Sunday, January 24, 2010

D'var Bo 5770: Kick My People Out

Kick My People Out: The Challenge of Choosing Freedom
Dvar on Parshat Bo 5770, Rich Furman
Delivered at Beth Jacob Congregation 23 January 2010

Whenever I read the story of the Exodus in the Torah, I think about the phrase “let my people go.” We’ve grown up hearing it, we watched Charlton Heston deliver it to Yul Brynner in that film whose storyboard was received by Moses at Sinai and transmitted by the chain of tradition to Cecil B. DeMille - The Ten Commandments. Many of us sing it in the spiritual “Go Down Moses” around the Seder Table each year. It conjures up images of a people yearning to be free, held back only by the hard heart of Pharaoh. There’s only one problem: It’s not completely clear that this is what the text says, even if the JPS translation in our pew Chumash would have us believe otherwise. “Let my people go” is not the only possible rendering of ".שלח את עמי" The word שלח here is the pi’el imperative of the root ש'ל'ח' which means “send.” However, in the pi’el binyan, it does not merely mean send, but rather, “dismiss,” “send away,” or even “cast out”(BDB 1018-1019). The words that Moses brings from God to Pharaoh thus may be a bit more forceful than “Let my people go;” perhaps more on the order of “kick my people out.”

Back in Parshat Shemot God responds to Moshe’s complaint that his first attempt to get Pharaoh to release the Israelites was rebuffed by telling Moshe “עתה תראה אשר אעשה לפרעה כי ביד חזקה ישלחם וביד חזקה יגרשם מארצו:” “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh so with a strong hand he will dismiss them and with a strong hand he will expel them from his land”(Ex. 6:1). Rashi comments on this verse saying “He will drive them out against their will so that they will not have a chance to prepare provisions [for the journey]. And so it is said: ‘The Egyptians pressed the people - to hurry and send them away.’(Ex. 12:33)”(Rashi on Ex. 6:1). The miracle of the Exodus is not that God persuaded Pharaoh to release a people that was longing for freedom, but rather that God compelled Pharaoh to expel the Israelites from Egypt. One would think that given the oppression the Israelites were experiencing at the hands of the Egyptians, such that their groans rose before the heavenly throne, they would be chomping at the bit to get out, but this was not the case.

On the phrase “סבלת מצרים, the burdens of Egypt” at Ex. 6:6, Simchah Bunem of Przysucha comments:

Even though the slavery was hard and crushing, nevertheless they became accustomed to the bitterness and bore the burden and the distress patiently [punning on the similarity of the words for patience (סבלנות) and burdens (סבלות)]. They regarded their situation as natural. Said the Holy One, “Since already they are not healthy, nor do they sense the bitterness of their lot, the danger would be great to detain the redemption any longer.” (Kushner and Olitzky, 71)

What Rav Bunem is noting here is that the Israelites have come to regard as acceptable, as par for the course, conditions to which no human being should be subject. How one arrives at such an acceptance of such conditions we can learn by examining how learned helplessness is acquired.

Andrew Solomon, in his book on Depression, The Noonday Demon, writes that:

Learned helplessness, studied in the animal world, occurs when an animal is subjected to a painful stimulus in a situation in which neither fight nor flight is possible. The animal will enter a docile state that greatly resembles human depression. The same thing happens to people with little volition. . .(Solomon, 348)

The harsh labors of Egypt, and the fact that the first attempt at getting Pharaoh to release them ended disastrously, shows that the Israelites are in precisely a position where they are subjected to painful stimulus and can neither fight nor flee. In such a position, strength of will to just get from day to day is all that is left, and Solomon goes on to describe how this plays out among the depressed poor in America, using language that is startlingly similar to Rav Bunem’s:

Strength of will is often the best bulwark against depression and in this population the will to go on, the tolerance of trauma, is often quite extraordinary. Many among the indigent depressed have personalities so passive that they are free of aspirations, and such people may be difficult to help.(ibid, 355)

The Israelites’ passivity is, in some ways, the biggest obstacle God must address to effect the Exodus. If there is no intrinsic motivation among the Israelites to leave, if there is no perception among them that a better life is available to them, then an extrinsic motivation must be applied. This is why God said to Moses at the beginning of Parshat Va’era “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh so with a strong hand he will dismiss them and with a strong hand he will expel them from his land,” because with the progression of the ten plagues, God has been goading Pharaoh into action. The plagues have been getting progressively more intense, and here in Parshat Bo, God makes good on the promise that Pharaoh will expel them. I want, in particular to focus on the last two plagues, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn and what happens between them.

