Friday, January 26, 2018

Beshalach--Split Seas, Hairs, Differences

In the run up to Krias Yam Suf, one alien population is exchanged for another.

In the process, G-d removes potential traitors from the lists of the redeemed, but allows—as it were—Moshe Rabbeinu to bring another potential fifth column right into the newly (or almost, at least) emancipated Bnei Yisrael. 

As is the Torah’s wont, the chronology of the narrative is ostensibly reversed: the “erev rav” or mixed multitude is explicitly referred to in last weeks parsha (12:38) even if hinted at again at the beginning of this weeks parsha in 13:17, the “am” that Pharaoh “beshalach”’ed was erev rav, ostensibly “converts” who nevertheless were going to report if/when the Hebrews were going to complete their escape), while Rashi explains in the next pasuk (s.v. “Chamushim”) that 4/5 of the Hebrews dies during the three days of the Choshech plague, having proven themselves unworthy or unwilling to leave Egypt.  (Rashi mentions this last week too (10:22), but here “chamushim” provides a more direct scriptural hint.)

What did they do that warranted such a drastic punishment?  Rabbi Gidon Rothstein explains it this way: “Rashi ascribes it to their not wanting to go. In his view, anyone willing was taken out, regardless of their other (often significant) sins.  But this tradition says that the overwhelmingly large segment of the people preferred to stay, and died in darkness...Chazal and Rashi had no problem saying that most Jews, with all the troubles of slavery, wanted to stay.”

Take it a step further. Even if the full emancipation wasn’t going to occur until Pesach, the signs of redemption were already there: TB RH 11a indicates that the actual enslavement of the Hebrews stopped on the previous Rosh Hashanah, coinciding with the first plague of blood.  Furthermore, leave aside the open miracles occurring; the political winds seemed to be blowing in the Hebrews’ direction by the time the seventh plague of barad occurs, when the text refers to the “G-d-fearing” in PHARAOH’S court (9:20), and those who told the king before the next plague “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (10:7).  At that point it was likely clear to G-d that even both “natural” and “supernatural” evidence wasn’t going to sway these people into joining their brethren and sistren in the national destiny.  In fact, they may have misread the political changes (deliberately or otherwise) and concluded that they had a chance now to become Egyptian citizens, as the slavery had been suspended and the Egyptians were now "favorably disposed toward the people": they might have been so determined to to stay that they would actively try to stop the redemption process and side with their erstwhile Egyptian masters, even to the point where they would put their fellow Hebrews--and even family memebers--in danger.

Ergo: something far graver than “other (often significant) sins” that caused the mass death at the hands of Heaven.  Again: the hands of Heaven, not by the hands of other Hebrews.  Only G-d could made this determination and remedy it: the Hebrews could not have done it yet.

So then—now that we know the Pharaonic motivation behind replacing one set of fifth columnists with another—why did Moshe Rabbeinu actually want these “gerim” when G-d Himself was—as it were—reluctant?  There is ample midrashic evidence that the ananei hakavod, manna and water well distinguished between the formerly enslaved Hebrews and erev rav, and yet when they were the first group attacked by Amalek the other Jews rallied to save them, impressing Yisro with their dedication to unity; yet when it came to not only the egel—where they were the primary drivers behind panicking the rest of Bnei Israel into the formation of the idol—but later, by the slav and then the meraglim, they planted the idea in everyone else’s heads that things had been better in Egypt.  Moshe apparently had a prophetic reason for bringing them along, mostly having to do with needing a multinational cover during the inevitable exiles—but was the short-term damage alleviated by the long-term view?

In light of current events, one might have to look at how one is to define “ger”, and especially in the context of how it relates to the Egyptian oppression in which the term is often used.

Comments and exhortations all over cyberspace and elsewhere lambasting religious Jews who ostensibly support Trump and therefore by extension are oppressing “immigrants” often say things like: “The Torah says more than 30 times not to discriminate or oppress the stranger because you too were once strangers in Egypt”; ”You too had brothers and sisters barred from the United States in the 30’s because all Jews were communists or parasites or too religious.”

As much as these seem to be a caricature of a certain type of Orthodox progressive [though the two sentences are lifted directly from an extended rant someone’s Facebook wall, with “likes” nearing triple digits] it bears mentioning that the progressive definition of “ger” is as distorted as the fallacious analogs between Jews trying to flee the Holocaust and the current “refugee crisis”.  [So as to not bore everyone with the details about how to explode the latter revisionism here--because it’s been done elsewhere--suffice it to say for now that our “brothers and sisters barred from the United States in the 30’s” didn’t try to blow everyone up with explosives.]  The definitions of all “gerim” are first and foremost halachic ones, and both—moshav and tzedek—are subject to a very rigorous process of vetting when is comes to permanent residency. 

In fact, the tie between “you too were once strangers in Egypt” and the restriction keeping the Egyptian convert [of both genders] outside the community for three successive generation indicates that the memories weren’t exactly all good, enough that a multigenerational vetting was required; and furthermore,  during the time of the United Kingdom of David and Shlomo—a, if not the, high point in the classical period—there were further restrictions imposed upon accepting new gerim because of the political and spiritual successes of Israel.

