Commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, Psalms and other biblical texts. Written by Rabbi Steven Nathan, these are based on mindfulness principles, mystical tradition and personal musings. (Note: for those unfamiliar, Torah refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy. A different parashah/portion is chanted in the synagogue each week so that the entire Torah is read over the course of each year)
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Friday, January 4, 2013
Parshat Shemot: The Journey Into Slavery Begins
I first wrote this commentary/d'var torah three years ago. However, given the current political situation in our country (and elsewhere) where so many seem enslaved to their own ego or ideology, I felt it was still quite appropriate. Hopefully, the day will come when it will not. Shabbat Shalom, Steve Nathan ________________________________________________________________________________
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
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).
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?
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).
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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?
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.
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."
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.