cloud by day and a fire by night, of resting by day and moving by night.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the details of Jewish ritual, particularly on shabat when we are commanded to rest, to be near the Tabernacle – not in it – when it is filled with the cloud of divine presence. Each of us, as Heschel said, is called to accept responsibility for being the architect of sacred time while the divine fills up sacred space. So when the detailed work was done, when the accounting was all completed, when the instructions on use were followed in all their detail, God as a cloud gets to occupy the space and there is not even room for Moses, the leader of the people. How can that be? How is it that the community is brought together as one nation, not in a space shared with God, with God’s presence being felt and experienced, but when the divine cloud takes up all of sacred space and the Israelites are left to cope with sacred time?

Often we are told that Judaism encourages communal more than individual worship, such as when we recite the kaddish. But I would attend to the other aspect of this depiction of the divine in the midst of His people, a depiction of the people outside the Tabernacle when it is filled with the cloud of the divine presence – the message of exclusion rather than inclusion, the vision of Joseph sitting and eating by himself while his brothers eat at another table, and his Egyptian friends and companions eat at a third.

God in the Torah is a God of frozen ice and fiery lightning that reigns down on the Egyptians. (Exodus 9:23-24). When the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21-22) Once the mishkan is constructed, the pillar of cloud no longer leads the Israelites, but fills the Tabernacle so that the Israelites cannot move forward. In my interpretation, they must probe through the haze and confusion and figure out their next step and who they want to become. They must decide who should be the next president of the United States. That, only they can do, not God.

Of the items included in the mishkan, including rare gems and fine linens, the most important may be the mirrors of copper, at once artefacts of vanity and narcissism of self-obsession, of self-confidence and self-consciousness – among birds, only magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. As Rabbi Fishman told us last night, when we read the Torah, we are holding a mirror up to our own souls. For the Torah is not just a text about history but a sacred text about who we are now and where we should be going, about our taking responsibility for oneself, but doing so in communion with others, about seeking and following a pillar of fire. As palace of sparkling fireworks with the glorious future beckoning and a palace on fire in which we face an apocalypse, about reconciling our best of intentions with our actual behaviour as we go forth from our land in search of a better world.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Populism and Leadership: VAYAK’HEIL, EXODUS 35:1–38:20

by

Howard Adelman

How many times has it been pointed out to you in a discussion criticizing Orthodox Judaism or how many times have you yourself stated how absurd it is that you can put on your shoes and socks and tie your laces on shabat, but you cannot light a match or flick a switch that will turn on the lights? Yet it is the primary example of how shabat must be observed. Exodus 35:3 reads: “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.” Why is not the first instruction about keeping shabat not about picking up an axe and hewing wood or pulling a plough? The verse immediately prior to the instruction not to kindle a fire, is the commandment to keep shabat.

35:2 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.

Flick a switch and you’re dead. Pretty heavy! Then the next three chapters, verse after verse, are all about work, sacred work, the work of two great craftsmen in making everything that goes into the mishkan. Does it not seem odd that a parsha that begins about the sacredness of shabat and how lighting a fire is the worst desecration of the shabat should then be followed by sixty or so verses about crafting all the items in the mishkan?

But the parsha does not begin with the commandment about keeping shabat. It begins with the following:

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.”

There had just been a populist rebellion led by Moses’ older brother, Aaron, a High Priest. Three thousand are killed. The rebellion is repressed. And then what happens? A reign of terror? Tyranny and repression? Not at all. All the congregation of Israel is called together, the 597,000 survivors of the rebellion, in an assembly and they are commanded to keep shabat and not light a fire. They are then asked to contribute materials and help the lead craftsmen to make all the accoutrements for the mishkan. They are commanded to keep shabat. They are commanded not to light a match or flick on a switch, but they are asked to contribute the precious materials and linen and jewels to enrich the mishkan.

Does not this echo what took place in the previous portion when Aaron solicited gold and precious metals to make the golden calf? What is the difference?

  1. And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the LORD’S offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all the service thereof, and for the holy garment.
  1. And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold unto the LORD.
  1. The children of Israel brought a freewill-offering unto the LORD; every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the LORD had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made.

Your heart had to be stirred. You had to be “willing-hearted.” The gifts were “freewill-offerings.” Moses did not stir the passions of the people. Moses did not appeal to their resentments and discontent. The instruction not to light a fire is an instruction not to stir the passions of the people, not to bring the fire of anger to the temple, not to construct a community based on fear and anger. Bezalel was filled with the spirit of God, “in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 35:31) The model for the polity was not the demagogue as leader, but the craftsmen, dedicated to applying his skill and knowledge to making the world a better place, not to “making a deal.”

Wisdom of the heart not the passions of the gut. Making the polity requires wisdom, requires understanding, requires knowledge, requires skill. This is the lesson of shabat. Bracket your passions and your furies. Make the final day of the week a beacon for the week so that the light of that day can illuminate and inspire the work for the week that follows. Be wise-hearted not dumb-heated.

“[P]ut wisdom and understanding to know how to work all the work for the service of the sanctuary,” for the service of the whole community. (Exodus 36:1)

A populist leader – whether a Mussolini, a Hitler, a Franco or a Perón – says I am “il Duce.” I am your leader. Moses is learning to be a leader, not by saying I will it and therefore it shall be, for it is obvious that he was ill-equipped to be a leader in oratorical skills that can be used to arouse the passions. “They’ll waterboard them because I tell them to do it.” That’s what a demagogic leader says. That’s not how a wise leader leads. That is how a demagogue performs. A dictator is not bound by the law. A dictator is contemptuous of the law and only reveres authority and obedience. A demagogue is not respectful of knowledge and the wisdom that comes through understanding and empathy with others. A demagogue appeals to insecurities and fears. A demagogue does not respect the detailed workmanship of a dedicated craftsman and artist but instead loves the flash of the golden calf. A demagogue is careless, even disrespectful of truth, for verity does not interest him or her. A demagogue stirs up violence and uses it to exercise control for his own purposes. A demagogue feeds on abuse not on reverence.

Moses was a very handicapped leader who had to grow into his job. He himself was full of wrath which he let out in his youthful resentment by killing one of the Egyptian overlords. In his maturity, and in the face of demagoguery, he failed again. He broke the tablets of the law. He ordered the death of three thousand of his own countrymen. But he was never a narcissist who worshipped himself. Beware, not so much the worshipper of the golden calf but the leader who sees himself as a golden calf, the leader who says, my way or the highway. Moses was modest. He lacked any sense of his own importance let alone an exaggerated sense. Nothing proper was done in his name, all for the sake of a disembodied spirit who served and saved the people.

