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.

No comments: