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Naomi Graetz

Battle Fatigue: Parshat Bo

THE DAYS ARE GETTING COLDER

We are in the middle of winter, although you would not know it from the sunny days we have been enjoying in the Negev. There are freezing storms in the Midwest and the East. Discussing this, one of the participants in my class said she wished we would have the freezing storms, rather than the rockets raining on us from the South and the North. I looked at the pictures of my niece and her children at the rally in Central Park for the 100th day of free the hostages and they were all bundled up and wearing warm red hats. And I felt sorry for them. These past couple of days I’ve been trying to think of a topic for my blog. My world seems to be on the brink of some terrible catastrophe: from concern about my three grandsons in the army, personal health of my family, the return of Covid in our community. In the rest of the world antisemitism is again on the rise. In the Hague, Israel has been accused of genocide and though we are ably defended by our legal representatives, who knows what the United Nations International Court of Justice will decide. In the U.S. people are predicting that the next president will be a criminal.  And of course, our prime minister, the one we are now stuck with, is also a criminal—though neither of them have been convicted yet! Some of our politicians have chosen not to appear among the public, because they are both not wanted and afraid of how they will be cursed. At the funerals of soldiers, at the demonstrations there are huge turnouts of people, but nary a government member, with rare exception, shows up. They know they are not welcome. To me they are criminals who are biding their time—holding onto their power as long as they can. Just this week, the budget was enlarged to support the war, and to make more psychological support available to the populace who needs it. Yet at the same time the budget was cut that allows special education to flourish, that gets money to health institutions.  Salaries of Knesset members were not cut; moneys to the settlements and the Haredi population continue to flow. And we all have to stand by and watch this happen helplessly. As I have mentioned many times, this is what 51% of us voted for.

AT ANY PRICE

A friend of ours sent out a mass email letter saying that we have to work for the release of the hostages “at any price”.  I thought to myself, what is this any price that we are all talking about? Total capitulation to the Hamas? World War Three? Total destruction of Gaza? Release of all the terrorists in Israel? When we speak in hyperboles, we should be careful of what we say. It is irresponsible to speak this way, because we are saying that the hostages’ lives are more precious than our soldiers’ lives, than the future of our country. If we stop the war now, and/or release terrorists, we are simply deferring the devastation and horror of the present war to the future. On the other hand, our tradition demands that we redeem captives. So how do we deal with this? Is there any way of thinking outside the box?

CAN THE PARSHA HELP US?

In parshat bo, Moses again goes to Pharaoh after the seventh plague. This time the plague will be locusts. God has again hardened Pharaoh’s heart to not only show off His powers to both the Egyptians and the Israelites, but also that the Israelites can tell their children in the future how He “made a mockery הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ of the Egyptians” (Exodus 10:3). Moses and Aaron (speaking for God) go to Pharaoh and say “How long will you refuse to humble yourself לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י before Me?”  After they leave, Pharaoh’s courtiers realistically tell him to give in: “Let a delegation go to worship their God! Don’t you realize that Egypt is lost?” There is some talk back and forth and bargaining—it’s the Middle East after all. Pharaoh is willing to let the males go (not the entire people). But for Moses, it is all or nothing. So the doors to diplomacy and negotiation are closed.

After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and says something which I have always found amazing:

“I stand guilty before your God and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with your God that this death but be removed from me.”

And it works and God sends the locusts away.  But again, God intervenes and again hardens his heart so that he would not send away the Israelites. So, God brings upon the ninth plague of darkness. And even now when Pharaoh is willing to let them go with almost no restrictions, God again hardens his heart.

Whenever I read this, I am reminded of the difficulties of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO and the maneuvering thirty years ago (1993) of getting Yitzchak Rabin to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand at the White House. I get very angry when I think of the opportunities lost then and how Oslo has turned into a dirty word and probably led to Rabin’s eventual assassination. What we are left with it has become bloodied, buried, and betrayed with very little hope for the future, possibly because no one is willing to yield—both sides have hardened their hearts.