Moses was dedicated to having as many people as possible contribute to a sanctuary that was not grandiose but was grandiloquent, that spoke and reflected a respect for detail and craftsmanship, a respect for skill and work. Moses recognized his limits and lack of skills and never tried to represent himself as having a record of spectacular achievements when any examination of his historical record would show the incongruity between any grandiose claims and his own personal results. A demagogue covers up such discrepancies or dismisses them as irrelevant. A true leader knows himself or herself, recognizes shortcomings and asks others, not to do his bidding, but to participate in an enterprise of communal creativity.

Was Moses preoccupied with an obsession to be known as a strong leader or was he preoccupied with his own inadequacies and those of his people who so easily surrendered to one who skilled in self-advertisement and his own fantasies about his own supposed brilliance and the beauty of his own hands that have never been used to make an artefact or a piece of art. Moses welcomed the criticism of his father-in-law. A demagogue rejects any criticism and evades comments on his shortcomings by insult and bullying and belittling any challengers. A demagogue projects onto others worship of himself and a willingness to get on their knees and ask his favour. A demagogue is arrogant and haughty. Moses, though raised in a royal household, went forth and became a shepherd. His compassion for others was his strength. His easily stirred ire was his great weakness. Moses was never patronizing but always appreciative of skills and talents he himself did not possess.

There is no self-content in Moses, but a discontent with his own shortcomings and those of others. He loses control when under pressure and is decidedly not cool. He was not ambitious for himself and became resigned to never getting himself personally to the promised land instead of being determined to do so no matter what the cost. His centre of attention is the mishkan, not himself. Most of all, he lacked colour. He is the very opposite of Joseph with his multi-coloured coat.

So the next time you flick on a switch or light a match on shabat, think about what it is really about. Observing shabat entails reverence for a peaceable kingdom, respect for skill and craft, for knowledge and wisdom, for the warm-hearted and not the hard-hearted, for an absolute rejection of the politics of rage. Don’t light the match that can set the world on fire.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron

Ki Tissa Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron

by

Howard Adelman

There is a lot that goes on in this portion of the Torah, more than most. First, there is the issue of the census and its evident purpose, levying a tax on each Israelite over twenty years of age – no discount for those over 65 (a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel, the confirmation of weight to be done by the priest). Is the money necessary for the upkeep of the portable sanctuary? Evidently not! The payment is called a ransom; its rationale is that it is paid so that “no plague may come upon them.” Instead of being based on a graduated tax based on ability to pay, rich and poor pay the same levy “as expiation for your persons.”

Then there is the continuation of the instructions for the mishkan, but no longer about the detailed structural and interior design. Verses 11-34 of chapter 31 are all about how to craft the utensils, the formulas for the anointing oil and incense to be used in this portable sanctuary and how they are all to be used. And, God forbid, if the high priests do not follow the directions precisely, they will surely die. These are not just rules for when the Israelites are in the desert, but for all time. These are eternal edicts to consecrate the priests. Do not try to replicate these formulas for daily use or even just to smell the incense. The punishment is dire. You shall be ostracized, “cut off from his kin.” God even names the craftsmen to be employed in carrying out the instructions. Talk about micro-management! Frankly, it all smells of the behaviour of a pharaoh from whom the Israelites had just fled.

Except the Israelites are then instructed to keep (v’shamru so familiar in a synagogue service) shabat as a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites and as a way of remembering that the Israelites are a consecrated people chosen by God. It is a day of complete rest after working hard for six days, but, God forbid, you do any work, like fix up your recreation room. You “shall be put to death.” Only after receiving all these instructions is Moses given the stone tablets inscribed by the “finger of God.” Of course, that can only be a metaphor, for God does not have a body.

Or have we been sold a bill of goods?

Then the story gets really exciting. Moses has been away for a seemingly long period, perhaps a month. The Israelites get restless. There is a populist revolt. And the people get the High Priest, Aaron, to lead the revolt and make them an idol, a golden calf. Why would he consent to do that? Because the will of the people was too powerful and he wanted to stall until Moses returned? Because he was afraid the mob would put him to death if he did not go along with their wishes? Or because they wanted a physical reminder of their absent leader, Moses, and he was willing to oblige?

The latter seems implausible since the people explicitly asked Aaron to make them a god. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! If Aaron was afraid, there is no sign of fear. There is only the sense of an eager participant. And hardly a stall artist! He could have taken an enormous amount of time to gather the gold and the silver, to melt it down, to find just the right craftsman to make the make the mold and forge the golden calf. Nothing of the sort happened.

All these and other rationales for Aaron’s behaviour seem to be just apologetics. Someone who just tries to smell incense made according to the formula for the sanctuary is to be killed. But the leader of the rebellion who does what is considered the most horrific act of all, making an idol to be worshiped instead of God, gets off scot-free. Unjust is not the word for it! For the man who collects the precious metals, for the man who actually casts the mold and makes the golden calf, for the man who exclaims to the people concerning the golden calf, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” For the man, for the very person who is a High Priest, to then organize a hedonistic revelry for the occasion!

No thunder from on high. Just instructions to Moses to get back in a hurry to quell the rebellion against the emerging Hebrew religion. Moses, fearing God’s revenge, implores God not to wipe out the very people he consecrated. God relents. There will be no punishment for the people. But what about Aaron, Moses’ older brother, the High Priest who led the rebellion? How does Moses feel about being betrayed by his own brother?

As Moses is returning Joshua warns him about the rebellion and the revelry. Moses is in denial.

“It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song that I hear!”

But Moses could not deny what was before his eyes when he returned. He lost it. He blew his cool. He confronted Aaron. What did Aaron say? It wasn’t me. The people made me do it. It is they who are evil. I did not mold the calf. It just emerged out of the fire. It is one thing to lead a rebellion. It is another to deny any responsibility. It is even worse to be such a craven coward with such a flimsy and preposterous recap. Does Moses punish his brother? He called forth the Levites, his praetorian guard, and, seemingly randomly, they slew about 3,000 of the 600,000 Israelites. Thus was the rebellion put down.

The same Moses who talked God out of revenge and punishment gave vent to his own wrath. Did he assume any responsibility for something he might have instigated by his absence and failure to leave behind a reliable second-in-command? Did he even hold his brother responsible? He did blame Aaron for letting the people get “out of control,” but even excused that by saying the people were a “menace,” thereby giving credence to the explanation that Aaron only went along because he was afraid for his life.

