Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bo: Schadenfreude

"There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt."--Martin Luther King Jr.

In my piece on Parshas Miketz I pointed out what might have been the first recorded example of institutionalized racism: Bereishis 43:32, where the “Egyptians could not eat [together with the] Hebrews, because it was an abomination for Egypt.” I also discussed in detail the moral implications of exploiting ethno-racial tensions for one’s group benefit.

A similar case occurs in Parshas Bo. As Moses warns Pharaoh of the impending makas bechoros, he tells of the range of victims (Shemos 11:5): “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne even unto the first born of the maidservant”; and later, when the plague actually takes place (12:29): “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne even unto the first born of the captive in the pit”. Rashi’s comments are telling: the other slaves and prisoners who were victims of Pharaonic tyranny rejoiced at Israel's suffering and participated in their debasement.

I might have been able to relate to the shvuyim and avadim. During my school-age years, I was not only the classic class nerd-geek, but a nerd-geek li’mehadrin: a loser le’chol hadayos. Even the other nerds would pick on me. Apparently, not only would we be relieved when the powers-that-be would focus their malevolence on someone else; it would indicate that someone else was at the bottom of the pecking order.

Yet I was at a recent Shabbos meal relaying a theory I had about the current conflict in Gaza, that the Palestinian “civilians” of that territory had brought about their own predicament as they had “freely elected” a terrorist government. I heard a complaint that the exhibition of schadenfraude was not a Jewish trait; after all, did not G-d silence the angels when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea? I retorted: one, the angels were silenced, but the Jews kept on singing; two, as the gemara in Megilla (16b) relates when Mordechai gave Haman a kick as he was being helped up onto the King’s horse and Haman weakly quoted “binpol oyivcha al tismach”, Mordechai responded “hani mili be’Yisrael”—but, regarding those such as you—“ve’ata al bamoseimo tidroch”, [you] we will tread upon [their] your heights.

This is especially prevalent nowadays, what with the international community, terrorist sympathizers, and terrorists themselves counting on our deluding ourselves into thinking that self-defense—never mind scahdenfreude—is somehow both dishonorable and un-Jewish. Occasionally, a quote attributed to Caligula may come to mind (“Don’t instruct me how to deal with my enemies”) but an exegesis of Dr. King’s adage that opens this essay should suffice: while one should always be on the side of the Israel against the Egypt, one does NOT need to be on the side of the angels (e.g., as the ones who were instructed by G-d to stop singing at krias yam suf), particularly when one's survival is on the line.

Or, more poignantly, the medrash: "Kol ha-merachem al ha-achzarim, sofo le-achzer al ha-rachmanim"--all who are merciful toward the cruel, will eventually be cruel toward the mmerciful. A more pertinent description of the current moral universe would be hard to find.

Know your Israels.

Know your Egypts.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Vaera: First Families and In/Tolerance

Originally, my theme was going to be about “first families”, what with the undeniably historical moment of the inauguration of President Obama.

Without stretching the analogy too much, I was going to try to find parallels between the Torah’s apparent digression from the beginning of the geula story to a partial recount of the Bnei Yisrael geneaology in listing the generations of Reuven, Shimon and Levi.

The obvious question is why the partial lineage recount, and Rashi states that in truth only Levite generations were supposed to be recounted here, so as to arrive at Moshe and Aharon (hence, “First Families”), but because Yaakov’s parting brachos in Parshas Vayechi began with rebukes of these three families, they all merited mention here as reminder of their chashivus.

I would posit that Rashi was trying to tell us something about the nature of leadership in his linking of the birkos Yaakov with this parsha: that leadership involves the ability to withstand criticism (even, sometimes, the ad hominem variety) before one takes office; that much true leadership is forged in crises; and, that the families of leaders can be very instructive about the nature of said leaders, to the point that sometimes questions that involve close scrutiny of said leaders’ families are not necessarily out of bounds (witness how the Torah puts Aharon’s shidduch under a microscope).

I was going to draw parallels from both the recently departed and new sworn in Presdiential administration, in spite of (or maybe because of) the extensive media and other coverages harping on just these themes.