The plague of darkness is described thus:

לא־ראו איש את־אחיו ולא־קמו איש מתחתיו שלשת ימים ולכל־בני ישראל היה אור במושבתם

I’m going to render this a bit colloquially as

a man could not see his brother and a man could not get up off his tuchus for three days, but all the children of Israel had light in their settlements. (Ex 10:23).

The first thing to notice here in the Hebrew is that the verbs “ראו” and “קמו” are in the plural while the subject, in each case, is singular. This comes to teach us that in all the households of Egypt (hence the plural verb), each individual member was subject to personal isolation and paralysis of the will (hence the singular subject). Rabbi Michael Gold, understands this to be symptomatic of depression:

The darkness was not simply a lack of light. That could be solved by lighting lamps. Rather it was an inability for anyone to see or interact with any fellow human being for three days. It was as if a thick depression fell on everybody, leaving them entirely alone. People were cut off from people, as if they were in some kind of solitary confinement. There was a blackness of despair, of being entirely alone in the world (Gold).

That the Egyptians would be subject to depression can be easily understood as a middah-k’neged-middah, measure for measure, punishment. As the labors imposed by the Egyptians reduced the Israelites to a state of depression, so too the plagues inflicted by the Blessed Holy One upon the Egyptians, have likewise depressed them. But there is a crucial difference: The Egyptians have the luxury of the depressive breakdown. The Israelite who had succumbed to his depression so as not to get off his tuchus would have been killed for slacking, but the Egyptian who finds himself too despairing to move is free to not move.

The second half of the verse “but all of the children of Israel had light in their settlements” shows us a significant contrast: The Israelites are beginning to have hope, and with the Egyptians incapacitated, are enjoying a freedom of movement and a connection with one another that they had not been able to. We find a similar verse in Esther - appearing also in the Havdallah ceremony - ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששן ויקר - the Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. It is in this light that we need to understand what happens between the plagues of Darkness and Slaying of the first born.

After the plague of darkness, but before the slaying of the first born, God instructs Moses to gather the elders of the children of Israel together and give them some instructions: to sacrifice a lamb, to paint the lintel and the doorposts, left and right, with its blood, to eat it with matzah and maror while packed and ready to leave, and to mark the occasion eternally with an annual festival commemorating the event: that God would see the blood on the doorposts and protect the Israelites.

This is one of those “what’s bothering Rashi” moments in the Passover story: why would God need to see blood on the doorposts to discern between the Israelite and the Egyptian? Rashi answers this question thus:

הכל גלוי לפניו, אלא אמר הקב"ה נותן אני את עיני לראות שאתם עסוקים במצותי, ופוסח אני עליכם

All is revealed before Him, however the Holy Blessed One said “I am letting my eyes see that you are engaging in my commandments, and so I pass over you.” (Rashi on ex. 12:13, my translation).

In other words, although God can discern between Israelites and Egyptians, the Israelites need to be taking action of some kind in order to effect their redemption. God commands the Israelites to put the blood on the doorposts because doing so demonstrates to the Israelites their willingness to take action on their own behalf. This is an essential exercise in the restoration of their crushed spirits, as David Burns notes in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

In my practice I find that the great majority of the depressed patients referred to me improve substantially if they try to help themselves. Sometimes it hardly seems to matter what you do as long as you do something with the attitude of self-help. . . . And yet many depressed individuals will go through a phase in which they stubbornly refuse to do anything to help themselves. The moment this crucial motivational problem has been solved, the depression typically begins to diminish. You can therefore understand why much of our research has been directed to locating the cause of this paralysis of the will. (Burns, 82).

Over the course of the nine plagues so far, we have seen a reversal between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The paralysis of the will which was at first present among the Israelites is now present among the Egyptians; one “painful stimulus” after another, which they could neither fight nor flee has taught them the helplessness with which the Israelites contended back at the start of Va’era.

The Israelites, on the other hand, are being invited into a world where volition matters, where actions have results. With the commandments concerning the passover offering including the marking of the door posts and lintels, God is not merely giving the Israelites busy work to do “with an attitude of self help,” but is going further, giving them an invitation to enter into a covenantal relationship, that is, a relationship in which each party does something for the other and gets something back in exchange. Whereas with Pharaoh they would work and work and their reward was drowned sons and pogroms, God is offering a relationship where if the Israelites perform a particular act, God will protect them from the Destroyer.

As the tenth plague comes upon the land, the slaying of the firstborn, the Israelites have the opportunity to see this play out, to hear the cries as the firstborn of Egypt died while their own lived. The Israelites, by following the instructions given to them are able to save themselves. The lesson here is that whereas the life of a slave in Egypt was a life of completely arbitrary punishments by a capricious ruler, there is another mode of relationship - a covenantal relationship in which actions matter, and that by commanding the Israelites, God is inviting them into that kind of relationship, and that by following those commandments, the Israelites are accepting that invitation.

And yet, it is one thing to accept the invitation and another to show up at the event. With the tenth plague, the slaying of the first-born, God pushes Pharaoh to the breaking point. At verse 11:1, God has told Moses:

עוד נגע אחד אביא על־פרעה ועל־מצרים אחרי־כן ישלח אתכם מזה כשלחו כלה גרש יגרש אתכם מזה
One more plague (touch) I will bring upon Egypt after which he will dismiss you from here; when he finally kicks you out, he will utterly expel (גרש יגרש) you from here.

When the Israelites are out, and camping at Sukkot, the first station on their way, it is written:

ויאפו את־הבצק אשר הוציאו ממצרים עגת מצות כי לא חמץ כי־גרשו ממצרים ולא יכלו להתמהמה וגם־צדה לא־עשו להם

They baked the dough they brought from Egypt: cakes of Matzah because it was unleavened, for they were expelled (גרשו) from Egypt and could not tarry or make preparations for themselves (Ex. 12:39)

From God’s declaration to Moses in verse 6:1 at the beginning of Va’era to this moment after Pharaoh has expelled the Israelites we see another word besides ש'ל'ח, and that is ג'ר'ש'. This is the same word used to describe mankind’s expulsion from Eden. That they occur in tandem at both moments when God speaks to Moses regarding what He will drive Pharaoh to do, suggests very strongly that God is not merely giving freedom to “huddled masses yearning to be free.” God, understanding the fragility of the Israelites volition, is seeking to do this in a way that prevents the Israelites from going back to Egypt. This becomes perfectly apparent at the start of next weeks parsha, when God avoids leading the Israelites by the Philistine road “lest they stop when they see war and return to Egypt”(13:17).

It takes God, Pharaoh, Moses, the Egyptians and the Israelites themselves to collectively muster the force it takes to overcome the Israelite’s collective depression, learned helplessness and inertia. When Rabbi Bunem notes that the Israelites “regarded their situation as natural,” he is noting that there is a learned helplessness among the Israelites. In Eden, Adam and Eve were helpless because all their needs were met; only with their expulsion could human history begin; likewise, in Egypt the Israelites helpless because nothing they could do could improve their state, and only with their expulsion could the history of the Jewish people - our history - begin.

Works Cited

Brown, Francis The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Burns, David. Feeling Good. New York: Avon books, 1992.

Davis, Avrohom. Metsudah Chumash/Rashi. Ktav Pub Inc, 1999.

Gold, Rabbi Michael. Parshat Bo (5764): Darkness. viewed on 10 Jan 2010.

Kushner, Lawrence and Kerry Olitzky. Sparks beneath the Surface. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1993.

Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

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