The behaviour of both Moses and Aaron is appalling. It is elitism of the worst sort. Most biblical exegesis offers apologetics rather than plausible interpretations and explanations, compounding the problem. Does Moses ever hold his brother responsible? The people are guilty of a great sin for making a golden statue, not because it was a piece of folk art, but because it was an idol of worship substituting for God.  And God says, after Moses’ intervention on behalf of his sinning people, I will only cut those out from my favour who were actually guilty. No collective punishment. Nor even any arbitrary punishment as Moses had meted out. God just sent a plague which presumably killed only the guilty ones. I am tempted to be sarcastic – they were killed because they would not be paying taxes any more since the taxes already paid never saved them from the plague as promised when they paid the tax. But Aaron was not killed! God also reneges on his promise to live amidst the people. Why? Because He could get so angry at their stubborn willfulness that He might slay them. God nevertheless is persuaded to agree once again to lead them to the Promised Land. What is Moses’ punishment for letting all this happen? Moses will no longer be able to see God’s face. Only his backside.

I will not go on with rest of the section that recounts how Moses carved two substitute tablets as replicas to the ones he broke in his rage. For my theme is: understanding what is said about leadership. I begin with God.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (34: 6-7)

God boasts. I’m a good guy. I keep my word. I am patient and kind, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” But not all! When I do not forgive, the punishment will extend to the third and even fourth generation. No more collective punishment in space. Only in time. For God is a temporal not a spatial God. He sets His imprint in history, not having pyramids built in his honour like the sun god. He will remain a hidden God present only in Spirit as He withdraws from the presence of the Israelites. Not to move back to the top of a mountain, but to place Himself in the vanguard of history. Humans will only be able to see God as history unfolds. Prediction will not be part of their ken. God will become a God of deeds rather than words. In return, no miscegenation. No paying respects to local customs. Smash all the religious places and figures of the local inhabitants and engage in ethnic cleansing. God would qualify to be a leader of ISIS.

Moses, quick to anger and slow to forgive, lacking any deep sense of compassion, though pleading for his people, for without them he would have no role and no mission. If any grace is to be found, it will not be located in Moses. The only one to whom he shows kindness and forgiveness is his brother.

Aaron comes off the worst. He refuses to take responsibility. He is a person of great privilege, but one who opportunistically deserts the establishment to lead the common people, those laden with insecurity and fear, resenting the privileges of the ersatz royalty. Just as Moses deserted the Pharaoh to return to the people, so does Aaron. But Aaron does so as a coward. And then he deserts the people he once led and blames them exclusively for what happened. No wonder Moses kicked him upstairs and took away his role as a military leader. Think of what would have happened in the attempted coup if Aaron had continued to have a command and control role over the military.

I speculate that Aaron resented his “promotion,” resented from being removed from a role with real power to one that was only ceremonial. When one of the elite deserts the establishment to effectively lead a populist revolt, not only against Moses, but against God, to risk his status and the riches associated with it, suggests very strongly that Aaron in the very depths of his being resented his younger brother who was far less accomplished than he was but was given the real leadership of the people.

We have an example of the irrationality of a populist rebellion led by a member of the establishment, but one saved by that same establishment lest the very sanctity of their positions be undermined. Fortunately for the Israelites there was another leader lurking in the wings, the man who alerted Moses in advance of his return of the rebellion underway, a man who stayed inside when Moses toured the camp to receive the acclaim he felt he was due from everyone else who came outside their tents.

“Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent.”

Divisible and Indivisible Political and Military Leadership

Corporeality VII: Divisible and Indivisible Political and Military Leadership

by

Howard Adelman

I begin with a summary of the political theory implicit in the Exodus story that I have related before, but this time from a slightly different angle. Joshua was the commander of the armed forces, the military commander. But he was not the Commander-in-Chief. Neither was Moses. The Commander-in-Chief was Aaron, the High Priest, who was responsible for upholding the fundamental laws of the nation and, therefore, ensuring that the use of force was in conformity with those laws. Ancient Israel, even before it became a state, was not a democracy; the responsibilities of legislating had not yet been assigned to a separate body. Israel as a nation of princes was an aspiration and not then a reality. A fourth function, interpreting and applying the laws, was assigned to a judiciary following the advice to Moses by the Midianite, Jethro.

The division of responsibilities can be represented as follows:

                                                Moses – political leader                                                                                                                          !       – responsible for receiving the law
Aaron —————————————————————Joshua
 responsible for upholding the constitution                                                                 military commander
commander-in-chief

!

Judiciary – responsible for applying and interpreting the law

However, when it came to the use of force outside the boundaries of the constitution, when it came to fighting an unjust war targeting civilians – whether this meant slaying the children of enemies or using force to ethnically cleanse the land of one’s determined foes – this was the responsibility of God. Joshua was only responsible for leading the Israelites into battle within the confines of just war principles.

But a major competing theory emerged rooted in the Latin classics. One of the great adventures of being an undergraduate at university is the opportunity to read the classics and, most of all, reading a book just published that would become a classic itself. In 1957, Ernst H. Kantorowicz published The King’s Two Bodies which he had written as a fellow of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies. In my recollection, I did not read the volume until 1960 or 1961. What an exciting read and a great moment of revelation! The following is a very compressed version omitting any semblance of relaying the diachronic development of the idea.

Mediaeval political thought differed from Hebraic classical political thought by putting forth the doctrine of consolidated military power and political and moral authority. It did so, not by a division of powers, but a consolidation of powers in one being who had an eternal non-corporeal power and a corporeal exercise of that power. In this mediaeval political theology, the king has a natural body that weeps and laughs, feels pain and demonstrates courage, and eventually suffers and dies. He also has a spiritual body inherited from the doctrine of the dual manifestation of Christ developed in the thirteenth century in which there was both an individual body (corpus personale) and the collective body (corpus mysticum) of Christ identified as Christ’s mystical half embodied in the church. “The new term corpus mysticum placed the Church as a body politic, or as a political and legal organism, on a level with the secular bodies politic which were then beginning to assert themselves as self-sufficient entities.”