Then Reb Shlomo Ressler’s weekly Dvar arrived in my inbox, and I had a whole new theme to contend with:

The Rebbi of Gur explains, the Hebrew word that means 'burden' (“sivlos”) also means 'tolerant', which would make the Passuk (verse) read..."I will deliver you from being tolerant of Egypt…they were too tolerant of their surroundings! Hashem therefore told them, and is telling us, that the first step Jews have to take is to realize when we are 'slaves' to our society. If we tolerate our surroundings, not only will we not appreciate how LUCKY we are to be different, but also we'll forget that we even ARE different! In a society where some people hide their religious identity, the Torah is telling us to always keep in mind our ultimate differences as Jews, to never settle for being just like everyone else, and to love it, show it, and prove it in constructive ways every chance we get!

Being the cold-blooded “modernist” that I am, my instinctual reading of this was two-fold: first, as an exhortation to play up more visible cultural differences; and two, an implicit instruction to follow what is known as “Da’as Torah”, as opposed to current mainstream ethical norms, as our ultimate moral arbiters. Hence, the exhortations to be “intolerant”.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. Perfect fodder for my usual “modern” polemics.

So I decided to go one better: turn all of these themes on their head.

In last weeks’ parsha, when Moshe and Aharon first approach Pharaoh, they are kicked out the palace with a “Lechu le’sivloseichem!”—“Go back to your work”, which Rashi expounds to mean that none of b’nei Levi were actually enslaved. It was almost as if Pharaoh disbelieved that these “elite” Hebrews could actually care about their less fortunate brethren: “What are you guys doing? You actually have your own lives. You have an elite position as priests. You actually care about your charges’ conditions?” This is the first “sivlos” that Bnei Yisrael must be removed from.

It’s possible that Pharaoh read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and figured that the elite of an oppressed people would emulate Bledsoe, the college president, who has settled into a black stereotype in order to succeed in the white-dominated society: “You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity—you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people—then stay in the dark and use it!” It doesn’t occur to Pharaoh that there is another type of leader. Again, the parallels—however loose—to our new President are evident: the question of what you do with power when you ostensibly come from the ranks of the powerless, but in point of fact have been able to avoid many of the “sivlos” that your less fortunate brethren/sistren have not, and have had your own “sivlos” to deal with. You also may or may not have a clearer picture of what are “sivlos”, and, on the other hand, might require “savlanus”.

My second point would definitely be taken as more controversial: as much as midrashim and commentaries harp on bnei yisrael practically drowning in the tumah of eretz mitzrayim to the point that they teetered on the precipice of the 49th sha’ar, they also go out of their way to point out the nevertheless bnei yisrael actually merited geual because they stubbornly maintained their ethno-cultural identity: “Lo shinu es shemam, leshonam, malbusham”: they didn’t change their distinctive names, language, or garb.

So they never tried to blend in, even as they absorbed Egyptian culture?

I think that this is where we have to look at an alternate translation of “sivlos” not just as “tolerance”, but as “patience” (“Savlanut” being a characteristic Israeli rallying cry), a sort of spiritual complacency. Its possible that the Hebrews in mitzrayim might actually have been “frum” enough by some standards. There are midrashim that say the meraglim were afraid that once in Eretz Yisrael, the Jews, no longer getting the manna and learning 24/7, would lose their exalted spiritual level; hence they issued the dibba ra’ah: “nitnah rosh ve’nashuva mitraymah”—lets go back to Egypt where we were frummer! Even in such a depraved environment—but WE were frum!

They could no longer take what they perceived as spiritual risks…even when G-d mandated it.

In his treatment of Megillas Esther (“The Dawn”), Yoram Hazony makes a distinction between purity and morality, especially in the political arena. As I understand it, he basically says that the strive for purity comes as the expense of morality; in other words, its almost immoral to strive for a level of purity that removes one from the necessity to take risks, even spiritual ones. (This is why Mordechai, after all he did to save the Jews, was only “ratzui le’rov echav” as opposed to “kol echav”—some people weren’t happy that he had the “gall” to leave the beis medrash.)