In fact, going back to the parsha, Moshe’s inclusion of the erev rav as “gerim” is contraindicative of the left’s views of immigration:  Moshe didn’t as it were fight G-d because he thought G-d was “oppressing the stranger”; Moshe wanted to force them into that national project [and the midrashim gingerly take him to task for doing it prematurely].

It’s possible that Trump’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly the “Torah” approach.  [His supporters might claim that he fulfills the “Biblical” requirements, but they definitely not operating from a halachic standpoint.]  However, the twisting of certain Judaic and halachic concepts completely out of context to make a political point about what “should be” a “ger” doesn’t change the definition, particularly when there is ample contraindicating texts and precedents.

“[M]ore than 30” times zero is still zero.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Bo—False Starts

Rashi in Bereishis 1:1 (s.v..."Bereishis"!!!) cites the midrashic question as to why the Torah did not begin in this weeks parsha (12:1) with what is ostensibly considered to be the first mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

The answer that is given is almost as oblique: “What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? … should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us…”

Irrespective of the tenuous nature of theological claims in general, why even bring this up?  One only has to look at Rashi on Genesis 12:6, s.v. “ha’Kna’ani az ba’aretz”, to see who the real “robbers”/“occupiers”/“colonialists” were even in antiquity: “Th[e Canaanites] were gradually conquering the land of Israel from the descendants of Shem, for it had fallen to the share of Shem when Noah apportioned the earth amongst his sons…for this reason the Lord said to Abram “to thy seed will I give this land” — “I will in some future time return it to thy children who are descendants of Shem”.”  (The PLO at one time or another has tried to pass themselves and their people off as Canaanites.)

We were taking back what was rightfully ours in the first place!!!  Why even give credence in our own texts to hostile Judeophobic notions, even if as identifiably faulty premises?

I once heard from a salient pulpit that the message in the midrash wasn’t intended to be an answer from us to the complaining world at large;  12:6 would suffice as an answer for that.   Rather, the midrash is for us to answer ourselves, between ourselves, as a reassurance and a warning (it doesn’t want to mention that the land could be and/or has been taken from us).

I would take it one step further: that when it comes to Jewish prerogatives, Jews in particular should not be too quick to dismiss said prerogatives in the face of accusations of violating an ostensible universal morality, and especially not confuse said ostensible universal morality with actual morality, and certainly not Jewish imperatives.

For starters—said morality isn’t always.  Hence the reference to “robbers” in the midrash on Genesis 1:1—while we can easily make a non-theological case that we haven’t robbed any land, pace Genesis 12:6—we shouldn’t even have to bother.  The accusation is a prima facie false one.  (The analog to contemporary times should be obvious.)

For another—there is certainly no Jewish value in subverting one’s own principles for the benefit of mortal enemies of the Jews, even leaving aside theology.   Too many times recently certain mitzvos and principles have been used by theoretically well-meaning and some other obviously disingenuous characters to gaslight the Jews out of certain prerogatives, or for not putting others’ interests ahead of their own.  

One most recent example might be the misuse of Hillel’s dictum in Mishna Avot 1:14—“If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

Let’s forget that this dictum really has very narrow applications to begin with: for the overwhelming better part it refers to activity of a spiritual nature and the need to remain heavily communally involved, and that to attempt to garner “points” as it were on one’s own short-circuits the purpose of spiritual activity.  The universal application of this dictum to equalizing certain tenets of progressive social justice with Jewish imperatives is beyond a distortion.

Additionally, assuming that those who might have some—even if severe—misgivings about certain tenets of progressive social justice and their loudest practitioners and representatives are ipso facto “selfish”, “indifferent”, “persecute the foreigner”, “willfully blind and ignorant”, to name a few—while assuming that the side that professes the aforementioned tenets of progressive social justice do not engage in the same if not worse tactics—engages in the same level of “righteous indignation”, “arrogance” and “hypocrisy” they level at those who they deem to be “only for themselves.”

Furthermore, is the notion that some “can only be moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed at “one's own kind”” axiomatic?  That might be more tenuous that the notion that some are “moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed” at their own only if they can speak out about others at the same time, never mind those who have universalized dicta to the point that the “others” come before us.

(In this age of "whataboutism", let's put it in even blunter terms: the alternative to what is apparently considered by some to be an administration of gazlanim is a cabal of ganavim.  Maybe even ganavim bemachtaros.)

Even forgetting the more salient if theocentric interpretations of Avot 1:14, those who would universalize the mishna even get the order wrong:  "If [We] Are Not For Ourselves" always comes before "If [We] Are For Ourselves".

Leave the final word to Yoni Netanyahu before Entebbe:

“If we don’t do it ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”

Friday, January 5, 2018

Shemos--Same As The Old Boss?

“’And a new king arose who knew not Joseph’--Rav and Shmuel: one says the king was new, one says his policies were new" [TB Sotah 11a]

Among other things inspired by the Trump administration, there have appeared attempts to draw from the Jewish experience attempting to find a salient analog for this administration.

Those who haven’t compared Trump outright to Haman [if not Hitler] have occasionally made him out to be a modern Ahasuerus with Stephen Bannon playing the role of Haman himself.