The king, as a derivative of this conception, was also said to have a spiritual body which served as the symbol of the royal office and the right to rule versus the actual implementation of that rule which could be flawed. The king’s mystical body along with the divine right to rule endowed the king with a unique character: the king could do no wrong. Further, his successor was ordained to take over when he died. “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

The king was, at one and the same time, a corporeal mortal being and an embodiment of the spirit of the nation. In the latter sense, the king is sovereign and the expression of the body politic. In the above terms, the king was Moses and Aaron, Joshua and the judiciary rolled into a single person who had two complementary sides, a physical, imperfect and mortal self (a natural body), and a spiritual body that expressed the spirit of a nation. The latter was the body politic that could be neither seen nor heard, but through the office of the king could express its will and give direction to the polity, devise policy, manage the public weal and lead the polity into battle. The Church subsequently included the clerical bureaucracy itself as the “mystical body of Christ” and, in return, the Western polity became known as the Holy Roman Empire. The latter was the consecrated host; the former became “the corpractpus mysticum the head of which was Christ and whose limbs were the archbishops, bishops, etc.” Eventually as the notion of the nation re-emerged from its Hebraic roots with the Protestant Reformation, the populace, the people, the nation inherited the weakened remains of the corpus mysticum previously literally embodied in just the general body politic, the res publica. Citizens were now willing to die for the nation.

I do not have either the time or space to depict how the notion of indulgences developed in parallel as different expressions of that sense of sacrifice from the eighth to the fifteenth century, for I simply want to concentrate on two radically different notions of governance. Suffice to say that by the fifteenth century, the widespread business of printing indulgences had evolved from the twelfth century Indulgence of the Cross and was known by 1454 as the Gutenberg Indulgence (GI). After all, Gutenberg was not only an inventor of the printing press, but a very clever entrepreneur who knew how to make his own fortune off the lucrative “tax” practices of the Church. (He was not the first entrepreneur to make millions from the largesse of community coffers – Donald Trump’s father.) The GI was a piece of boilerplate that testified that the confessor was in a state of grace and would escape purgatory. Hence, the emergence of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as the GI evolved in a new form, the publication of broadsheets. As greater and greater numbers of ordinary citizens could read, they became totally revolted at the corruption at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

The United States of America emerged as a body politic on the cusp of the transition from the indivisible corporatist notion to the divisible notion of the body and, on the surface, represented the rejection of the indivisibility doctrine. Hence the conception of the division of powers! On the other hand, the United States emerged as a democratic monarchy, as a political state which elected its king who, in his persona represented the indivisibility of both the body politic and the leader who must represent the spirit of the people and defend that spirit from enemies both within and outside the body politic who would undermine and divide the nation.

What happens if the indivisible head of state charged with maintaining and enhancing the indivisibility of the body politic believes that his protection function is so important that it usurps any doctrine of civilian control? Think of General MacArthur versus President Harry Truman where the Commander challenges the Commander-in-Chief in the name of protecting the nation and its interests from its most formidable enemies. Military mutiny is one thing. Military dictatorship is another. For what if the Commander-in-Chief himself believes that it is his primary responsibility to protect the body politic from enemies within and without and requires the CIC to stretch his/her powers.  By locating the role of Commander-in-Chief and political leader in the one person, the U.S. was open to the development of a military dictatorship.

The founders were well aware of this danger and tried to imitate the monarchy of Britain as developed to that time by offsetting the role of the monarch as both the embodiment of the nation’s will, with the responsibilities of Commander-in-Chief, with offsetting powers assigned to the legislature, in the American case, Congress. Hence, the division of powers! The history of the United States of America could be written as a tale of these two conceptions, the indivisible powers of the leader offset by conception of divisible powers among different institutions. This is particularly true when the issue is not the obvious one of military dictatorship, of the Commander-in-Chief seizing all powers into his own office, but when the Commander-in-Chief is prone to adventurism, prone to offsetting his/her political restrictions in one area to another in which the controls on his initiatives are most ambiguous and most difficult to assess whether they are necessary for the defence of the state.

The constitutional vesting of the commander in chief power aims to establish a politico-military culture in which military coups become unthinkable, as they have been for the United States. But once the offices of civilian head of government and military commander in chief are fused (what I have called “fused dominion”), a complementary danger to military coups arises, namely that the leader will himself use the military to seize or abuse power or, just as importantly, launch military adventures. As I hope to show, the constitutional framers were acutely aware of these dangers, and in response they created a strongly separationist constitutional conception of the commander in chief. Justice Jackson got it right when he wrote in his famous Youngstown concurrence, ‘The purpose of lodging dual titles in one man was to insure that the civilian would control the military, not to enable the military to subordinate the presidential office.’ In brief, the basic theory behind civilian control of the military is to use a civilian commander in chief to check the military, and then set up civilian powers to check the commander in chief. Constraining military and constraining the civilian commander are two distinct problems, strophe and antistrophe, and together their solutions generate the political theory of the commander in chief authority. David Laban (2008) “On the Commander in Chief Power,” Southern California Law Review 81, 477-571.  scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1597&context=facpub

 

Tomorrow: Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency

The Structure of the State: Parshat Yitro/Jethro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The Structure of the State: Parshat Yitro/Jethro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

by

Howard Adelman

Last week I wrote about political leadership from the perspective of the Torah. This week my subject is the distribution of the various powers of the state dedicated to protecting and serving a nation beginning with the role of foreign affairs and international diplomacy. How should political leaders deal with political leaders from other states? For Jethro is not only Moses’ father-in-law; he is also the high priest of the Midianites. How does a foreign religious leader also emerge as a confidant and critical advisor of Moses in the design of the polity for the Israelites? How and why did a foreign personality presume to do so? Was it simply because he was “family,” that he was mishpacha?

This week’s parsha is not only about Jethro. That is the subject of chapter 18. But chapter 19 is about the Israelites camping in front of Mount Sinai and their encounter with God. Chapter 20 is about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and Moses’ role to serve as an intermediary between the people and God and, therefore, the defender of the constitution, the basic covenant for a nation. What do these events that follow and historically rival the escape from Egypt have to do with Jethro coming to Sinai with Moses’ wife and two children to meet with Moses and subsequently offer his political advice?

As stated above, Jethro was a Midianite priest. He may also have been a Prince of the Midianites, for he is called a Midian leader in some translations, but given the difficulties and indignities his daughters suffered at the hands of other shepherds at the well where Moses met his future wife, I very much doubt it. But prince or priest, whether he combined the office of political leader as well as religious leader is not the issue for me, for it is his religious leadership that is important.

Recall what Aaron’s role was as High Priest when there was no temple. Aaron’s initial job was to be the intermediary between God and Pharaoh. When Moses demurred from accepting his divine assignment to represent the Israelites in the negotiations with Pharaoh to free the Israelites from Egypt, Aaron was appointed as God’s spokesman. Aaron was made Secretary of State. Aaron had the job of being a light unto the nation with the most symbolic job assigned to a High Priest, lighting the candles on the menorah so that Israel could be the light to other nations, whether in dealing with enemies in pursuit or nations the Israelites would face in front of them. If Moses was the political leader of the Israelites, Aaron, his older brother by three years, was appointed as foreign minister, or, as designated in the United States of America, Secretary of State. It was Aaron who had the job of guiding the ship of state in foreign waters (and in foreign lands). Thus, when we encounter Jethro here and he is called a Midianite priest, we recognize his role as the nation’s chief diplomat.

We know that Moses worked for his father-in-law after he married Zipporah for almost a decade and during that time presented him with two grandsons, Gershom (stranger) and Eliezer (God’s helper). Their names are ironic because it is Jethro who will come as a stranger to the Israelites at Sinai and will serve as God’s helper by being Moses’ helper, not simply, as it is said, because he gave Moses a refuge from the sword of Pharaoh, but in allowing Moses to emerge subsequently as a person worthy of being the intermediary between God and the people of Israel.

When Jethro as a courtesy sent a message that he was arriving at the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife and two sons, Moses himself, not just Aaron, went out of the camp to greet him, bowed down to him in respect and kissed him. The first lesson in statesmanship is that when a foreign minister visits, it is the political head of state who should greet him. Further, not just the leader, but the ambassador from another nation must be welcomed, not as a supplicant, but as one worthy of both love and respect.

Jethro and Moses then returned to Moses’ tent where Moses told his father-in-law everything that had taken place since he left the land of the Midianites on the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba. He did not tell the story of what he did, but of what God did to Pharaoh as the enemy and how God subsequently saved the Israelites from the hardships they encountered in the desert. In other words, Moses did not raise himself up through what happened, but offered Jethro a detached portrait of the political landscape for which God (or history) was responsible. Jethro responded by summarizing the tale and concluding, “I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.”

Arrogance has been considered one of the seven of the worst character defects. Egyptian pharaohs were the epitome of arrogance for they considered themselves to be above other mortals, to be embodied gods. Arrogance is a denial of personal vulnerability. The corollary of raising oneself on a pedestal entails treating others as only worthy of contempt. Pharaoh was overbearing and overestimated his power to an undue degree. Jethro contends that the real and most basic reason God treated Pharaoh so badly was that he was a conceited, self-important prig with a false sense of his own enormous grandiosity.

Contrast those characteristics with those belonging to Moses or Jethro, but our focus here must be on Jethro. First of all, instead of parading his own idolatrous gods as greater than the Israelite god and engaging in a macho contest, Jethro praised YHWH as “greater than all the gods.” He behaved in precisely the opposite way than Pharaoh. In doing so, Jethro did not renounce his idolatrous religion; he merely recognized the God of Israel as the greatest among the gods. Jethro was not a believer in monotheism. Nor is there any suggestion he had himself circumcised and converted to Judaism as suggested by some interpreters.

[Some Talmudists claim that when the text says wa-yihad Yitro (Exodus 18.9), translated as “Jethro rejoiced,” this meant that Jethro self-circumcised, that he felt a stinging in his flesh and when you exchange the ח with a ה to be wa-yihad, then the meaning is that Jethro became a Jew. I think this is farfetched and does not at all fit in with the thrust as well as the details of the story.]

Note also that Jethro paid no attention to the part of the story when God saved the Israelites in the desert and provided water and manna. It was not God as a material provider that interested him. He came as a foreign minister, not as an economic minister focused on material things. His concern was authority and power and how it was to be exercised. Jethro said that God was greater than all the other gods because he protected His people and punished those who would treat them “arrogantly.” That is the function of statesmanship. Jethro then made a sacrifice, brought a burnt offering and joined Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel in a festive meal. What Jethro did was also a diplomatic reproach to Moses and Aaron, as well as the 600,000 Israelites because, until Jethro arrived and performed his sacrifice, none of the Israelites had deemed recognizing the power of the Other as important.

The next day Jethro observed Moses acting as a judge and welfare officer when his people came to him with requests and the need to resolve disputes. That part of the story reminded me when I was first introduced to Yasser Arafat in Gaza. (He had not yet moved to Ramallah.) It was 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., which I thought was quite late for a political meeting. We were ushered into a very large room with chairs all around the sides. I was totally shocked to see about half the chairs filled. My memory may be exaggerating, but I thought there were twenty-five people waiting. We were told they were waiting to see Arafat. We were then ushered into an anteroom. There were four people waiting there. We were taken past them right into Arafat’s office.

The office was plain and unadorned. We were introduced, but the meeting was perfunctory – evidently just a matter of form. When we left, I asked the person who was our intermediary what all those people were doing so late in the evening waiting to see Arafat. He informed us that it is the same every evening and seven days a week. People go to Arafat to complain about a neighbour’s dog barking (that literally was one of his examples), to ask for funds to bury a relative or help a child get medical help. Arafat dispenses money, rulings and advice sometimes until three in the morning. That is what Jethro saw Moses doing.

13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will.16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.

27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.

If the function of a foreign minister or secretary of state is to represent his nation so that it can be a light unto other nations when dealing with them (not just representing a nation’s interests in Kissinger’s terms of realpolitik), the function of a political leader is to represent his nation in dealing with God, in dealing with history, in dealing with a nation’s destiny, in interpreting its fundamental constitution. The chief political officer is neither the chief law maker nor the judiciary. After separating the functions of statesmanship and diplomacy from being the head of a nation, the judicial functions too must be delegated to others. Thus, we have a different take on the separation of powers – foreign affairs from leader of the state, leader of the state from chief judicial officer. The next lesson will be about the making of laws, but that comes after Jethro leaves.

How did Jethro then prepare for what took place afterward? First, it was Jethro who told Moses that his job was to be an intermediary between his people and God. Second, as we soon learn, Moses is not the prince of his people, is not the lawmaker, but only the receiver of the fundamental constitution for the people, the covenant with God, which is a constitutional set of rules recommended for all nations. Third, Jethro had to go away because the people had to learn two other lessons that could not come from Jethro. For Jethro was an idolater; the Israelites were commanded to put away the worship of all idols.

“You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.” (Exodus 20:20) This was the culmination of all the commandments the Lord gave to Moses and was a repetition of verse 4: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth.” The Israelites were not forbidden from making images, but graven images, objects or things worshipped as divine. “Graven” is the right adjective. Don’t make what is dead and treat it in a solemn way.

There was a second reason Jethro had to leave. He came from a hierarchical society. In contrast, God wanted to teach the Israelites obedience to the constitution, the covenant intended to guide all peoples. “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.” (Exodus 19:5) But for the Israelites to be a truly holy nation, they had to be a nation of self-legislators, a nation in which every member was a prince, a democratic nation. “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

Jethro could not teach Moses or his people not to be idolaters, nor that the nation must become one in which all were princes, a democratic nation. Thus, in this parsha, we are provided with the framework for the construction of a state that will serve the nation. Separate foreign affairs and diplomacy from the functions of internal rule and make certain attributes characteristic of that role. Secondly, separate executive power from the judiciary. Thirdly, create a constitutional “monarchy,” that is where the function of the head of state was to be bound to upholding the fundamental covenant or the constitution of that state from the exercise of power and make the head of state the embodiment of that covenant and the representative of that covenant to the people. Fourth, make the state a democratic state whereby the powers of making laws, within the boundaries of the constitution or the fundamental covenant of that state, are made by the people who shall all be treated as princes of the state.

With the help of Alex Zisman

SUNDAY: Foreign Affairs, Diplomacy and the Body Politic

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

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

by

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

Netanyahu and Moses: Parshat Va’era: Exodus: 6:2-9:35

Netanyahu and Moses: Parshat Va’era: Exodus: 6:2-9:35

by

Howard Adelman

I recognize that argument by analogy is the weakest form of argument if it can even be counted as a legitimate form of rational argument at all. But it is one of the most common forms of commentary used in biblical interpretation. That is not because of the strength of its reasoning, but because of the often brilliant insights provided by great leaps of the imagination which happen to resonate with reality.

This parshat about the escape of the Jews from Egypt and their return to the Promised Land is so well known that it scarce requires any repetition. Instead, I want to tell a contrasting contemporary story about Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, through the lens of the Torah, and ask the question whether his mission is to lead the Jews into the whole land of Israel or whether it is his destiny to lead the Jews, reluctantly of course, out of Eretz Israel altogether.

Like Moses and his brother, Aaron, Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) had a brother, Jonathan (Joni). Aaron was the older brother by three years. In the Biblical text, as Rashi noted, in some places the two are referred to as Aaron and Moshe and, at other places, as Moshe and Aaron. Though Moses is referred to as the greatest Jew in the history of the Jewish people, Rashi says that Aaron and Moshe were two sides of the same coin. Both act in the face of a far greater earthly power. But they play complementary roles. Aaron is the man of words, the orator, the rhetorician, while Moses serves as the political leader. Both rose to the greatest heights in the expression and realization of their God-given skills.

At first glance, one might presume that the comparison is of Bibi to Moses and Joni to Aaron. After all, like Aaron, Joni was the older. But Joni died young. Further, Bibi was the orator. Though Joni was a great commander of his elite strike force in the IDF, he was more akin to Rabin; Joni was not a media star while that is the very route Bibi took to rise to the pinnacle of power in Israel by becoming a minor star in the U.S. media firmament. So I start with comparing Bibi to Aaron and Joni to Moses, for like Moses, no matter what happens in history, Joni will be remembered as one of the great figures in Jewish history who led the attack that freed the captives in Entebbe in Uganda and allowed them to return to Israel, though he himself would only return in a casket. As one of the few Jewish writers to emerge in America after WWII, one who seemed to lack any neurosis and even retained his role as an observant Jew, as one who celebrated rather than begrudged military figures, Herman Wouk wrote of Joni in the following terms:

He was a taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance, a hard-fibered, charismatic young leader, a magnificent fighting man. On the Golan Heights, in the Yom Kippur War, the unit he led was part of the force that held back a sea of Soviet tanks manned by Syrians, in a celebrated stand; and after Entebbe, “Yoni” became in Israel almost a symbol of the nation itself. Today his name is spoken there with somber reverence.

Further, according to what was known of Joni, he was an exemplar of humility. Whatever one can say about Bibi, few if any would say he is humble. On the other hand, we all know that Joni occupies a mythical place among the stars of the redemption of Israel for his martyrdom in the rescue of the Jews captured by Arab terrorists and taken to Entebbe.  But Benjamin Netanyahu was also a man of action and not just of words, for he was a commando in the same elite unit in which Joni served who went on another mission and rescued Jews hijacked on a Sabena flight. It was Bibi who would emerge as both the orator and the political leader. I suggest that we look at Netanyahu as made up of two souls, his own inner being as an orator, as a man of words, as an Aaron, and, as well, as a ghost in the mechanism of his body, the ghost of Joni who could have risen to be a rival to Rabin in the political landscape. In other words, Bibi Netanyahu is both Aaron and Moses in his own mind, but his true self was to be a spokesperson. The political mission fell into his lap inadvertently, though not reluctantly as was the actual case with Moses.

Many if not most of the prophets of Israel were reluctant to assume their roles – Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even the satirical figure, Jonah. Moses asks God to find someone else. He can’t do the job. Even though Moses had been raised as a prince of Egypt, he asked, who am I to assume such a lofty role? He also contended that the people of Israel would not believe him and accept him as their leader; after all, he had not been brought up among them. Further, like the stuttering King George VI of Britain in a time when Britain was threatened with being overrun by Nazi Germany, Moses reluctantly assumed the role of titular leader of his people in spite of his overpowering stutter. Moses too was a stutterer and had uncircumcised lips. Moses’ fourth reason for his reluctance; he had no desire to assume the role. Others were more ambitious and more interested and more capable.

None of these four reasons were Bibi’s problem. He always was convinced not only that he could do the job, but that he was the best person for the job. He also believed, if given the right circumstances for his people to assess him, they too would become convinced that he was the best man for the position. He obviously had the gift of the gab and was a terrific orator. Further, perhaps no one in the history of modern Israel was so convinced that he was destined to become the leader; as many would attest, he had a messianic complex. For his essence was to be an Aaron who took on the role of a political leader rather than a leader with the essential spirit of Moses in his soul. Adopting the mantle of Moses was shapeshifting, assuming the ghost of Joni while underneath lacking those leadership skills. He was convinced of his own abilities, of his own worth, of his own powers of persuasion and, most of all, of his destiny. If he faced any problem, it was the inability and reluctance of the Israeli people to recognize all of that. That was the major, and perhaps only real obstacle that he had to overcome.

Look at how Bibi went out into the diaspora, not as a shepherd who rashly but out of compassion for his kin who was a slave being beaten by an overseer, killed that very same overseer. Bibi had never been banished to Midian and willingly accepted his role as never-to-be-remembered figure. Each step was taken to advance his ambition.