This, I think is the link between “First Families” and “Tolerance” as far as leadership goes: the realization that, whether one seeks high office or has it thrust upon them, that exercise of leadership involves grave responsibilities on a moral level, and that making choices based upon what seems to be “purer” and ostensibly avoids moral/spiritual risk may not always necessarily be the right choice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Shemos: Syllabi

The question is asked in the very first Rashi in Bereishis why the Torah doesn’t start from “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim”, in Bo. The answer there is given that its to teach the lesson that, b’kitzur, G-d giveth and taketh away—-or, more poignantly, G-d taketh away and giveth to someone else you may not at all like—-at his leisure and convenience, because everything belongs to Him.

Jump to the beginning of Sefer Vayikra and from the outset we are referred back to Bereishis, when the posuk says “Adam ki yakriv mi-kem”: your sacrificial offerings msut be as free from the taint of gezel as if from “Adam”, i.e. the categorical impossibility of Adam HaRishon stealing anything, because everything in the world belonged to him.

(I’m not sure whether Tony Montana had this Rashi in mind when he adopted “The World Is Yours" as his motto. However, he knew when someone was a "chazzar": "the guy, he wants more than what he needs.")

This provides another one of the classical midrashic-haskafic conundra that pop up from time to time (e.g., the free will mishna in Avos, “hakol tzafui he-hasreshut nitnah”), but I propose that the apparent tension inherent in these two Rashis—everything is G-d’s vs. everything is Adam’s—can be used to illustrate the links between what might be termed the central theme of S'farim Bereishis and Vayikra, how Shemos serves as the bridge between the two, and how the "bridging" is the theme of Shemos itself.

Once at a (mighta been an UWS) shabbos meal I mused aloud that Sefer Bereshis was, when you got down to it, all about…relationships. Specifically, relationships involving…relations; especially, inappropriate relations, ones that ran the gamut in levels of impropriety.

(What I’m obviously circumlocuting here is that I said Bereishis was all about sex. It got everyones attention but ultimately detracted from what I was trying to point out. Occupational hazard.)

One way to illustrate this—-and, tangentially, the tension between a universal G-d- given absolute morality yet one reliant to some degree of human intuition—-is the fact that ostensibly, the 7 mitzvos benei noach weren’t given until after the Flood, leaving the dor hamabul with a possible ex-post facto defense. Obviously, since it didn’t hold up in Court, there must have been a reason for its rejection. The Gemara in Sanhedrin details that, really, the 7 mitzvot are couched in various remazim from psukim in Bereishis when G-d talks to Adam, so the law was, as it were, already “on the books”.

Yet the fact that it wasn’t truly codified until after the mabul (hence “mitvzos benei Noach”) indicates that G-d was, to some extent, relying upon humankind to, as it were, almost intuit morality on their own (this may be one way to explain the tzelem elokim). G-d almost allowed there to be a moral laboratory, with very little constraint upon experimentation; witness the description of how idolatry began and proliferated, and the concomitant widespread explosion of sexual practices (which, Rashi and the medrash intimate, involved serious issues of lack of consent in many cases). Yet G-d didn’t close the lab until it became clear that there were no rules anymore whatsoever and the everyone’s aim was to just hurt one another. Post-flood, G-d steps in and makes the rules a bit more clear; its obvious that people needed to be pointed in the right direction.

Despite the Divine input and legislation, these themes obviously recur in a loop throughout Sefer Bereishis: both in terms of arayot (two examples: Avraham having to fight two monarchs to keep them off his wife, and the whole episode with Er and Onan and Yehuda and Tamar; see my Tznius series) and damim (for an “international” example, see Nimrod and Avraham; for an internecine example, see Yosef and his brothers).

By the time we get to the end of Sefer Bereishis, it seems that some lessons have been learned the hard way. This is indicated at the beginning of this weeks parsha: “shivim nefesh ve-yosef haya be-mitzrayim:” some semblance of a family unit with a set of stable relations between persons and sexes had been established, as a result of the travails involving Yosef.

Shemos indicates that some of the lessons of Bereishis have been learned—witness Shifra and Puah’s defiance of Pharaoh and the culture of life promulgated by the Jewish women in the direst of circumstances (“shesh be-keres echad”; “ken yirbeh”).

