On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1

On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1

by

Howard Adelman

Moses is not introduced until Chapter 2 of Exodus. Instead, this book begins as a tale of the Israelite people and the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” (1:8) But we know who Joseph was. We just read a very long story about his life and achievements. And now we are introduced to a repressive Pharaoh. How is this Pharaoh (PII) depicted? How does his character, his dispositions, his motivations, his self-conception and his overall temperament compare to that of Joseph? Of Moses?

Pharaoh (PII) has none of the grace, the tolerance, the consideration and the humanitarianism of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph (PI), the Pharaoh who appointed Joseph as the vizier of Egypt. PII was a populist. He talked directly, just as Moses will, but Moses talked to God; PII talked to his people (1:9). He may have been an all-powerful leader, but PII championed the ordinary Egyptian against previous Pharaohs who, PII seemed to believe, succoured and welcomed strangers. PII presented himself as opposing the establishment, the previous powerful elite who coddled strangers in their midst. Against the interest in protecting and holding onto their labouring population, PII raged against the Israelites.

PII used the Israelites as a scapegoat. They were Other. They were totally other. They were inferior. But they were also numerous and, therefore, a potential fifth column – “in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise up from the ground.” (1:10) Do not welcome the stranger. Fear them. They are a danger. In the process, PII transformed Egypt from the benevolent rule of an autocrat (PI) to a state run as a one-person fiefdom. L’état c’est moi. PII began the process of dismantling the institutions that allowed Egypt to rule the ancient world. Instead of welcoming strangers among them, PII oppressed them. He rounded up those “strangers” and shackled them in forced labour. As he did so, the fear of the alleged dangers of the Israelites grew rather than diminished. The Egyptians were ruthless, without an ounce of empathy, and made life as bitter as possible for what had become a slave nation.

If PI had been constrained by economic realities, PII was not. The latter was willing to kill the source of his manual labour force, Hebrew boys, to service his paranoia and to use the fear of strangers as a way of mobilizing the Egyptians behind his autocratic rule. Was he effective? Not among the midwives who did not carry out his harsh decree and, instead, blamed the Hebrew women for being so healthy that they did not need a midwife. He may have been a populist, but could not use his tongue to persuade, just dictate.

He would be succeeded by another autocrat even worse than PII. PIII never acted with any strategic considerations in mind. His treatment of the Israelites was not a product of thoughtful and sound public policy, but rather of rants and stubborn determination to get his way. PII may have used the persecution of the Israelites to mobilize the Egyptian population behind him, but PIII disdained diplomacy altogether in favour of being a brawler, not just with anyone, but with the God of Israel. Contrast the behaviour of PII and PIII with the respect PI showed God.

It seems clear that PII was a macho male who lived off dominating the lives of others. He wanted and needed recognition. PIII would need even greater recognition, not as primus inter pares, first among equals, but as first űber alles. PIII would accept no rivals under any circumstances, and certainly would not accede to a God who was superior to himself in virtually every way. But his conflict with God would bring out his anxiety, his self-doubt, his emotional instability, his negative emotions and his propensity towards depression – when he was not being manic.

PII and PIII both lack any sense of curiosity (compare them in this regard to PI), imaginative capability, concern with or care for others. There did not seem to be an ounce of empathy or compassion in either. And PIII, though stubborn and determined to have his way, possessed no ability to think strategically in a disciplined manner, or to follow and submit to a set of rules, or even formulate such rules. Revenge was the driving force behind his behaviour rather than accommodation. As we will see, he seemed incapable of learning from experience.

Cognitively rigid and incurious, lacking any sense of emotional stability and calm, PII (and, subsequently, PIII), quite aside from being the oppressor of the Israelites, comes across as a most disagreeable fellow. PII was certainly driven and determined; PIII was even worse; he was, again as we shall see, restless and incapable of keeping a deal. He seemed to be a dynamo in perpetual motion, especially when contrasted with Moses. PII, the Pharaoh in the narrative before us, was the archetype of callous rudeness and arrogance. It would not be inaccurate to dub him a narcissistic mendacious two-dimensional performer rather than a three-dimensional human being. The only emotion both PII and PIII seemed capable of expressing was rage.

What a contrast with Joseph. But Joseph was far from a saint and just as far from being a Tzaddik, contrary to his publicists. He was as disagreeable as PII, but for different reasons. Joseph was a consummate actor with an instinct for making an impression on others. But Joseph was also a malicious gossip. If PII saw himself as greater than anyone, Joseph was very capable of his own aggrandized self-expression, though certainly more warranted. PII did not have to get along to get ahead. Joseph acquired the skill of the former to accomplish the latter. He acquired the skills of a diviner, but took no responsibility for his actions. Unlike Moses, who invited God to intervene in history, in Joseph’s world, God determined everything, eliminating the need for confession, forgiveness and, hence, acceptance of responsibility.

Look at the end of Genesis when his brothers begged for forgiveness. Instead of offering that forgiveness and permitting his brothers to accept and take responsibility for their actions, he cried. Unlike PII, Joseph was all sentiment, but lacked compassion, not to suggest that his brothers exhibited much. Joseph told his brothers: “Do not fear, for I am in the place of God.  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20) PII might have claimed that he was a god, but Joseph did the next worse thing. He said that he was in the place of God. Though God never spoke to him as he would to Moses. Joseph did not invite God’s entry into history, but insisted that what took place, even evil deeds, were just expressions of God’s will. For very different reasons, PII and Joseph both exhibited “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” What a contrast with Jacob! Both PII and Joseph, though radically different, could not accept that they had ever done anything wrong.

Both PII and Joseph presented themselves as gifts from heaven. But true Israelites “rose from the ground.” Moses was an exception. He came forth from the water.  The meaning of the name Moses in Egyptian meant “drawn out,” a name given by Bithiah, his adoptive mother, who pulled Moses out from the river. Bithiah’s name itself means “Daughter of Yah,” daughter of God. She became Moses’ second midwife. Joseph, in contrast, was named Zaphenath-paneah. The speculation about the meaning of that name that seems both the most scholarly as well as appealing to me is “he who is called life.” As much as Moses is a spiritual man serving as a conduit between God and man, Joseph is the epitome of a natural human driven by a quest for power and position as the expression of what it means to live at the highest level.

If Joseph was arrogant, Moses is the epitome of a great man who remains humble despite his royal upbringing. He first became a shepherd of sheep and then of humans as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela did in the twentieth century. But the latter two divined the future as Joseph did. God spoke to Moses face-to-face and Moses was the vehicle by which God revealed Himself to humans. Joseph said to his brothers that he would personally be responsible for their safety and well-being. Moses never attributed any credits to himself. His unique characteristics were not special. Perhaps many others could have done as well or better than he did.

