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.

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