Then again, it indicates that there is much to be learned, both on an international level (the first recorded instance of the imposition of a specifically racio-ethno-nationally based enslavement, the Curse of Canaan notwithstanding) and internecine (Moshe, “refing” the Datan-Aviram bout, realizing that the lessons are obviously not yet learned. “Achen noda ha-davar”, indeed).

Sefer Shemos, then, links the “kol ha-aretz shel hakadosh baruch hu hi” of Bereishis 1:1 and the “Adam ha-Rishon lo hikriv min ha-gezel” of Vayikra 1:2, the bridge between the true ben Adam le-chavero: the Genesis Syllabus, if you will--and, the ultimate ben Adam la-Makom: the Vayikra Syllabus.

In truth, the syllabi aren’t all that different. Which may explain why is isn’t until Kedoshim that we will see “Ve-ahavta la-re’acha kamocha.

Somewhere after the Vayikra midterms.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Vayechi: Ideals

The question is often asked how Biblical characters with ruach hakodesh lived their lives almost knowing their denouements. The clearest example of this is how the Gemara in Bava Basra details how Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the psukim dealing with his passing with his own tears.

Yaakov Avinu seems to have been suffering more from this nearly schizophrenic existence; one example might be when he sees that there is “shever” in Egypt and the medrash hints that he has some inkling that Yosef is alive there, even while he mourns his loss for 22 years, during which his ruach hakodesh is supposedly absent.

However, a starker contrast between “hakol tzafui” and “hareshut nitnah” might be embodied in this parsha, where Yaakov calls all his sons together—ostensibly to reveal the actual “ketz”, or moment of the geula, before his ruach hakodesh actually departs him; so he blesses each of them in turn instead.

In a very loose sense, what we might have here is a microcosm of trying to align a reality with a narrative ideal, loosely analogous to trying to align the way things “are” with the way they “ought to be”. One real marker of gadlus particularly among the avos was how they operated within this framework, almost seemingly exercising bechira in areas where they seemed not to have any.

Yet it is precisely in our day and age when the real and ideal are sometimes confused, when values and virtues are interchangeable, that the instructivity of such a stance becomes cautionary at best. One could toss about the usual Talmudic adages—“Lo Nitnah Torah le’Malachei Hashares” and the like—but that might not even be necessary here.

Judaism, and by extension, halacha, has been termed an “ought” culture. Many complaints abound about how Jews have forsaken “Jewish values” and “ideals” for other systems of thought or morality. This is precisely the problem. “Values”, “ideals” and “oughts” are always subjective. “Ideals” are especially tenuous as goals, because once they are attained, they cease to be ideals.

To be sure, with in the “grey areas” or the “reshus” between assur and mutar, there are at times “better” courses of action (and, as I detailed last week, actions that can only be appropriate in specific situations and not at other times.) Judaism might actually turn out to be the best example of “situational ethics” there is: what applies in situation A doesn’t apply in situation B. This does not lend itself to any sort of moral relativism; on the contrary, it demands that one recognize what type of situation exists before one applies laws. Or “morals”. Or “ideals”.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Vayigash: States of Emergency

All theocentric systems of thought have taken strong exception to any political philosophies that espouse strict command economies and major social engineering as prominent features of their programs. Witness, in the past century, major religions’ unbending opposition to Marxism. To be sure, the coummunist regimes’ avowed atheism played a major part; but even if they had been less militant in their godlessness, the opposition would have been nearly as unyielding.

Yet this weeks parsha, continuing from last weeks, details how Yosef, by now the almost sole source of law in Egypt (Pharaoh seemingly playing a W. role to Yosef’s Cheney), institutes an absolutely draconian command economy whereby first the money, then "moveables", and then the real estate of the Egyptian population come under the exclusive ownership of the Pharaonic regime. (All Egyptians were circumsized; all were reduced to some version of vassalage--while their offer to become actual slaves was not effected, there was a wholesale population transfer to diminish any feeling of land ownership.) Ostensibly, as I mentioned last week, this attempt to force equality on the entire population was intended to make life easier for Bnei Yisrael when these laws were to become applicable only to them. Alas.)