Moses was not a goody-goody two-shoes. What is the first story told of Moses after the tale of his birth and his being drawn out of the water? It is the encounter with a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses rose up in anger and slew the man. He did not own up to the deed but sought to hide it by burying the man’s body. The next day when he witnessed two Hebrew slaves fighting one another, and intervened, they challenged Moses. “Who are you to talk peace and to dissuade us from fighting? You killed an Egyptian taskmaster yesterday. Are you threatening me now?” There was a witness. Pharaoh wanted revenge, even against a boy in his own household. Moses was afraid and fled.

Not much of an advertisement for a future military, political and religious leader of the Israelites. He fled to Midian. He went to a well, the J-Date for ancient Hebrews. Once more he intervened. But he did not kill. He simply chased away other shepherds harassing the priest of Midian’s seven daughters. And he watered their flocks. The Midian priest was impressed, invited Moses to dinner and then gave his daughter, Zipporah, in marriage. Zipporah had a child, Gershon. We move through Moses’ early life with the speed of lightning. Yet there is sufficient to capture his core character – caring, responsible, capable of taking a moral stance, but also possessing a volcanic temper.

Then the revelation. Not a dream needing interpretation, but the appearance of an angel of the Lord in a blazing bush, a bush that is not consumed by the fire. Moses will not be consumed with the anger within him as Pharaoh (PIII) will be. God is fire. Moses emerged from the water. Fire and water do not mix. Yet God called to him. And Moses, like Abraham answered, “Hinaini.” Here I am. Moses did not turn away. And God spoke directly to Moses, introducing Himself but not revealing his name. He called on Moses to lead his people out of bondage.

Moses replied. Who am I to carry forth so great a mission? How can I convince anyone? Moses had to be drawn out of himself. He had to develop and be transformed into a leader. How could he convince people? He was full of doubt, totally lacking in the certainty of either PII, PIII or Joseph. By signs and wonders, God replied. And he gave Moses a demonstration turning a rod into a snake and a snake back into a rod, covering the back of Moses’ hand with fish scales and then making his skin smooth again.

These are not arbitrary magical acts. And they are not just dreams either. The snake in the Garden of Eden is crafty and clever, shrewd and wily. Machiavellianism will be required.

We need a break; it is time for a joke. A Bishop of the church each day passed a Jewish beggar near the entry of the church. Next to him the Bishop saw a Christian beggar wearing a monk’s habit with a large cross around his neck. Each day the Bishop would drop a few coins into the box of the Christian beggar. After many days of passing the two, he stopped. He addressed the Jewish beggar. Why are you begging as a Jew in front of a Cathedral? Why don’t you go outside a synagogue among your own people? The Jewish beggar turned to the other beggar and said, “So Moishe, look who is trying to teach us how to raise money for charity?” Machiavellian indeed!

In the Garden of Eden story, the stiff staff, the rigid snake, can no longer stand up, but falls to the ground. In this tale, the sequence is reversed. The rod becomes a squirming snake and then reverts once again to a staff.

Moses was a merman who emerged from the water and grew up with delicate skin in the royal household. As one of my readers noted, Moses was like Elisa in The Shape of Water, an outsider in the Hebrew, Egyptian and Midian communities. If Elisa was mute, Moses too had a speech impediment.  Moses had “never been a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) But God will instruct Moses what to say and do. Joseph, in contrast, was the one giving the credit. In Exodus, God takes the credit and Moses simply has to trust God that He will perform as needed. Aaron will speak for you to the people. This will guarantee that Moses can never become a populist. For he will not be able to address his people directly or claim they are his people.

Could one have a greater contrast with PII and PIII, but also with Joseph? Moses remains the epitome of a modest leader.

 

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Dreaming and Empathy

Dreaming and Empathy

by

Howard Adelman

One of the greatest speeches ever offered Americans, in fact, one of the greatest examples of soaring rhetoric ever, was that of Martin Luther King, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 23 August 1963 over a half century ago. It was titled, “I have a dream.” It was a call to make America great again – not great in power, not great in wealth, but great in making reality match ideal aspirations.

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

It is a dream that speaks to us today because Martin Luther King envisioned that one day the voters of Alabama would elect a man like Doug Jones who, in a deep red state, would beat Roy Moore, a racist, a hater of homosexuals and Muslims alike, a despicable man found guilty twice of flouting the constitution as a judge but never prosecuted for his alleged pursuit of nubile teenagers.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

It was and remains one of the great speeches of history about noble dreams.

In this week’s parshat, the dream being interpreted is not a noble one, but one dreamt by a noble, one dreamt by the great Pharaoh of Egypt himself. In Genesis 41, in fact, he is recorded as having had two dreams.

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke.And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

As Joseph uniquely interpreted that dream, it was about the seven fat years to come that would be eaten up by the following seven years of famine and shortages. It was an economic dream about the future. And it was a dream that offered Joseph the opportunity to play on that forecast to construct a national policy of savings and subsequent distribution that would enhance the reputation of Pharaoh far and wide, for the surplus saved would be shared broadly to help even non-Egyptians. A dream by a noble was translated into a noble dream.

In the writings of Cicero, also one of the great rhetoricians of history, in his essay “On the Good Life,” he told the story of Scipio the Younger who had a dream that Scipio the Elder had visited him from the nether or spirit world. The Elder told the Younger of his achievements, of how he had made Rome a great power, of how he had made the people of Carthage submit to Rome. But now the people of Carthage are becoming a noisy mob. Now they are protesting Rome’s rule. Now once again they are raising the conflicts of old, threatening the peace and challenging the imperial power.

Carthage is the city, Scipio the Elder urges, that the Younger must attack, that you must destroy. This is the city the destruction of which will turn you from an ordinary soldier to a great leader who can then use the victory two years later to become consul. Scipio the Elder predicts that this will lead to even greater accomplishments, the conquest and destruction of other cities in revolt and, most importantly, bringing order and discipline back to the rule of Rome itself which, because of Scipio the Elder’s own grandchildren, has become a place of licentiousness, anarchy and disorder.

Scipio the Younger’s dream is a vision of imperial might and power. It is a dream in which the sun is depicted as the ruler of all. There is only one sun and one ruler. And in his dream, Scipio hears the music of the spheres to which most people are deaf. He hears about the harmony promised by the spirit world, for the body is mortal, the flesh is weak, and the true self is the inner self, the spirit inside, the self-recognition that he, Scipio the Younger, is truly a god impelled by an inner and truer spirit, by an immortal soul within a mortal body, born to exercise the rule of the eternal god, rule that demands unquestioning obedience.

Why is Martin Luther’s dream, that is also attuned to the music of the spheres in the eternal spiritual world, about human equality, about freedom, about respecting the dignity of all, whereas Scipio the Younger’s dream is about harmony imposed from above by a powerful imperial ruler that quashes those who would question that power? Plato in the Phaedrus offers an answer. For Scipio the Younger’s dream was of raising earth to heaven while that of Martin Luther King was of bringing heaven down to earth.

Plato in his dialogue, Phaedrus, has a striking image, an allegory about the life of the soul, of what Jews call the nefesh. It is a story of a charioteer and who has harnessed and is driving forward as he directs two horses, one an unmanageable steed of passion in the quest for personal satisfaction and the other a horse of courage which, unlike the wild horse to which it is tethered, can listen and be guided by the voice of reason, of logos. The horse of courage is beautiful in shape with the highest moral qualities of virtue. The wild horse is ugly and foul. In the horse of courage, the wings of the angels, of the horse as the messenger of the gods, in particular, of Zeus, grow in strength and lift up the weight of the world to the heavens where the gods live. In the ugly horse of unbridled passion, the wings shrink and disappear. The bad horse will always drag the charioteer back to earth.

What is most notable about the Pharaoh’s dream, in contrast, is that, though it is a dream by a noble, though it is a dream by one who takes himself and is taken to be a sun god, it is such an earthly dream, about cows without wings, not horses, about stalks of wheat and not even animals. In the Socratic world, only intelligence grasped by logos and having no material appearance captures the character of the heavens. However, Martin Luther’s dream takes place in technicolour, for it is not just a vision about black and white lying down together in the same field, but of people of all colours in between, of people symbolized by Joseph’s famous multi-coloured coat.

The irony in Plato is that the advocate of these militaristic virtues of strength and courage and nobility was himself a Harvey Weinstein, said to be “unprepossessing to the point of grotesqueness.” Socrates had a flat nose rather than a bulbous one, protruding eyes and walked very awkwardly, a complete contrast to Joseph who was a man of beautiful shape, though having a foul mouth full of malicious gossip, especially about his brothers. Joseph was not only a tattle tale; he maligned his brothers and told of their so-called dirty deeds.

If Socrates had an “inner voice” that told him what was true and what was not, Pharaoh had a vision of the outer world that told him about how the world, how the future, would unfold. However, he could not interpret nor execute the message of his own dreams. Whereas the main concern of Socrates was the soul’s immortality, Joseph’s mission becomes serving the mortality of the body and ensuring that there is enough to eat and drink for all. Through logos, in the worship of Socratic reasoning, wisdom comes through purification of thoughts, through clarification of words and their meanings. Joseph’s wisdom comes from hermeneutics, the ability to interpret visions and dreams. For Socrates, in the last hours of his life in the Phaedrus, is more than ever preoccupied with the soul’s immortality and a framework whereby man is but a chattel of the gods destined if he is great to be enslaved to a divine vision.

The parallels and differences are striking. Socrates’ final days are spent in prison in dialogue with his fellow philosophers. Joseph had been cast into a pit, sold into slavery and ended up in prison on false charges only to be rescued because of his abilities to interpret dreams. He rises to the highest office in the land, the effective vizier of the sun-god, the Pharaoh. My colleague at York, the estimable specialist in Greek philosophy, Gerald Naddaf, translated a book by Luc Brisson called, Plato the Myth Maker. Myth and narrative was, for Plato, not up to the standards of logos, in which conclusions are derived by reason and defended by argument. The “truths” of myths, on the other hand, were not falsifiable before the high judge of reason. But Joseph’s visions were verified by the course of human history, as were Martin Luther King’s.

A myth, a dream, is not false news. Mythos, the term in Greek, is a word that takes the form of advice and is something one says rather than something one writes. It is neither true nor false, real or fake. From Xenophanes on, the purpose of Greek philosophy, of using logos, was to denounce the myths of Homer and Hesiod of having any validity. Plato brought mythos back into philosophy as a useful illustrative device. However, in the Torah, narrative, myth, dreams – the whole paraphernalia of the text – cries out; narrative is superior in allowing one to listen to the harmony of the spheres. But what is that harmony? Is it that of the war lover, that of the insistence on a unified and imperial command structure, or that of disorder, of disharmony in the family and in political life altogether?

In the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, we see that truth can be envisioned and not simply argued about and verified. But that truth needs an interpreter. However, what is more important is to attend to, not the skills of Joseph as an interpreter, but the wisdom of Pharaoh in using Joseph, not only as his interpreter, but as his vizier to carry out that vision. And it is not the vision of a sun god, of an imperial ruler, but the dream of a man who sees the world, not as it is, but as it is becoming, who sees his role as protecting and feeding his subjects and not of using them, like Scipio, both father and son, to achieve immortal glory. Mythos for both the Pharaoh and Joseph has both credulity and historical value that the monochromatic world of logos lacks. Memory and recollection of dreams and their interpretation offers the route to a better future. Instead of logos divorced from the oral tradition, a text that is wedded to oral memory is more significant, for it passes on the wisdom of the ages from generation to generation, from dor to dor, מדור לדור.

If he had been a man of prejudice, Pharaoh could have dismissed a dandy and possibly a gay man serving as his dream interpreter. Certainly, if he had been a Roman statesman, he might have freed his slave and even done business with him, but it highly unlikely that he would have appointed a former slave, his vizier. Finally, Pharaoh would not have authorized a program of economic distribution to protect the lives of all. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian Pharaoh criticizes the God, Theuth, the inventor of writing, by arguing that, “writing is not a recipe for memory and wisdom” but for forgetfulness and the appearance of wisdom. With computers, we do not need to learn to spell even. With cell phones, we no longer need to remember phone numbers. Thought and discourse become separated from memory.

The Torah always keeps the two married. Memories of dreams in particular provide an inestimable source of wisdom. It is not as if material wealth frees one up to have time to dream, but that dreams reveal the necessity of husbanding one’s wealth and then redistributing it for the benefit of all others, for the common good rather than for the glory of the ruler and conqueror.

This suggests that there is an even deeper meaning to the story. The Pharaoh not only employs a lowly Hebrew and former slave to interpret his dreams, he turns him into the manager of the rule of the people and the land. He makes him his economic czar. The Pharaoh recognizes each person for their merit and does not pre-judge them based on class or ethnic origin. He does so based on what the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment – Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith – called a philosophy of sentiment, not a sentimental philosophy, a philosophy of sympathy and empathy for the other. In the very first sentence of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, sympathy is defined as follows:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

Even Donald Trump is evidently not entirely bereft of an ounce of moral sympathy. It is that sixth sense, that the Pharaoh had in spades, that provides for the recognition of the virtues and merits of all others, for the opportunities of the many and for the protection of all who are in need. Donald Trump must have that ounce, because that is a premise of sentiment, but he sure does his best to hide it and prove he is bankrupt when it comes to morality.

The Pharaoh is the hero of the story for he exemplifies the nature of sentiment and the manifestations of altruism. Sympathy is innate in us all. The Scipios of this world do their best to repress that sentiment within themselves as they repress others and try to establish a rule of order and harmony through military oppression based on their personal vision rather than on what unites all of humanity. For sympathy to express itself, a change in our way of life may arise to challenge us – an environment challenge for example. With sympathy we rise to empathy and enter into an ability to re-enact and understand the suffering of others, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It was Pharaoh who had the dream, who translated Joseph’s interpretation into a vision of practical morality and hired Joseph to implement it, a man who thus far, whatever his external virtues, had not hereto exhibited much empathy for others.

May the song of humanity be with us.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Alternatives to Persuasion

Alternatives to Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Given the apocalyptic vision that forms the foundation of satire, given that satire does not exist to offer palliatives or lessons, given that the ultimate role of its caustic method is to unveil the skeletal horror at the core of the present, where does hope come from? Where is the opening to escape this underworld of horrors? Where is there a path to redemption? It will not come from satire. For the arts of persuasion come from a very different order. Satire is inherently destructive and may prepare the ground. But satire itself is not intended to persuade, to move a person from one set of beliefs to another,

There are other methods for doing so. Inducements can be used to replace influence. In István Szabó’s 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes as the male protagonist, the director traces three different generations of a wealthy Jewish family called Sonnenschein who changed the family name in Hungary to Sors, meaning fate. The latter is an ironic name because, while in each generation the hero acts to take his fate into his own hands, the family’s fate is always to be regarded as Jews no matter what efforts taken to assimilate. The Holocaust does not come as an aberration in the second generation, but merely the most extreme version of the persistent years of anti-Semitism that continue well after the Nazis are defeated.

Ignatz Sonnenschein is a dedicated judge and totally loyal to the Emperor, in spite of the class discrimination of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Adam Sonnenschein, who changed the family name to Sors, converted to Catholicism to escape the race discrimination of the high period of Hungarian nationalism, ends up frozen to death as a Jesus-icicle in a Nazi concentration camp by the bare-faced racism of the Nazi period. Ivan Sors, as a police officer under the communists after WWII is forced, not only to witness, but to abet the purge of Jewish communists, including that of his Jewish friend and superior played by William Hurt, by a corrupt Stalinist regime. The attempt of the Sonnenscheins to trade in their Jewish identity for another repeatedly fails.

In the middle of these three generations, to advance his career and be able to play in the Officers Club, the only route to competitive fencing at such a high level, Adam Sors (modeled on the real life of the Hungarian Olympian fencing gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics, Attila Petschauer) converts to Roman Catholicism. Inducements to set aside one’s ostensible set of beliefs for another may be monetary, but they can also be pride and ambition, Thus, after winning the Hungarian national fencing championship, the heads on Adam’s original “Jewish” fencing club offer him huge amounts of money to rejoin the original club, but Adam not only refuses, but berates “those people” who believe they can buy anything they want in an exhibition of Jewish self-hatred. Adam’s rejection of financial inducements in favour of the inducements of honour and status and the opportunity to realize an ambition, does not make the latter a better quality of honey to the crasser but, ironically, purer inducement of money.

But authority can also be used to attempt to change minds and hearts. In New Spain, that eventually became Mexico, many centres of authority were in competition: the Office of the Inquisition versus the hierarchy of the church itself, the female nunneries from Augustinian Hieronymites to the much stricter Carmelites, the church versus the power of the state, and various forms of state power, including the conflict between Vicereine Leonor Carreto and her husband, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. But the underlying battle is between these various sources of formal authority and the authentic authority of knowledge, whether of Copernicus or of a young brilliant self-taught illegitimate child, Juana Inés de Asbaje, eventually Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The actual name of the superb Netflix original series, covering the life of this extraordinary scholar and poet and eventually a person of enormous political and intellectual influence in the history of Mexico, is called Juana Inés. She is forced by the authorities to join a nunnery as the only, and initially illusionary, route to her faith in the authority of knowledge, an intellectual source of authentic authority to resist the corruption of both the court and the church. The influence of ideas is the only authentic means of persuasion in comparison to the influence of inducements. In that contest, Juana Inés de la Cruz betrays both her faith and her political superiors, vows to give up writing, but continues in her deeper faith to eventually produce 200 volumes.

Finally, intellectual persuasion can be contrasted with the use of coercive means to get someone to change positions. The latter is exemplified in how God deals with Pharaoh, sending Moses in to warn Pharaoh of each disaster about to befall him and Egypt. In the end, it is not persuasion or even the threats of more disasters, but murder and war that get Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Persuasion backed by inducements, formal authority or coercive power, are never and can never be authentic means to change people’s minds and hearts.

However, inducements, whether intellectual or material, are not the only instruments to alter behaviour. For altering behaviour is quite a different enterprise than changing people’s hearts and minds.

Like Pharaoh, Trump is a bully and a tyrant. He cannot and will not be convinced that he is on the wrong track, that he is leading his country to destruction. But one must beseech him, not in the belief that he will be convinced, but to teach oneself the arts of civility, the sophisticated arts of persuasion, even though they can have absolutely no real effects on this egoistic centre of self-aggrandizement. Given that scenario, it matters little if you suffer an impediment of speech, if you are neither smooth of tongue nor clever with words, or you have the gift with words and are clever with language and an inventive wordsmith, for, in any case, Pharaoh Trump seems incapable of coherent conversation and dialogue as witnessed by his rambling, erratic and almost unhinged press conference this past Thursday – but more on that in other blogs.

One technique is to imitate the arts that allowed Pharaoh to achieve power and to maintain power. You must learn precisely whom you are addressing. You must master the science of segmentation of the audience and the arts of manipulating that audience. The character of the addressee, not the substance of the address, is what counts. In the contemporary world, it means using all the techniques of big data and psychographics to break down a supposedly homogeneous electorate of equal and rational citizens and decision-makers into a disconnected amalgam of colours. It is akin to the practice of pop art creating a portrait of the public made up of different pure colours, each colour representing a cluster of the population with common psychometric characteristics to which you can appeal. Truth is irrelevant in such messaging. Seeking out a constant message in the old politics is a disaster because you are not trying to convince them to buy your line or buy into your convictions, but to buy into a portrait where they can locate their own fears and desires.

What is needed is audience targeting and data modeling to match the message to the recipient. Alexander Nix is the new magician in the Pharaoh’s court. And the first lesson is name recognition. The first lesson is branding. The leader must be portrayed as a Pharaoh, as one entitled to and capable of exercising power, as the one and only one capable of exercising that power and occupying the position of the highest authority in the land. Pharaoh may be as ignorant as Swiss cheese and as incapable of composing a coherent paragraph only so long as he communicates strength and the will to power. The media is not the message. The message is the media that requires audience fragmentation.

