Friday, January 29, 2010

Bo-Beshalach: Protocol

Last week Dvarman ironically gave me the theme for this week’s d’var torah. He wrote:

“The Riva wonders why Moshe and Aaron waited until they were kicked out of the palace, when they could have left before it got to that point. The Riva answers that had Moshe and Aaron left before being told to leave, they would have shown a lack of respect for Pharaoh, thereby embarrassing him. Since it was Pharaoh that had originally invited them, and since he was the ruler of the land they were in, they showed him respect by not leaving until he told them to, despite their embarrassment.”

That might be true as far as it goes, but at least at this point in the discussion, a few things are left out: one, Moshe gets the last word by issuing his nevua re Makas Bechoros; two, he doesn’t exactly leave quietly [“vayetzei…bechari af”]; and, three, aside from simple “respect” issues, one might imagin that there were some diplomatic protocol issues involved, as might be evidenced even as far back as the Rashi on “Lechu le’sivloseichem” [Shemos 5:4], where it is explicitly stated that because the gezera of shibud was not chal on b’nei Levi, Moshe and Aaron came and went from the palace “she’lo birshus”. So the diplomatic protocol went both ways here.

In any case, what seemped to present itself as the link between last week’s and this week’s parshiyot vis-à-vis the aforementioned inyan was the “atzmos yosef”. It is noted in the halachic and midrashic literature that Yosef, when escaping from Potiphar’s wife, leaves his cloak behind when her importunations become almost too difficult to resist, and many of the ba’alei mussar say that it would have been “chutzpadik” for him to have ripped out his cloak when trying to resist, even if it might have cost him his life. Personally, I think this idea might need some more clarification [ala R’ Shimon Shkop on Yosef in prison, as I discuss in my Vayieshev—Raising or Passing The Bar.] After all, if a person accidentally walks into a rather disreputable place—as happened to me recently—conventional contemporary Yeshivish thinking would mandate running as far from the place as fast as possible with no regard for what might be termed “derech eretz”, even if said “derech eretz” is the kind the Mishnah in Avos refers to as the type that become the “ol” upon the person who sloughed off an “ol Torah”. For the record: a] it was not a beis avoda zara and b] I made a somewhat more graceful exit than conventional Yeshivishism would mandate. Again, my point here is that the issue is more complicated than one might read into a hava amina of a ba’al musar.

One might also think that, due to his rather lofty position [even as a slave] in Potiphar’s household at the time that the attempted seductions were taking place, Yosef was bound by a protocol other than what might be considered simple “derech eretz” in our circles [or, again, the “ol derech eretz” that juxtaposes the “ol torah”]. The reason the “atzmos Yosef” are so bound up with the conflict between protocol and dreceh eretz is related to us in the Gemara in Sotah 13b, where Rav Yehudah askes and answers Why was Yosef called bones ("You will take my bones with you") in his lifetime? Because he did not stand up for his father's honor; specifically, when he heard his father referred to as “avdecha avinu” he was silent. Protocol—even if maintained in this case as a pretense for purposes l’shem shamayim, as we evidenced from the whole story of Yosef’s revealing himself as well as his own recognition “Elokim chashva le’tova” [Bereishis 50:20].

My general point? The lines between protocol and “derech eretz” are very blurry.

A more specific point? This may explain why I’ve been single for so long, but I am going to vehemently disagree with conventional wisdom that states that, to end a short-term dating “relationship”, one party or another must make a phone call to end said relationship. [Usually the chiyuv falls on the guy, but that’s a whole other inyan]. I [respectfully, or otherwise] disagree. Unless a] specific promises or statements to affirming such a commitment have been made or b] something indicating a relationship is actually budding—lets say, for instance, there have been two dates. I would venture to say that if nothing is going to happen afterward no further contact between anyone is necessary. I will assert three reasons of “protocol”, or even “dating ‘derech eretz’”, to support my point here: 1) If there were simply dates and no other promises or—er—“extracurricular activity”, neither party should feel obligated to the other for any reason. 2) As dating and relationships involve issues that aren’t rational, no one should owe anyone an explanation as to why something didn’t “work out”. It either happens or it doesn’t. 3) In the same vein, sometimes avoiding the awkwardness of that phone call makes it easier for both parties to move on. I, for one, am sure some women who did not want to continue dating me were relieved when I didn’t make THAT call after the first or second date.

I would go as far as to say that sometimes the extra “rules” may be just another thing keeping singles single, for those who care. The questions raised in these two parshiyot may indicate that this is precisely the point; the obvious answer would be that it depends what you consider important.