From the text, we can’t directly ascertain the Torah’s attitude toward this political system. In fact, it stands to reason that, in theory, the Torah might not find Yosef’s dictatorship particularly problematic, especially as it strongly favors monarchical governments, and furthermore, holds up unquestioning obeisance to a monarch as a paradigm of Avodas Hashem.

Moreover, there are other parshiyot that better lend themselves to discussions of whether Judaism favors a free market over a command economy (Behar and Bechukosai, especially) and the perils of social engineering (the story of Migdal Bavel in Noach).

I offer that, similar to what I said last week about taking advantage of ethno-political tensions for Jewish benefit, that sometimes what may not be the “best” solution may be the only solution. At the time of Yosef’s ascendance, the world was about to be plunged into its greatest economic and agricultural crisis. The Torah presents all of Yosef’s executive orders as specific responses to the increasing state of emergency.

Moreover, the fact that the Torah details how Yosef’s policy only became more incrementally draconian as the situation got worse, indicating that the socio-economic systems being implemented were far from the optimum.

My interpretation is that, on occasion, there might be something even less praiseworthy than exploiting socio-political tension. It’s the introduction of a “state of emergency” and its attendant decrees in cases where there may be none.

Anyone who has been the beneficiary of a Orthodox Torah education and is familiar with its interaction with the contemporary world at large is all too familiar with the incessant kol korei from pulpits and classrooms about the various spiritual state[s] of emergency that exist[s]. “Things have never been worse.” One wonders whether to apply Rambam’s dictum regarding the mitzvah d’oraisa of prayer applying only in crisis, but since everyday life is ipso facto a crisis, the mitzvah applies daily; or, whether one applies Reb Nachman Breslover’s adage that if you say “things can’t get any worse”, they do. (Murphy had nothing on Reb Nachman.) Alan Dershowitz’ "Tsures Theory of Jewish Survival”—that Judaism can only thrive in perpetual crisis, and that it finds itself in a worse crisis when there is less of a crisis, such as in contemporary Ameriocan society—further illustrates this dilemma.

I am not going to dispute the degree of crisis that does or does not exist ona hashkafic level. There is certainly enough of a crisis on a purely existential level (although whether that is actually any worse now than previously is also arguable). I will instead provide a few examples of why using a Crisis Hashkafa as an educational tool, if not a paradigm, can ultimately be destructive. One is Biblical, the other is more current.

The Gemara in Chelek relates how King Hezekiah instituted possibly the most compulsory system of education in Jewish, if not all recorded, history: he stuck a sword in the doorway of the beis medrash, saying “Anyone who doesn’t learn Torah will be run through with the sword.” The results, in his day, were immediately beneficial: everybody—including and especially children—knew halacha backwards and forwards. However, when his son Menashe ascended to the throne twelve years later, thirty-three years of the most widespread debauchery and bloodshed yet in Jewish history commenced. One can discern a correlation between the two when one remembers that Chizkiyahu’s policy was in response to an immediate and grave crisis: the immanent Assyrian invasion. Whether the policy was continued following Sancheriv’s defeat is not recorded; what is evident from the historical progression is that the continuation of a policy designed from crisis mode is unsustainable, and even its proper application can have unwanted effects later.

The second involves a speech I heard from prominent frum attorney Ban Brafman, famous for representing hip-hop artists and chareidim in legal difficulties. (I had to mention both; they both wear black hats.) He addressed the discomfiting phenomenon of very public criminal cases then pending against visibly fervently Orthodox Jews, some of whom he had been called to represent. Musing aloud at what their motivation might be, he offered that, in the “old country” where the authorities—both local and national—were usually openly anti-semitic, there existed a “sate of war” whereby a degree of subterfuge in dealings with the world outside the shtetl was condoned if not outright encouraged. Unfortunately, he offered, this attitude did not change when the setting changed, despite Rav Moshe Feinstein’s explicit characterization of the US as a “malchus shel chesed”. The very public chillulei Hashem that have resulted do not have be elaborated further, the secular media’s ostensible anti-chareidi bias notwithstanding.

To paraphrase Reb Nachman, if you keep saying it’s an emergency, then you’ll get an emergency.