If Trump were to kill Senator Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate when the Senate is in session and everyone could observe what took place, the Senate would never convict Donald Trump of murder or even manslaughter in the Pharaoh’s court. If Donald Trump were to stand on Fifth Avenue and kill a passerby, his voters and supporters would never find him guilty. That is Donald Trump’s absolute belief. He is immortal and cannot be downed by mere instruments of law and rationality. The objective of an election for a Pharaoh is to create a supine audience and a supine group of legislators that will revel in your power on the one hand as an ordinary follower and cower before that power as a co-conspirator. The objective is not to have an electorate that chooses, but to find and tease out different groups among that electorate who can be seduced, not with a coherent and repeated positive message, but with a message in which voters can find their fears confirmed and their hopes raised. The repetition of messages is used only to destroy the reputations and possibilities of individual rivals and the broader traditional media in general.

To accomplish this task, it is necessary to combine the findings of behavioural science with the techniques developed in advertising, now refined by the feedback mechanisms of big data analysis. There is no single audience. There are only audiences. You may not be able to reach the Israelites, but you must reach out to the mass of Egyptians. Not because they are divided into shepherds and stone masons, farmers and undertakers, but because they are divided, not by function, but by form, by sets of characteristics that allow one group to be inspired by one message and another group by another. Mass advertising is no longer useful. Targeted advertising is. The art of behavioural communications must be mastered to manipulate, not communicate with, different audiences.

But if I use my rod and leave the lectern to point to these different factors on the screen at the front of Plato’s dark cave, and then, while everyone is watching the graphics on the screen, turn my pointer into a slithering serpent hissing like a snake oil salesman to take down Pharaoh, he already has a host of magicians who have mastered those black arts. The sorcerers merely respond and overwhelm you with their spells and tricks. Your disposition in the first place is to use persuasion, not manipulation, so you are handicapped when it comes to competing against master manipulators. You must learn and understand the magic of manipulation, but it will never provide the road to victory, just the route for understanding the black arts at your opponent’s disposal.

Those arts attempt to establish a congruity between the message and the messaged, to marry data on age and gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation, with data on attitudes and preferences, hopes and plans, fears and foibles. If you master those arts, they will make you competitors of your opponent’s sorcerers, but not victors of citizens who choose their leaders and are influenced by them. You must go far beyond mastering the magic arts of manipulation. But you must first develop those arts, not to persuade citizens, but to undercut the power and authority of Pharaoh. It is important to understand him and not focus on the followers he manipulates to build his strength.

That is why satire is a propaedeutic. To what? That is the question.  Especially if the next phase of the battle leads to war. For the shedding of blood and the gutting to let the blood of one’s enemy gush forth will provide the next battleground. It may not be the beaches of Normandy, but it may be the beaches of Yemen. The Pharaoh may botch his battles, may try to second guess his generals and leave unprepared and without intelligence to pursue clearly enunciated goals. But it is you that must track every drop of blood that flows into the river of time. It is you who must track the casualties on both sides, and not mainly the soldiers, but the women, the old people and especially the children. You must track every single individual who contributes to turning the Nile or the Mississippi from a slow-moving stream of water into a place where the only way to bathe is to bathe in blood.

That will not make you a winner, but it will level the playing field somewhat. You must now help sew distrust between the Pharaoh and his courtiers. And you must take them on, one at a time, in a concentrated attack from all quarters.

The arts of persuasion can only have room to thrive if the non-persuasive arts are mastered. But they must be put to work always and only in the service of advancing and making room for dialogue and rational debate.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

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

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

“Thus spake the Lord,” bold Moses said:

Let my people go.

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

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt land,

Tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.

O let my people go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Coercive Power

God’s Coercive Power: Va-eira Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

by

Howard Adelman

This is not a segment of the Torah about influence, either the influence of ideas or the influence of material attractions, either of which can impel an action. Nor is it a segment about authority, either the authority of expertise or of a foundational document, a type of authority Donald Trump seems to be dedicated to ignoring, nor the authority of an office or position, that which is often called formal authority. God does not say, let my people go because I am the one true God. Nor does he insist they be let go because their rights were being abused. The authority of the Ten Commandments, yet to come, was not invoked, only the coercive power of the ten plagues.

God does not ask for compliance because he is the Lord on High. This parshat is all about power, not any kind of power, but coercive power. Genesis started with the power of God as a creative being. Exodus gets into the dramatic action with a display of coercive power, power that brings about change through physical intimidation.

Last week, God announced that he was Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), a name never heard before nor since attributed to God. That segment ended with verse 6:1:

  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עַתָּה תִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה:  כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.  {ס} 1 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’

Because of God’s strong hand, Pharaoh will be forced to let the Israelites go and then they will only be let go with Pharaoh’s armies hot on their tail. This week’s portion is a tale of two sources of coercion battling, not just for a people, but for their allegiance.

This parshat begins with the first two verses of chapter 6 (my italics):

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה. 2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the LORD;
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. 3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God, accepted God as the Almighty, but not one of them ever asked for that might to be really demonstrated. And it could not be. How could one prove one was all-powerful? One could only demonstrate that one was more powerful than another, having greater coercive capacity and able and willing to exercise that power. God, who now has a personal name, YHWH, will display that might, that coercive power. God promises: “I will deliver you from their [Egyptian’s] bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments.” By judgement, God does not mean the edicts of a judge who is the supreme authority in a court of law, but judgment that follows wrath and a display of power. This segment is all about strong hands and outstretched arms.

No longer will obeisance to God be simply a matter of tradition, simply a matter of a habitual response and fealty. It is under the shadow of coercive power that the Israelites will now become God’s people. I will be to you, the Israelites, a God in a very different way, says the Lord. The text makes very clear that this was going to be a very tough task, not because it would be hard to display that mighty power, but because the Israelites had become suspicious, had become cynics, had lost the ability to have faith, to trust. Because of the cruel bondage that they had suffered for years, the people were impatient of spirit” (6:9), מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ. They were in anguish. Further, God Himself had admitted that He had forgotten them, forgotten the Israelites, forgotten the covenant to deliver them to the land of Canaan that He had made with their founding fathers. But now he remembered his covenant. (6:5) God was not exactly the paradigm of reliability, but God in Egypt would prove to be a great transformative power.

Moses was instructed to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” But Moses asked querulously, why would the Pharaoh listen to me when I am “of uncircumcised lips” עֲרַל שְׂפָת (6:12 and 6:30). My body may have been transformed through the covenant of circumcision, but not my thoughts, not my words, not the language that springs from my mouth. It is with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand that Moses will be transformed, in good part, to a political leader of a nation that knows and exercises power, from a shepherd of a nation in bondage to a warrior nation with generals in charge, a nation governed by the fundamentals of coercive power – as much as the rule of law to manage that power will be introduced at a later date.

Chapter 7 begins with God reiterating that the Egyptians will learn, not because they respect God, not because they recognize God, but because they will learn to fear God. It is as if God was telling Moses that the only thing the Egyptians understand is force. More importantly, it is through the exercise of that force that the cynical unbelieving and untrusting Israelites will once again come to know and recognize God as their saviour and protector.

