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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Parshat Bo: Humility Without Humiliation

This week's parashah/portion, Bo (Shemot/Exodus 10:1 - 13:16), includes within it the final three plagues brought against Egypt.  We also read of the first Passover Seder meal, observed by the Israelites as the horror of the tenth plague coursed through Egypt. It ends with the Israelites setting forth by the light of the full moon on their journey out of Egypt and into freedom and the unknown.

The story is so familiar. Yet, as with all narratives of the Torah, if one pays attention to the text one can find a myriad of new truths within. And just as no two people are exactly alike, neither are two truths.

The truth of which I became aware while reading the
parashah was sparked by my initial misreading of a commentary on chapter 12, verses 31-32. After the horror of the tenth plague has been visited on Egypt, Moses and Aaron are summoned to Pharaoh's house. Pharaoh then says to them, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! " Go; worship the Lord as you said! Take also you flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!"

In the JPS Torah commentary, Nahum Sarna comments that for Pharaoh to seek Moses and Aaron's blessing is the ultimate humbling of the despot. The first time I read this, I read this line as “humiliation of the despot.” I understood this misreading as stating that for Pharaoh to ask Moses and Aaron for a blessing is the quintessential humiliation of the tyrant after realizing that he was worthless and powerless.
  That is truly humiliation.  But Sarna writes of humility, which is something else entirely.

Living, as we do, in a world where so many people flaunt their accomplishments in order to prove their brilliance, humility is not often found (or appreciated), as it should be. It is true that we can be brilliant.
 It is true that we can be talented.  We can make the world a better place through our actions.

According to the Torah, we are the only beings created in the image of God. We are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. We each carry within us a spark of the Divine light. So if we are indeed brilliant and talented, why be humble? Why not simply admit our brilliance and revel in our mastery over “lesser beings” in the universe?

First, in spite of the brilliance that human beings can and do often possess, we need only look at our history of destruction, pollution, violence and greed to find other reasons not to be proud of who and what we are. However, it is often easier to close our eyes than to admit that reality.

Yet, when we close our eyes to the shortfalls of humanity, which is part of what makes us human, we can easily become caught in the snare of pride and hubris. Yet, those who focus only on the shortfalls and deny the beauty and brilliance are just as easily caught in the trap of humiliation and shame.  Adhering to either extreme point of view, we simply end up stuck wherever we are. We are unable to move. Unable to do the work to improve our world. And that is not what being human is all about.

In this week's parashah, and the one that precedes it, Moses and Aaron are constantly commanded to seek freedom for the people so they can go into the desert to worship God. Pharaoh's advisers urge him to give permission to the Israelites, perhaps because they realize that Egypt is lost. However, Pharaoh is unable to see this. Even when he seems to be convinced after yet another plague, he still places conditions upon the Israelites. Moses and Aaron wish to leave with all the adults, children and their herds to worship God in the desert. Pharaoh first tells them that only the men may go, for he fears that
  they will not return. Eventually, he acquiesces slightly and agrees to allow the women and children to go, but the herds must stay behind. Moses refuses this offer for he knows that they must have the flocks with them in order to choose the proper animals for sacrifice to God.

Of course, Pharaoh refuses and the rest is history - and tragedy. In this
  narrative, Pharaoh is the epitome of hubris and pride. He is unable to believe that there is anything or anyone greater than he. He deliberately ignores his advisers because he does not believe that Egypt could be lost. For that would mean that Pharaoh himself was lost, for Pharaoh was Egypt.

Yet, it could be said that he was trying to temper his hubris and strictness with a modicum of compassion by allowing some of the Israelites to leave, or even all of them without their herds.
 However, what he does not realize is that it is an all or nothing proposition.  He is not making the rules.  The Israelites are a single unit and this unit includes everyone and everything. Even the smallest animal is part of the whole. This is perhaps the essence of humility.  To realize that we are connected to everything in the universe, including the animals and plants, is to acknowledge being created in God's image.  This is what connects us and makes us responsible for all of God's creation, even if we are not we are in control of it.

Moses and Aaron knew that in order to worship God they needed to go together as a single unit. No one or nothing could be left behind. Complete unity was required. Pharaoh believed that all of creation was subservient to him. Moses and Aaron understood that all of creation is united as one and subject only to the One that is the Source of all. This too is the essence of humility.

Pharaoh's inability to see divinity in others and the world around him caused him to learn the powerful and painful lesson that his perceived divinity was nothing but a fantasy.
  This inability to find humility is what brought about his humiliation. He was no more, or no less, divine than any other human being. However, this was not something that a Pharaoh could accept. For in Pharaoh’s mind his divinity and power were the all or nothing proposition. 

Once it became clear to him that he was not a god, he was forced to reject the essence of his entire existence. He would not allow himself to see that God was within him as well as within the Israelites, as well as the Egyptians. All he could see was that the Israelite God was more powerful than the Egyptian gods, including him. Because of this distorted perception of reality, he could only feel humiliation. It was from that place of humiliation, that he asked Moses to bring a blessing upon him just as he (Moses) had brought a blessing upon the Hebrews by bringing about their freedom.

Even here, Pharaoh missed the point yet again. He was unable to see that Moses did not bring the blessing of freedom upon the people, nor could he bring it upon Pharaoh.
  God freely gave the blessing.  And God gave this blessing not because of anything the people did or said. The blessing was given because the people were God's people, just as are we all.

The blessing that Pharaoh sought was, and is, within everyone. It is part of what it means to be human. Pharaoh only needed to understand and accept this in order to receive (or should I say recognize) the blessing. He did not need to ask Moses or anyone else. Unfortunately, he was incapable of this kind of humility. He could only feel the humiliation that came from the realization that without his perceived power he was nothing.

The middle path, which is what all human being must strive for, means acknowledging that our sense of power over the universe, or even ourselves, is ultimately an illusion. At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that we are all part of the One that is God.

All humanity, indeed all of creation, is blessed. But we cannot experience that blessing until we acknowledge where and who we are in that moment.
  Then we begin to experience existence with a heart of wisdom and compassion that leads us to care for and love all of creation. This begins in the place where there is humility without humiliation, gratitude without pride, and strength without the illusion of power or control.

parashah ends with the commandment that every first born of the Israelites and every first born of their flocks shall be dedicated to God as a reminder of the death of the first born of Egypt, which helped to bring them freedom. This commandment is also a reminder of our interconnectedness. We are all in this together. All creatures belong to God and all creatures much be cherished and protected. Yes, we are free. However, we can only appreciate and embody true freedom if we recognize that we are still responsible and connected to something
greater than ourselves. We can only appreciate our freedom when we sense this connection and realize all that has been sacrificed by others for the sake of that freedom.

All creatures must sacrifice something. This is part of existence. The
  dedication of the firstborn simultaneously reminds us of the sacrifice of others and the need to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of unity. For unity is the essence of humility. Unity is the essence of what it means to be a blessing to us and to all of creation. It is the essence of what it means to be created in the image of the Divine. Realizing that we are connected to and responsible for all of creation is the essence of what it means to be truly free.

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