TOO MUCH HARDENING OF HEARTS

There’s too much hardening of hearts both in our bible and today. There is too much binary thinking—either or! If we take absolute stands, there is no chance of peace, of resolution, of letting go, of letting the people go. Is God to blame? Is Pharaoh to blame for letting God harden his heart? What about Moses? Does he have any say in the matter? What does he think? Or does he just blindly do what God tells him to do? Do Moses and Aaron enjoy playing chicken with the fate of the nation?  Don’t forget it is the people who are ultimately suffering, not the leaders.  Only with the last plague does it get visceral for Pharaoh. Meanwhile, the population of Egypt is suffering for the intransigence of its ruler. One can be programmed by God, but we are not robots who have to stay in our designated roles! One of the reasons we are stuck today is that there is no endgame. To Moses and Aaron (and God) the ONLY solution was to be a total release of the people (men, women, children, animals). Pharaoh was not willing to be a partner to that. Even after the 10th plague when he let the people go, he still had second thoughts and chased after them into the Reed Sea which led to total destruction of him and his army (chariots and horses).

“TOGETHER WE WILL WIN” 

There are some positive notes in what is happening today.  In contrast to the government’s “domestic political irresponsibility  the Jewish people outside Israel have galvanized to support us. Our soldiers do not hesitate to bravely fight to defeat Hamas and get the hostages back. There are hundreds of support groups, many of which are comprised of volunteers, to care for our internal refugees who have left their homes and have nothing to go back to. But there is battle fatigue. We are getting tired of this situation and are asking questions–such as “how much longer?” Despite the slogan, “together we will win” I keep thinking, that we may win (whatever that means), but we have also lost. Humpty Dumpty has fallen and despite all our efforts, and those of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, he can never be put back again. Our government is incompetent, it has no plans for the future, it improvises as it goes. It is the civilians who have kept the country running until now. But there is a limit to how much a society can be run by individuals. We need a government that can function. It is the government’s job to unite us. We need a leader with vision. Without one, the loss will overwhelm the sense of winning.

WHAT WOULD MOSES DO, IF HE WERE ALIVE TODAY

I am sure that Moses and Aaron were not very happy about being God’s errand boys. Every time they stepped into Pharaoh’s palace they must have been trembling. Moses who grew up in Egyptian society, also had to harden his heart against his Egyptian friends, in order to function and carry out God’s orders. And his own people were making their demands and wondered if this powerful God, who was releasing them from slavery now, might turn on them in the future. To distract the people, God tells Moses, there will be one final plague. But before this, he says:

Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” God disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people (Exodus 11: 1-3).

What’s going on here? There is a disconnect. At the same time that Moses is going to inflict the horror of the plague on the first born, God is appealing to the people’s greed? Is he distracting them? God is acting like a politician during an election campaign, He promises them that the Egyptians will react favorably and willingly give them clothing and precious jewels. We have a terrible contrast between the Israelites benefitting as the Egyptians suffer. The Israelites go around taking advantage of the situation as the tenth plague begins. And Moses is said to be “esteemed by the Egyptians and their leaders”. Perhaps the courtiers secretly admire the Israelite God in whose name Moses is speaking. Later on, when the people leave Egypt, a “mixed multitude” ערב רב leaves with them (Exodus 12:38). Perhaps this were the people who admired Moses. And sure enough the people do leave with the booty that the Egyptians supposedly willingly gave them:

And God had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped – וינצלו — the Egyptians (Exodus 12: 36).

In next week’s parsha, we will have the big celebration of victory—with song and dance and timbrels.  As they celebrate, the Egyptian population will be faced with a devastated economy because of the plagues inflicted on them and the death of their first-born sons.

Is this what Moses had in mind when he kept on refusing to lead the people—giving all sorts of excuses to God. I am sure that many times he thought to himself, how right he was not to get into politics, especially when he saw the repercussions of his newly adopted countrymen’s freedom.  One can only wonder how he reassured himself that he was doing the right thing. Perhaps he convinced himself that the overall goal of redemption justified all the damage it left in its wake. Fortunately, for him, he did not have TV commentators, journalists, enraged citizens going to march against him and constantly berate him for his failures. Perhaps he felt that with God on his side all was justified. Clearly those who told his story venerated him. History was on his side then. Today all is not so simple. Our world is much more complex and I’m not sure the bible can give us the answers we need today.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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