The first round is a competition of magicians. When Aaron threw down his rod, it became a serpent. But the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could match that magic act. Thus, Pharaoh was even more disinclined to pay any attention to the words of Moses spoken by his brother Aaron. God had to up the ante and the plagues followed. In the first plague, Aaron lifted his rod and caused the water in the Nile River to turn blood red so that the fish died. But the Egyptian magicians were also able to replicate that act and Pharaoh became even more sceptical of the power behind the threats of Moses and Aaron.

Then the second plague – frogs, swarms of frogs – but once again the magical act was replicated. Nevertheless, this time Pharaoh entreated Moses to ask his God to let up. Pharaoh offered Moses a deal. Let up and I will let the Israelites go. So Moses did let up, withdrawing the frogs from the clothing and the houses, from the courts and from the field, while still letting the streams and rivers team with them. But Pharaoh double-crossed Moses. “(W)hen Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken.” (8:11) At this point, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

God then delivered the third plague. gnats or lice or sand flies. And this time, He did so without forewarning the Egyptians. According to scholars, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) in the 12th century was the first to notice this 2 then 1 pattern of each cluster of three plagues. Further, in the first cluster, it is the last of the plagues that will be delivered by the hand of Aaron. (Bahya ben Asher, 13th century; Don Isaac Abravanel, 15th century.) In the medieval period, structural analysis had come to the fore.  The Egyptian magicians could not replicate the third plague. The pattern included the agent, the response and the mode of communication of the coming of the plague. We are introduced to intellectual rhythmic patterns overruling those of nature.

Why did Pharaoh not recognize God’s power at that point? To understand that, we have to first understand the clustering of the plagues and their significance. We also have to recall that God was not trying to prove that he was all powerful, that He was Almighty, but only that He was more powerful than all the Egyptian gods. This was the character that God had to establish to go with His name. God for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been Shaddai. For Moses, God was now Ehyeh.

Further, the Egyptians, unlike the Israelites later, were not being punished because they had fallen away from their faith in God. The Egyptians were not being hit with an intifada, with terror attacks, with extreme hunger, with a disease like tuberculosis, with defeat by their enemies or with crop failure, let alone wild beasts that devour their children. (Leviticus 26:14-26) These were acts of magic and, at this point, just unbearable nuisances rather than killers.

There is another distinction between the first six plagues of this segment and the final four. The first six could possibly take place and be explained by extreme climate and ecological changes. They were not cosmological in character like hail, locusts and darkness that came from the heavens above even though the first plague was indirectly a product of heavy rains, the observed consequences were earthly. Water changes to blood when the red clay is swept down the Nile after intense and huge rains in the Upper Nile in Ethiopia killing all the fish in waves of mud. The poisoned rotting fish forced the frogs to leave the river en masse and invade the countryside. Their rotting carcasses in turn introduced swarms of flies. The next three plagues were again consequences of the first three, beginning with the death of cattle from the diseases spread by the flies which in turn produced an economic disaster equivalent to when mad cow disease was diagnosed in western Canada. Finally, humans were affected with boils on their skin.

However, the main pattern was not the clustering, nor the differentiation by agent, nor whether there was forewarning, not whether there was resistance or temporary and partial compliance, nor the naturalistic sequence, but the individual target of each plague, the power of one of or more gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The one God of the Israelites had to prove that he was more powerful than all of the Egyptian gods. The target of turning water into a blood red fluid was Hapi.

Hapi was the Egyptian God of the Nile, a water bearer, a source of change, but in the Egyptian experience, change came with a pattern. Change was not a matter of creating something new. Change was cyclical as illustrated by the flooding of the Nile. The first plague introduced a unique event that disrupted the whole pattern of control of Hapi. The significance can be further developed in reference to the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a hieratic papyrus from the chaotic period in Egypt before 2050 BCE or by others ascribed to the period 1850-1450 BC. The papyrus is located in the Dutch National Museum in Leiden. However, what is important is the reference and not the time of composition or the historical events that may have given rise to this composition, or whether or not the poem provides a proof text of the historicity of the Exodus story.

Ipuwer is a poem of a world turned upside-down when the Lord of All was active in destroying his enemies, the noble gods, each responsible for a different aspect of human experience. It is a period of desecration, of chaos, of disrespect for the law. This is a political ethical treatise akin to Machiavelli’s Prince that insists that the first responsibility of a ruler is to maintain order and not sow disorder, even though disorder may be a requisite to establishing a new order. When two mighty powers fight it out, like two roosters fighting to be head of the pecking order, only one can prevail and order be restored. This is even truer when a God of All fights to suborn lesser gods. This is the tale of the first battle against Hapi when, “the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water,” or against Osiris whose bloodstream was the Nile.

God’s second battle is with the Egyptian god, Heket, the wife of the creator of the world, the goddess of childbirth represented as a frog, the symbol of fertility and creation as well as harmony. The frog’s life cycle is characterized by radical transformation in a life form from what appears to be a little fish into a land animal living on the periphery of water and land. In the plagues, that animal is driven from the waters of the Nile into the countryside and once again the whole natural order is disrupted, no longer just the natural order of the seasonal cycle, but the natural order of species transformation. Thus, the issue is not the specific god being undermined – after all, the Egyptian pantheon included about a hundred gods – but the type of order being turned topsy-turvy to demonstrate the power of the One God.

The third plague of lice or sand flies or fleas – from the Hebrew root meaning to dig (under the skin), was the challenge of the One God to the great Egyptian god of the earth, Geb. After the third plague, the One God proved that he could defeat and overturn the order established by the natural cycle of the seasons brought about by water, the god of fertility itself symbolized by the frog, of organic transformation. In the third plague, the One God now was really getting under the skin of the Egyptians and proving that what was taking place was not just a shift in power, but a radical transformation. Khepri, the Egyptian God of creation governing the movement of the Sun and ruling over rebirth, had the head of a fly.

In the fourth plague, the mechanism of the way fertility worked was itself attacked. The fourth plague of “swarms” now made the turmoil and disorder no longer confined to a specific and limited time, but became incessant. In Egypt, Amon-Ra is represented by the head of a beetle, a dung beetle that guarantees that decaying matter with be recycled and provide the mechanism for fertilization. The systematic order of the Egyptian world was being undermined a step at a time.

Hathor was the Egyptian Goddess of Love and Protection usually depicted with the head of a cow. The fifth plague was an attack on Hathor. Hathor personified joy, feminine love and motherhood. In the war of the One God against the many, the very foundations of stability and experienced natural order in the family was itself attacked and overturned. Mothers, young children and babies now became the target of this one all-powerful God filled with wrath.

What is a boil, the sixth plague, the plague of shechiyn? The fight for power was no longer just getting under the skin, but bubbling that skin into enormous balloons. The body is the foundation of material pleasure and satisfaction. With an eruption of boils, you can no longer sleep. Discomfort and pain wracks the body. The plague may even have referred to leprosy and the unremitting burning sensation of that then incurable disease. This was a direct attack on Thoth, the ibis-headed god of medical research, the foundations of Egyptian science.

Next week we will return to the celestial plagues and the plague about killing the first born, but this portion of the text clearly establishes a tale about the mightiest political struggle of all time, the one between the One and the Many, the one most powerful God and the many lesser gods. The Israelites were merely the tokens in this war, the symbols of whether a group of humans would be in bondage to a system in which there were a multitude of sources of power versus one in which power could be traced to a single source. It is a struggle between established and repetitive order to a new transformational order governed by God named Ehyeh, one who transforms “I am that I am” into “I shall be he who I shall be.” It is a war to make orderly change rather than orderly stability the ruling ethos of the world.

Donald Trump’s America

Donald Trump’s America

by

Howard Adelman

There is an extreme irony in watching Barack Obama leave power and be succeeded by The Donald, who has graduated from being Trump Two Two to being Trump Three Three Three. His self-deceit is so great that he must now reassure himself by repeating his messages no longer just twice, but three times. Trump won the presidency in good part by appealing to identity politics, not the identity politics of minorities who feel discriminated against, but the identity politics of a majority at the cusp of becoming a minority at the same time as their sense of personal identity and identification with the major direction of their nation dissolved before their very eyes. Trump did produce a revolution. He turned the heads of those who were drowning in nostalgia from looking at the receding past to looking for a chimera in the future. At the same time, he made those who strived to bring about a new future, in the words of Michael Brenner, look backwards for comfort and consolation. In terms of nostalgia, the positions of the regressives and the progressives have been inverted.

After Election Day, President Barack Obama expressed the hope that once Donald Trump became President, he would moderate his behaviour. Hope can curse one with mindblindness. But Trump proves again and again that he is deeply ethically challenged with an, as yet, inexplicable admiration for the authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. A New Yorker columnist quipped that the Donald was an advocate of “Peronism on the Potomac” as well as being a “xenophobic populist.” He has appointed cabinet members demonstrably unqualified for their positions – Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a critic of public education and an ignorant one at that; Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier charged with running the Environmental Protection Agency; Steven Mnuchin, one of five Goldman Sachs alumni appointed by Trump to the government coming from a company he once pointed to as a major source of the swamp in Washington. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is inexperienced, irrational, unstable, thin skinned, but with a deep conviction that he knows something better than anyone else, yet he shows little interest in reading or in the process of policy formation. And he often appears unhinged, as when he appeared before the American intelligence community yesterday. More and more, he presents himself as a clear and present danger to democratic government. ­

In yesterday’s Torah study group, as the rabbi pointed out, we had a rare confluence when the text being studied directly spoke to the contemporary situation, so I have an opportunity to marry biblical commentary to contemporary politics. The verse reads as follows:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)

When the text reads, “a new king,” does it mean just a new person taking the throne of Egypt (Trump as a democratically elected monarch) or does it mean a king at the beginning of a new line of succession, neither Democrat or Republican at heart? Or perhaps it means a new kind of king. Or all three! In the biblical text, a new line of succession is at least suggested because of the omission of any reference to forebears. After all, a king’s legitimacy depended in good part on a long inheritance line. Most commentators suggest that what took place was a dynastic change, and, further, and even more importantly, a change that discarded old patterns of behaviour and initiated new and even revolutionary ones.

This is also suggested by the way the new Egyptian king took power. He arose over Egypt – עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם. It is one thing to rule over Egypt. It is quite another to rise to power “over” Egypt, which suggests a palace coup or a revolt. Third, one manifestation of this generic change is what the king does with his power. How does he spend the government treasury – on pyramids? Or on public works or on the military? This new king spent the Egyptian treasury on the military and used the Hebrews as slaves to build new cities for stores or supplies, miskenoth –מִסְכְּנוֹת֙.

וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־ רַעַמְסֵֽס: And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. (Exodus 1:11)

See also 1 Kings 9:19; 2 Chronicles 8:4, 8:6, 16:4 and 17:12. The last makes clear that a store “city” is a fortress.

There is a fourth factor defining the new character of a ruler – who the ruler points to as the enemies of the state. In this case, the text is explicitly clear. It is the Israelites who are defined not only as the Other, but the proliferating Other, the threatening Other, the Other which can act as a Fifth Column for Egypt’s external enemies. However, the major emphasis is a fifth factor. This king “knew not Joseph.” It could simply mean that the new king had not been acquainted with Egyptian history and with Joseph’s role in that history. Not a very plausible conclusion since the generation of Joseph had just died off.

There is a much more plausible account that can connect the different strands of legitimization together. Joseph was not only a Vizier who saved Egypt through a period of famine by developing a system for collecting and storing food in the good times and then a system for distributing that food in the bad times. But he did something else as well. First, he operated a welfare state collecting the wealth of society so that all could be fed. He then exchanged bread for the livestock of the inhabitants. (Genesis :47:17) The people lost their flocks and their herds. Then when the people ran out of animals, they exchanged their land for food. (47:19) Further, they then worked the land in return for a percentage of the produce giving Pharaoh a fifth of everything they produced. 20% of gross sales, not just 20% of profits went to Pharaoh. Joseph had either converted a country of freeholders into a feudal state or converted a decentralized feudal country into a centralized collectivist economy. Further, he moved the people into cities and lauded old Jewish values which gave priority to the city, to civilization, but, in the process, probably created a mass of discontented Egyptians who likely lived just above the poverty line in an alien environment they detested. They longed for the old Egypt rooted in the banks of the Nile where rituals were attuned with the annual floods.

It is hard to believe that the new king would not know what Joseph had done. It is far more likely that the new pharaoh (initially just a king) knew precisely what Joseph had done and had rallied the ex-Egyptian herders and shepherds and landowners to overthrow the old dynasty precisely because of resentment over their new status as serfs or urbanized poor. What then could “he knew not Joseph” mean? At the very least, it meant that the new king of Egypt created a competing narrative to the one in which Joseph saved Egypt, saved the state, saved the establishment in power, but, in the new version, did so for the benefit of those in power and at the cost of the traditional way of life of the Egyptians. In the new version, Joseph and his tribe could be blamed for destroying the old social order. Since they were foreigners, they were doubly suspect.

With the background of the biblical text, look more closely at Trump’s inaugural speech. Instead of a record and narrative of survival from the threat of drought, (from the Great Recession of 2008), Trump describes a state of carnage. Not in 2007, but in 2017, ten years later. And he began, not by acknowledging traditions, not by acknowledging past accomplishments, not even by pointing to the constitution of the United States as the source of legitimation for a new ruler. “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” not to the constitution or even the flag.

The expression, “We the people,” is taken to its populist extreme. “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.” That promise was betrayed, not just by the previous Democratic regime, but by Republicans as well. These Washington politicians all betrayed their country and allowed it to fall into decay, into crime, into impoverishment of a whole swath of Americans. The promise, the covenant with the people of America, had been broken. It is time to restore power to the people preached Donald Trump.

As Trump said, inauguration day did not just mean the peaceful transition from one governing group to another. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Can you not just hear the new king of Egypt standing on the balcony of his palace and asserting that for too long, a small group in Thebes reaped the rewards while the people bore the costs, bore the burdens. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” The jobs left and the factories closed. The animal herds disappeared and you the people were forced to work the land, no longer for yourselves, but to enrich those in power with the taxes imposed upon you.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” Trump pronounced a new beginning. “All change starts right here and right now.” This is not 2017 of the Common Era, but year 1 of the Trump Era, “the likes of which the world has never seen before.” “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (my italics) That is Trump Two Two speaking in his inaugural address. When he says only America, he means only me, for he sees himself as the embodiment of the American spirit. Unfortunately, in the history of politics, the phenomenon of demagoguery has been seen too often before. “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This is precisely the definition of a demagogue, “a leader championing the cause of the common people,” and doing so by distortions and outright lies, using false claims and even falser promises. One does not have to refer to Adolph Hitler and his promise to make Germany a great world power or Benito Mussolini’s promise to return Italy to the great and glorious days of the Roman Empire. Demagoguery is as much part of American tradition as the American constitution. Think of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, Theodore Bilbo, twice Governor of Mississippi and later a U.S. Senator (“Listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me, I’ll give you a lesson in history” – a camp song I learned as a kid), Father Coughlin with his radio sermons in the dirty thirties, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. The bogey men may shift, but the elites are usually controlled by and/or in service to an unworthy and threatening group –  Blacks, Jews, Reds. The enemy shifts and may be Mexicans and Muslims, but the construction of an enemy alien never does. James Fenimore Cooper, in his 1838 essay “On Demagogues,” recognized the danger rooted in the deep populist strain of American politics. “The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting (my italics) a deep devotion to the interests of the people.”

The elements are always the same. The enemy is an elite and the demagogue opposes the elite in the name of the people with whom he establishes a visceral rather than cognitive connection rooted in agreements over policies. A demagogue connects to the people by appealing to their fears and hatreds and by pointing to the dreams and hopes that they once had and claims that they had been dashed by a powerful cabal. The new deliverer is ostensibly opposed both to that elite and the collectivities it serves. But the motivation is always the same – the narcissistic urges of all demagogues, their own inflated sense of self, their own gargantuan ambitions, and their disrespect for the norms of truth, the norms of decency, the norms of conduct and, in the end, the norms established by the rule of law.  Donald Trump is a demagogue, not only because he is the best expression of all these characteristics, but because he even disdains his own party as an institution through which he connects with the people. His connection is direct. “What truly matters is not which party controls government, but whether the government is controlled by the people.”

It is one thing in a democracy to assert that a government must be responsible to and for the people and be accountable to them. It is quite another to (falsely) claim that government is controlled by the people. It is not. It never has been. It never will be. And demagogues are the only ones who utter such a blatant lie. Plato declared that any demagogue once he gains power cannot help but drift towards tyranny. Aristotle insisted that the most dangerous form of government was one in which the people and not the law have supreme power, a false claim always made by demagogues to seize power.

The trajectory is horrific to watch. Traditions and norms that took centuries to build are destroyed in only a few years. As the opposition takes to the streets in larger and larger numbers, the new “leader” insists that order demands a sacrifice of a degree of freedom. Rule can only be exercised with a strong hand. And Trump has openly stated that he admires “order and strength” – and military parades. But, as Polybius once pointed out, the decay had set in much earlier, for without that decay, a demagogue could not have achieved power in the first place. But whatever the preparation, the demagogic storm seems to come out of the blue.  Like Cleon, who brought Athenian democracy to its knees, Donald Trump has entered the fray as a political tsunami. And what he says means precisely the opposite.

“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Translation – I am the only one that can take you to the promised land. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And attendees at the inaugural time and again applauded these words of pure demagoguery.

But the proof text came in one sentence, not the plethora of lies that rewrote history and misrepresented America’s past accomplishments and current success, though these seemed to be the preoccupation of most of the media. Donald Trump said, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The Bible says no such thing. It is a tale of divisions. And there are divisions in interpreting those divisions. Take the text with which we started.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The instant response of Jews in both the ancient and the modern world has been to pray for the welfare of the government of whatever country Jews lived in, even when the leadership of that country would turn out to be bad for the Jews as well as everyone else. In every prayer book of whatever denomination and whatever country, the Jews express loyalty to the country in which they live through a prayer, most often not in Hebrew, but in the language of that country.

When the new king arose over Egypt, one can imagine the Israelites praying for the new government, asking everyone to give him a chance and let him prove himself. But how they said it, what they said and why they said it varied. Jeremiah (29:4-7), who offered perhaps the first advice to pray for the welfare of the existing government, advised, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But the advice was strictly qualified. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie.”

Rabbi Chanina bar Chama of Babylon, one of the great Talmudic sages and interpreters of the Mishna who also, with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, went in person to pledge loyalty to the Roman government in Caesarea, in his version of the prayer for the welfare of the government, included a Hobbesian reason: “if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.” Without government, all would be anarchy and daily life would be a tooth-and-claw existence. This was the complement to the false prophet warning, the fear of the mob, of the populace, for without government (good or bad) and order, all would be chaos.

If Jeremiah feared false prophets as leaders, if he feared demagogues, and Chanina feared the irrationality of the masses, other prayers were far more circumspect, perhaps because they feared the wrath of the government turning against them. The fears are not explicitly expressed, but quotes are lifted from psalms which seem benign enough until you read the quote in the full context of the whole psalm. The allusion to the fears is located in those psalms rather than in the prayers themselves.

Many contemporary prayers for the welfare of the state leave out explicitly or even by implication any reference to fears. I would guess that just before the Inquisition, Jews did so as well. The prayer for the welfare of the government is unabashed. This is true of our prayer book in our synagogue which was our rabbi’s tweak of the older prayer in the siddur, The Gates of Prayer (1975). In Siddur Pirchei Kodesh (2011), our current Holy Blossom Temple Reform prayer book (in the U.S. Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, 2007), the prayer for the welfare of the country is offered without either an allusion to or certainly any expression and recognition of a danger. Like most American prayers (our rabbi is from Chicago), the prayer is usually of the flavour that asks God to make those leaders the best that they can be. There is no expression that they may turn out to be the worst possible.

Should we pray for Donald Trump and his government, pray that God make him and his government the best that it can be? Or do we recognize the real dangers and pray for the collapse of that government sooner rather than later given its obvious inherent dangers?

I think readers know where I stand.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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