Further, Moses begs to be excused because he is an initial failure. When he first asks Pharaoh to let my people go, Pharaoh laughs at Moses and makes the Israelite slaves work harder as punishment for the chutzpah of their so-called leader. The Israelites reacted, not by rallying around Moses, but by getting angry and asking him to leave office. Recall that Bibi also was voted out of office when he pissed off Bill Clinton and failed in forging a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“My Lord, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he did evil to this people. But You did not rescue Your people.” (Exodus 5:22-23) But it was not Bibi, the orator, who failed, but Bibi the ghost of Joni. Unlike Moses, instead of asking why God failed both him and the Israelites to free his people, Bibi blamed himself. God promised redemption and redemption did come once again when Barak, in spite of the most generous offer imaginable by an Israeli leader to the Palestinians, also failed, and Bibi once again retuned to leadership of the Jewish people. Unlike Moses, he believed it was his destiny and mission to lead Israel.

But had not Moses been raised in the luxury of America? Had he not mastered the way of the Americans just as Moses had of the Egyptian elite? But so had Joni. Both returned to Israel. Both served in the IDF in illustrious roles. There is a difference however. While Moses could never acclimatize himself to being an Egyptian and always felt uncomfortable even though he had been adopted as an infant and raised in a royal household, Bibi, in fact, was more at home in America than in Israel. If he had stayed in America, though, because he was born abroad, he could possibly have risen to become vizier, a very big man in a very big pond rather than a very big man in a relatively little pond. Bibi never lost that sense of entitlement and lectured both two Democratic presidents as if he was their equal in stature and power. Bibi has always been a would-be president of the United States. Bibi was no Moses.

So when each president would not do his bidding, he subverted first one by slow-walking the peace process and the second one by increasingly confronting Barack Obama, and telling him that he had not learned the lessons of history, that he was naïve and that he had made a bad deal, a bad, bad deal with Iran. Bibi was no withering vine. Bibi was no Moses. Moses was appalled at the hardships of slavery of the Israelites. Bibi was appalled that Jews anywhere did not have absolute power to determine their own destiny, attributing the suffering of the Jewish people to the absence of such power. Moses was sensitive to the fact that his people had incorporated the spirit of bondage in their very being. Bibi was extremely proud that Israelites had presumably and absolutely thrown off the spirit of bondage that afflicted Jews in the diaspora. For Bibi was destined to be the redeemer of the entire land of Israel; for Moses, God always remained the redeemer, not he. This was true even though Moses exhibited such a range of skills, and accomplishments, and in spite of his severe handicap. He was a prince, shepherd, politician, law-giver, teacher, judge and prophet.

Bibi, in contrast, was the child of a very embittered man, in Benzion Netanyahu’s own estimation, forced to live out the best years of his life in exile. When Bibi as an adult himself lived in the diaspora, he was, in contrast, not a humble shepherd, but a media star, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, and, at a very young age, ambassador of Israel to the United Nations. He then became a politician, not through being chosen by God, nor initially by being chosen by the people, but by having mastered the ability of getting ahead politically be accruing wealthy supporters and by forging a network of very ambitious colleagues. He never received any renown as a legislator even though the rule of law is central to the life of the Jewish people. Nor was he ever a teacher, unless a teacher is defined like both he and his father as a pontificator of personal convictions and received opinions rather than as an inquirer into the truth. He was known for his partisanship and his skills as a political broker rather than for any sense of judicious fairness. He saw himself as a prophet even though that very conviction made him blind to the advantages of the Iran nuclear deal, especially for Israel.

I write this as a form of explanation for why Bibi treated Obama as if he was Pharaoh rather than a partner and supporter of the Israel people. For Bibi, Obama was a front man for Evil rather than simply a leader with a different perspective, a different set of obligations, a different approach and a different attitude, hope rather than pessimism. When Moses was called forth to confront Pharaoh and lead the people back to Israel, he was given a staff, a mateh, that turned into a serpent and back into a staff as an instrument, not only to prove God’s magical powers, but as the very tool that would call forth the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptian people.

Now there are many questions to ask about those plagues. For one, why punish the Egyptian people for the evils of their autocratic leader? Most of all, why kill innocent babes in the cause of your own freedom? But I will not deal with any of those issues. Rather, I want to ask what was the staff that would bring water out of rocks, that would divide the sea so that the Israelites could cross, but, most of all, what was the rod that was used to confuse Pharaoh, raise his wrath and bring about one plague after another on the Egyptian people?

The cobra, a god of the Egyptians, as symbolically represented on the headdress of the Pharaoh, was the supposed source of divine power for the Pharaoh. Moses was given the power to grab the snake and turn it into a power for himself, a rigid staff rather than wriggly serpent. Second, the snake represented a reversal of what happened in the Garden of Eden. There Adam had viewed his masculinity as an Other, as something for which he was not responsible. Further, that Other, that erect penis with a mind of its own, abused the skills of language and seduced Eve, or, in my interpretation, responded naturally to a female, but in the process, further encouraged Adam to distance him from his responsibility. Thus, turning the crawling, twisting snake back into a staff was a symbol of recovering one’s masculinity, of reintegrating oneself as en embodied creature willing and courageous enough to mark one’s place in the world. Third, in addition to the mateh symbolizing the seizure of the magical powers of the Other, in addition to the mateh, the staff, representing the reaffirmation of oneself as a courageous embodied creature standing up mano-to-mano, the serpent is also a symbol of man assuming he is God, assuming he is the ultimate in vision, in insight, in the determination of the use of power, in understanding how power works and how history will unfold.

The snake represents the power in the enemy Other, the power already in oneself, and the transcendent other of the Almighty Other. To turn that serpent once again into a stiff staff is to perform all three actions at one and the same time. The problem emerges not when one combines all three, but when one misconstrues the friend, the supporter, the adviser, the provider, not as a perhaps mistaken ally, but as a front for Evil. The problem is not in the snake and the staff, but in he who seizes it and uses it and who it is seen to be used against and who it is actually used against. Because Bibi sees himself as a Moses, but is really an Aaron, because he wears the ghostly cloak of his dead brother, because he projects onto others with whom he disagrees the character of the Devil, Bibi backs himself and Israel into a dark corner, not just a cave, but a black hole where light is sucked in rather than emitted, where, despair squelches all hope, a situation where a man who sees himself as leading the Jewish people to the promise of the whole land of Israel in the end leads them out of Israel because, in contrast to Ben Gurion who absolutely saw the need of a small nation to have a very large nation as a patron, Bibi got caught up in the myth of self-sufficiency.

Pray to God that his false leadership, that his mis-leadership, that, in the final analysis, his non-leadership shall end, the sooner the better. Otherwise I fear the plagues will fall on Israel and not on Israel’s true enemies.