Bernard-Henri Levi has actually drawn the most direct analog between the changing or changeling Pharaoh of this parsha and Trump [find the quote].

It is eminently possible—pace Levi—that Trump’s mercurial temperament may eventually lead some of his most ardent supporters to experience a painful disillusionment akin to Exodus 1, particularly if his oft-stated penchant for the “Ultimate Deal” forcefully overrides his ostensible sympathies for a permanent Jewish presence over the Green Line.

However, not only are none of the aforementioned analogs salient, but one can find better ones in the literature, some not far off.

Start with the Pharaonic.  There are several hints scattered around the text in Genesis that the “previous” Pharaoh may not have been as Hebrephilic as might be assumed by the “melech chadash”.  To wit: Pharaoh actually hands almost all administrative power of attorney to Joseph, simultaneously absolving him from the wrath of a possibly angry and restless and starving populace when austerity measures are imposed.  (“And the people cried to Pharaoh—go to Joseph….”)

(This is also reminiscent—conversely—of the relationship between Ahasuerus and Haman as described by Yoram Hazony in “The Dawn”, his classic political study of Megillas Esther: spooked by Bigtan and Teresh’s assassination attempt, the King takes all decision making out of the political system and concentrates it in Haman’s hands.  It is possible that Pharaoh had the same idea by handing power of attorney to Joseph, and would have given himself the royal privilege of executing him—like Ahasuerus did Haman—if royal prerogatives were threatened.  (One might notice a few linguistic parallels between Miketz and Esther that the writers certainly made use of: “yafked pekidim”, for one.]

(We also might mention the ethnic tension that exists even under this ostensibly benign regime: even before Joseph gets out of jail, the pejorative references to his Hebrew origins by Mrs. Potiphar and the wine steward; even after Joseph has come to power, there’s the blatant refusal of the Egyptians in his court to eat at the same table as the 10 Hebrew tribes.)

Additionally, in Vayechi, when Joseph has to negotiate directly with Pharaoh to bury his father back in Hevron under suspicions of dual loyalty (maybe the earliest Biblical example thereof), Yosef has to threaten to blow the lid off of Pharaoh’s veneer of omniscience (“I keep my oath to my father, or I reveal that you don’t know Hebrew”), we get a glimpse that the relationship is more tenuous than a casual glance at the text reveals.  (If one removes the possible Hebrephobic context, one also reveals a natural tension and mistrust between a #1 and his #2 which is otherwise endemic to politics.)

In the end, using either Pharaonic narrative—pre- or post-Joseph—probably does less to illustrate how to gauge the “Jewish” relationship with Trump, from either angle. 

Even more forced would be an analogy to Ahasuerus, who TB Megilla describes as being nearly as anti-Semitic as Haman: celebrating (erroneously) the perceived non-fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of return after 70 years, and punctuating said celebration by profaning the Temple hardware; putting a halt to the previously greenlit rebuilding of the second Temple (maybe he wasn’t so sure he had the count right, after all); and, finally, letting Haman craft and promulgate the genocidal edict he always wanted to issue but never really could bring himself to.   So—very much unlike our current President—this King assumed his office with clearly Judeophobic inclinations, and his policy bent that way from the get go, particularly with regards Jerusalem.

The better example?

Darius, the son of Ahasuerus and Esther herself, who reverses his father’s edict halting the rebuilding of the second Temple that his predecessor Cyrus has initially greenlighted.  As noted in TB RH 3b-4a, the esteem in which Darius was initially held “soured” (as the Talmud puts it); one reason given is that he gave specific construction edicts vis a vis the Temple, so that in case the Jews proved disloyal, he could dismantle it forthwith.  Yet everything eventually turned out mostly better than it had been prior to his reign: he was no Cyrus, but he certainly wasn’t his father.

The possible lessons?

For the harder “Right”:  Rav Shimon Schwab was known to say the Americans are not our enemies, but they are not our friends.  Before one attaches willy-nilly any reflexively Judeophilic intentions to even a benign ruler—even one who makes some very clear reversals of a predecessor’s hostile policies—one would be behooved to remember “Al tivtechu bindivim” and “Al tisvada larashus”.   One should definitely be thankful that the administrational alternative didn’t come to pass; but don’t be too quick to “marry” oneself to all its initiatives.  Bannon's dispensability should be proof enough.

For the progressive “Left”:  Stop trying to apply “Esav sonei es Yaakov” and other “machmir” interpretations of governmental Judeophobia to this administration.   For one thing, any Leftist “chumras” are almost mezuyafin mitocham: one might think them as cute as counterintuitive, but they actually look and sounds ridiculous.  Furthermore, there might have been a time where anti-Trumpers could attempt to make a prima facie case that this administration was either hostile to Jewish initiatives, or at least, not any “different” than their WH predecessors, which the overwhelming majority of leftists celebrated and protected.  Assertions of that WH “having our backs” were more than arguable then, and are almost entirely indefensible now in the wake of the new Jerusalem policy.  

They kept trying to say—and still try to say—“pen”.  Apparently, the answer is “ken”.