Friday, January 8, 2010


At a seder a number of years ago, when the discussion turned to Pharaoh bathing in the blood of Jewish babies, the more grandmotherly types at the table—ones who were American-born and raised—said “Oy; this sounds like the Holocaust.” My father responded: “That’s exactly the point of the haggada. This was the first Holocaust.”

To be sure, the Pharaonic policy toward the Israelites was what we would term eliminationist anti-semitic, at least at first glance: killing all the male children, preserving all the females [a classic outgrowth of enslavement and genocidal policy: the conquering population’s males use the subjugated females to further propagate the victorious nation and diminish the conquered nation], and of course, the “avoda befarech” and the use of Jews as building materials.

In a superficial sense, there are only two differences between the Pharaonic and Hitlerite genocides. The first is that Pharaoh seemed to be in less of hurry, even if, like Hitler, he considered himself at war with the Jews [“ki sikrena milchama”]; he was willing to use the Jews and keep half the population alive to further his own ends; contrast this with the Nazis diverting badly needed resources from the front in the last years of WWII to keep the killing machine operating.

The second regards the nature of the Jews that both genocidal regimes put to work for them. In this weeks parsha [5:14] that the “kapos” of the time refused to enforce the Pharaonic production quotas and were punished accordingly—and, because of their sacrifices, became the first Sanhedrin [see Bamidbar 11:25]. However, the Netziv, in his haggadah, mentions that there were Jews during the Pharaonic slavery who actually enjoyed actual positions of power throughout [akin to what Alan Dershowitz terms “house Jews”], and were actually redeemed with the “zeroa netuya”—they didn’t want to leave. [This, aside from the myriads of Jews who perished during the 3 days of the plague of darkness.] There were not likely any Nazi house Jews.

In any case, it often comes up that whenever genocides are committed around the world, it is the Jews’ responsibility to proclaim “Never Again” regarding those affected groups. The first time I saw this was in 1991 during the Shiite and Kurd uprisings against Saddam Hussein in Iraq following the first Gulf War, in the New York Times Op-Ed pages [to the best of my recollection, it was Abe Rosenthal and Flora Lewis doing the exhorting]. I don’t remember any such other exhortation in the other genocides or attempted genocides that followed [Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur] towards us, but I’m certain that there was plenty of “mussar” regarding our “mitzvah” to speak out. [Most likely, it came from other Jews. As one wag put it, if the Jews didn’t care about the Palestinians, no one else would.]

To be sure, our attitudes towards genocides, genocidaires and their regimes should not necessarily echo our esteemed State Department’s policy toward them, which, as documented in Samantha Power’s excellent “A Problem From Hell”, is always neutrality and inaction. [I’m aware that there are unconfirmed rumors that she referred to Israeli actions in Gaza as “genocidal”; after having read the book, however, I doubt it. There is no reference—even tangential—to anything of the sort in the book, Arab or "Palestinian", and nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians would fit her thesis. I recommend the book highly.] However, I am inclined to be extremely chauvinistic in the use of “Never Again” as a slogan for anyone but us.

If we learn anything from our Holocaust, it is two things:

One, we NEED [and, thank G-d now, we have] our national polity, state, and army, and most of [if not all] the political tools to fight for, if not completely insure, our survival as a people and a nation. Any other nation/ethnicity in danger should try to emulate us [except, of course, for the Palestinians, who have tried to do so in a completely illegitimate manner, and will not succeed--if we don’t let them].

Two, it is emphatically NOT our responsibility to agitate for these unfortunate ethnicities’ self-determination, particularly where they are inimical to our survival. [This is an issue that I discussed last year: see my Miketz/Chanuka: Ethnic Tension. This is one reason why I believe it was legitimate for the Israelis not to take sides against the Serbs during the Balkan tensions; of the parties, they were the least anti-semitic. The Bosnians and Croatians contributed mightily to the SS during WWII, and independent Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, was a well-known Holocaust denier.]

In conclusion, even regarding how we see our own history, we may actually do ourselves a disservice to a point by focusing on our enemies’ success in destroying us. The actual experience of slavery takes up 5 of the 187 chapters of the Torah [and one parsha of 54]; G-d already declares in 6:1 that the geula has essentially begun. Even Amalek’s genocidal intent and attacks were notably unsuccessful.

It is true that it is not always the case that “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat”. We didn’t always win. Nowadays, however, we have the wherewithal to win and survive. That should be our focus. On us--before anyone else.