Friday, December 24, 2010
Parshat Shemot: The Journey Into Slavery Begins
This week's parashah is Shemot (Exodus/Shemot 1:1 – 6:1). The saga of slavery and redemption that we remember each year at the time of Passover, as well as now during the Torah reading cycle, begins with this parashah.
The narrative opens by reminding us of the names (shemot) of the sons of Jacob/Israel. Then we read that the Israelites multiplied greatly in Egypt. In fact, the Torah tells us that they "swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (1:7)." This increase in population is the reason given by Pharaoh for his decision to enslave the people.
Many commentators have wondered why it was necessary to give any reason for the enslavement. After all, Abraham was told in Bereshit/Genesis 15:13 "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years." If the enslavement was portrayed as part of "God's plan" then Pharaoh needed no reason for his persecution of the Israelites. And yet, the Torah text provides us with precisely that.
In her excellent and compelling book on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture (which I HIGHLY recommend), Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes that the concept of the Israelites 'swarming' over the land is viewed in two different ways. The majority of midrashim (rabbinic exegetical tales) comment that the increase in the Israelite population represents a victory of life over death and serves as a reminder of the eternality of God and God's promise that the people shall be numerous. Jacob and his sons, including Joseph, may be dead, as the opening lines remind us, but the people itself lives and flourishes. This is all due to God's promise and serves as a reminder of the Divine presence. Life and God are eternal and the proliferation of the Israelite people is proof of this.
However, Seforno (16th century, Italy) holds a minority opinion that views this description of Israelite growth as a condemnation. The phrase "and they swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly" is likened by him to the swarming and increase of insects. Actually, the root of the Hebrew verb "to swarm" (sh-r-tz) is also the root of the word for insect. Seforno condemns the Israelites by claiming that the people, which once consisted of individuated and highly evolved persons such as Jacob and Joseph, has now deteriorated to the point where they were simply a mass of "unindividuated 'insect-like' conformists, whose whole effort is to assimilate to their surrounds..."(Zornberg, p. 19).
Initially, I rejected this interpretation. It felt a little too much like blaming the victims for their plight. In doing so, it would appear that Seforno is relieving Pharaoh of responsibility for his actions. And yet, if the Torah tells us that this was part of God's plan, why does anyone need to be blamed? Why can't we simply take slavery as a “fact” and move on?
The answer is simple. If we were to do this, we would miss the opportunity to learn anything from this central religious myth of the Jewish people. In her analysis of Seforno, Zornberg points out that his interpretation "has constructed a narrative of failure, guilt, punishment, where the biblical text seemed to give us only the facts of suffering..." However, Zornberg continues, Seforno "invites us to reflect on the ways in which slavery, persecution and alienation ... are generated by human beings...and - in the same vein - on the meaning of redemption, exodus, freedom. In doing this, he stands in a tradition of commentators who read the Exodus narrative psycho-spiritually, from the point of view of the victim who seeks redemption, in the intimate as well as the political sense." (Zornberg, p.21).
Zornberg's analysis changed my feelings about Seforno's original commentary. For, rather than viewing his comments as blaming the victim, I was able to view them as putting the onus for their growth and redemption on the Israelites themselves. In order to say that we play a role in bringing about our own redemption, we must first admit that on a deep level we play a role in our own enslavement.
Interpreting the name mitzrayim (Egypt) as meitzarim (the narrow/constricted places), being caught in the snares of slavery there represents the ways in which our spirits can become caught in the snares of self-enslavement. Slavery then comes to represent how we constrict ourselves in narrow places by becoming part of the assimilated masses rather than standing up for who we are and what we believe. I am speaking here not simply of the concept of religious and cultural assimilation, but of the assimilation of the individual into the swarm of humanity. This is what causes us to turn our backs on what it means to be a unique individual created in the image of God, yet also part of the greater community and all of humanity.
Therefore, if, as Seforno posits, we become part of the swarm by simply merging our individual selves with society then it is up to us to bring about our redemption. We achieve this by separating ourselves from the communal swarm and instead becoming individuals dedicated to caring for our world, our people and ourselves in our own unique ways, rather than simply being like 'everyone else.'
This is a message of the story of slavery and redemption that I had never considered in the past. However, I think it speaks to us in a time when assimilation, acculturation and being 'part of the swarm' is a force that is constantly gaining strength.
This commentary calls on us to strive for the sense of individuality combined with communal responsibility that was at the heart of the civil rights movement, anti-war movements and the various movements for social change and justice today. These efforts stand in opposition to the idea of merging with the masses and swarming that was at the root of so many dark times in American history from the Salem witch hunts to McCarthyism and up until today. And it is a call that I believe it is important for us to heed at this, and every, time in our history.
However, what can prevent us from becoming part of this swarm? How do we maintain our sense of unique godliness and individuality in the face of the numerous forces urging us to join the masses and be like everyone else - which in the end means being like nothing?
The answer would seem to be that we must have a clear sense of self. We need to be sure of who we are. Yet, perhaps that in itself a dangerous misconception. For in the end it is merely a trick of the ego, for the ego wants nothing more than for us to believe that we are who we are and that we will never change. For this keeps us ensnared and reliant upon the ego to tell us who we are. It also separates us from others and from Divine flow in the universe.
This may be the opposite of swarming, but it's effects are just as damaging. For in feeling so secure in our identity, we forget that we are ever-changing beings, and that in certain ways our identity is dependent upon how we connect with the universe. By convincing us that we are independent rather than interdependent, and individual selves rather than part of the greater One, the ego keeps us separated from God and humanity. For it convinces us that the self - the ego - is a kind of god in itself. All the overemphasis on the power and importance of the self ultimately leads to enslavement, as much as does the mob mentality and lack of individuation of "swarming."
Whether by swarming as part of the mob or separating ourselves with the help of the ego, either extreme leads to enslavement and despair. The only way to prevent us from going to either extreme is by remembering that the ultimate ground of our existence is connection with the Divine flow of the universe. This sense of connection and oneness leads us to compassion for all of existence. It also releases those who are enslaved, whether the master is the self or the undifferentiated mass of the "swarm." If we remember this then we will remain on the path towards righteousness, justice and kindness. This path leads to the redemption of our world and enables us to split the seas of oppression and injustice that hold us back so that we may all cross to the other side where freedom awaits.
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 5:49 PM
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