 

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Who is God? Parshot Shemot: Ch. 1-5 Exodus

Who Is God? Parshot Shemot: Ch. 1-5 of Exodus

by

Howard Adelman

We are now in a new book, the second book of the five books of the Torah. In Hebrew, its name is “Names,” but in English it is called “Exodus” even thought the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, including the set up of the story, only takes up 15 of 40 chapters. Some think that only the first verse of chapter 1 deals with “Names,” so “Names” is an even less appropriate title for the whole book. I suggest that Sh’mot or Shemot as the name of the second book is appropriate because it is about the Israelite God making a name for Himself in the wider world of politics. What happens within the story may be the redemption (Ramban – Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Gerondi or Nachmanides) of the Israelites in the various meanings of that term, but I will attend to the other side of that redemption, the redeemer who is credited with bringing it about, namely God.

The first verse seems to be merely a repetition of what was told in the previous book, in particular in Parshat Vayidash. But not quite, for this is the story read backwards, not as prophecy but as what takes place after the names of the children of Israel (of Jacob) were long gone and had been aufgehobt (from the German verb aufheben), that is when they had been taken out, put away and raised into the stars of heaven above. The names of the leaders of the twelve tribes have become just memories.

Further, as the Israelites multiplied and flourished in Egypt, as a Pharaoh came to rule over Egypt “who knew not Joseph,” who did not remember what Joseph had done to make not only Egypt prosperous, but the Pharaoh personally rich using the new economic model that saved the farmers from totally losing all their land at the same time as the plan cut Pharaoh in for 20% of their profits. The new positive sum game of macroeconomic policy was now taken for granted and no credit was given to Joseph. There was no longer a memory of why the Israelites had it so good.

So Pharaoh played the anti-Semitic card, pointing out the fact that the Israelites had not merged totally with the Egyptians and remained a distinct people, that they had grown numerous creating a theoretical demographic problem, and that they allegedly could serve as a fifth column. The theoretical prospect of double loyalty and, even more so, triple loyalty, that is where loyalty to a third foreign and enemy power became stronger than the loyalty of the Israelites to Egypt became a possible prospect. There was no evidence for any of these fears, but that is the classic nature of anti-Semitism.

The Pharaoh’s response: subject the Israelites to hard labour and when that proved insufficient, order the midwives to abort their male children, and when that was subverted by the compassion of those same midwives, order the military forces of Egypt to actually murder male Israelite infants.  Suddenly – though it may have taken three-and-a-half centuries – the Israelites had gone from the top of the pile, from a golden age, into a persecuted minority. Would redemption come from a member of the tribe of Judah assigned the task of military and political leadership of the Israelites?

That was not to be at this time. In Chapter 2 we are told the story of the new leader of the Israelites, of Moses, who came not from the loins of Judah, but was a child on both sides of Levite parents. Recall that Levi was the son, who, like Simeon, had demonstrated a total absence of compassion. Yet the messenger of redemption would come from the  House of Levi, but not as an inheritor of his forefather’s beastly and rash and cruel behaviour, but, via the compassion of women, the midwives who would not abort him, his mother, who would not see him dashed to death, a sister who conceived the plot to save him by sending the infant in a woven basket to where the daughters of the Pharaoh were bathing, to the compassion of the Pharaoh’s daughter, and to Miriam’s compassionate plan to have her own mother serve as nursemaid to the adopted son of the princess. The Israelite continuity is once again saved through the guile of Israelite women.

Moses is not born as a warrior. He is not political. He is neither an orator or poet as their forefather had prophesied for the House of Naphtali. Nor is he an observer and upholder of the law as had been prophesied for Judah’s heirs. But he developed into a man of extraordinary compassion at total odds to his forefather. Though his rash action in murdering the Egyptian taskmaster who was mistreating two Israelites seemed similar, that action was not driven by cruelty as had the behaviour of his forefather Levi, but by compassion for those who were being beaten. But there were two Israelite witnesses who did not observe what drove Moses to murder. They only saw the murder and feared the consequences, especially on themselves. They snitched.

Moses was forced to flee to the land of Midian where, again through his compassion, helped the daughter of the Midian priest Jethro, Zipporah, from male harassment. He was given Zipporah’s hand in marriage. They had a son, Gershom, born as a stranger in a strange land. Zipporah too will prove to be both compassionate and courageous, circumcising her son and throwing his foreskin at the feet of thugs who stood in their way when returning to Egypt. The prospect of Moses, raised in a royal household, possessing the rashness of his forefather, but with none of the cruelty, the prospect of this man content seemingly to live out his life as a shepherd living neither among Egyptians nor Israelites, emerging as the instrument to save the Israelite from the oppressive hand of the Pharaoh, seemed remote indeed.

Chapter 3 tells the story of how the turnaround took place, not by the initiative of Moses, but by the God of Israel. God, having forgotten his covenant with the Israelites just as Pharaoh had forgotten about the contributions of the Israelites to the power of the Pharaoh and the economic prosperity of the land, suddenly and inexplicably remembered the covenant he made and appears to this shepherd tending his sheep in Horeb, a holy mountain, and appears via an angel in a burning bush not consumed by fire. When Moses turns aside from the apparition, God announces, “Hineni,” Here am I. I am here for you, as the cantor in synagogue pronounces when he reads the cantor’s prayer. I am fully present. I hear the woes of the people of Israel. God recognizes the suffering of the Israelites and renews his promise to deliver the people to the land of milk and honey though Moses who is to be His messenger.

And that is when God names himself. I AM. Moses as God’s messenger must tell the childen of Israel that, “I AM sent me unto you.” Ch. 3, verse 14 reads:

יד  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם..

God is Aleichem, אֲלֵיכֶם. elohé avotechém sh’lacháni alechém.

The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you

So Moses receives his instructions, how to practice magic before the people turning a rod into a serpent and back again into a rod, how to turn his hand leprous, how to turn water into blood. But magic is insufficient. Moses is tongue-tied. He is neither able to put words together effectively nor communicate those words. So Aaron his brother is appointed as spokesman. (Nothing is said about how Aaron survived the Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the Israelite male children, but Aaron may have been born before Pharaoh issued the decree about getting rid of the male Israelite children.)

Moses now recognizes God and acknowledges the role he has to play. But can he play that role? Only if the people recognize that Moses is speaking on behalf of God. But how can they come to that recognition, especially given that Moses seems to be a poor replica of a warrior king?  But who is this God who is to be recognized? Who is: I AM that I AM”? Well, He is not simply, “I Am.” He is I who shall be he I who I shall be.” God is revelation. God is He who reveals himself over time. He is He who proves to be through his actions, through the fulfilment of His promises. He is not just the God who says hineni, here I am. And what is becoming cannot be depicted as that which is. The proof will be in the pudding. Revelation will come through deeds.