This week we start the book of Exodus (shemot), with the list of names (shemot) of Jacob’s sons who went down with him to Egypt. Joseph and his brothers and their generation have long been dead. Three things are timely to me about parshat shemot which includes Israelite slavery, Moses’s birth and rescue, his killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, the burning bush and his encounter with YHWH among other things.
I have always wondered why hatred of the other is impossible to uproot. The Jew-hatred we see around us today has its roots. Why was Pharaoh so fearful of the Israelites? The clue is in the ominous wording which ends the first section of the parsha:
But the Israelites were fertile/fruitful and prolific/vermin like; they multiplied and increased very greatly /became very powerful, so that the land was filled with them. וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃
I say ominous, because of the description of them being like vermin (sheretz). Vermin are pests or nuisance animals that spread diseases or destroy crops, livestock, and property. When God created mankind, he commanded them to “be fruitful, Multiply and be prolific (shirtzu) and multiply. From the perspective of a new king who arose over Egypt and did not know Joseph–or maybe precisely because he did know of Joseph and how he had enslaved his people–Pharaoh noticed that the population growth among the Israelites was a bit too much and pointed to their strength (atzma—עצום) as a potential danger. If the people are likened to vermin (שרץ), they are “pests” who have to be controlled and dealt with shrewdly and even exterminated. There are those among us today, who see the Hamas in a similar light, as a group that needs to be controlled, made powerless and possibly exterminated, wherever they are hiding..
II. COVER UPS
The second has to do with Moses’s killing the Egyptian and then hiding his deed. Hiding responsibility is not a godly trait. If we recall, God asked himself if he should hide his plans for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, from Abraham: “Now יהוה had said, “Shall I hide/cover up (מכסה) from Abraham what I am about to do (Genesis 18: 17)?
Covering up was definitely a family trait in the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve covered up their bodies after they ate the forbidden fruit. Rebecca helped Jacob hide his identity from Isaac so that he could get the blessing. Laban hid Rachel from Jacob on their wedding night and gave Leah to him instead. Rachel sat on and covered up Laban’s household gods, the terafim, using the ruse that she was menstruating. The brothers hid their evil deed from their father by sending Jacob Joseph’s ketonet passim covered with blood. And finally, Joseph covered up his identity from his brothers when they came down to get food from Egypt. So, Moses has plenty of examples from his family on which to model his behavior
Sometime after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (וַֽיִּטְמְנֵ֖הוּ בַּחֽוֹל).
However, it is impossible to cover up evil deeds and so “When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” They answered, “what are you going to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” And Moses realized that what he had done was common knowledge (Exodus 1: 11-14). And so, it was time for Moses to make his escape to Midian. But even in his hiding out, God found him and prepared him for the task ahead.
In contrast to our ancient family’s and our government in Israel’s tendencies to cover up, our army is fully transparent, even when it is shocking. In this week’s news we are getting horrific numbers of our IDF soldiers who are being killed and wounded in “friendly fire”. When our army bombs civilians by mistake, we admit to it. There is no running away from the responsibility. The young prince of Egypt, Moses, when he first leaves the palace commits a murder and then hides his deed in the sand. But as we have seen, the news gets out. In Midian he meets his wife, Zipporah the daughter of a Midianite Priest and one day shepherding the flock he meets God. If Moses could have, he would have refused leadership, but God was persistent and convinced him.
III. MOSES, AKIBA AND US
Moses’s journey from his being a young man escaping from his destiny, is long and arduous. At the end of his life perhaps he wonders if it was all worth it and what would be his legacy. Many of us know the famous story in the Talmud about Moses and Akiba:
Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.
Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me. God said to him: Return behind you. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai.
When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive. Moses returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him: Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as this and yet You still choose to give the Torah through me. Why? God said to him: Be silent; this intention arose before Me. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, You have shown me Rabbi Akiva’s Torah, now show me his reward.
God said to him: Return to where you were. Moses went back and saw that they were weighing Rabbi Akiva’s flesh in a butcher shop [bemakkulin], as Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, this is Torah and this is its reward? God said to him: Be silent; this intention arose before Me (BT Menahot 29b).
TERROR AND THERAPY
I wondered what Moses would think of this? Was the religion he helped bring to the world worth the torture that Akiba and his generation endured as they died for God’s name—al kiddush hashem? Today we are seeing the terrible ramifications of those who martyr themselves for a cause, shout in the name of allah akbar (Allah is Great) and use religion as justification for inflicting grievous harm on their enemies, the infidels.
This week I studied the Talmudic text above in the context of a class on hassidut offered by Beit Avichai. As the lecturer was reading out loud the gory details at the end of this story, I was reminded of the details in the recent NY Times expose of weaponized sexual violence by Hamas, I found myself asking where was God in all this? The lecturer used the end of the Moses/Akiba story to illustrate how the mystic understood God’s tzimzum, or shrinkage. When the Deity created the world, he shrank his presence, so that there would be room for the world. However, the mainstream thought of hassidut, is that God is everywhere—-מלא כל הארץ כבודו–meloh col Haaretz kevodo.
So how does a believer address the paradox of God’s shrinking vs. his being everywhere? This is a pertinent question for us today, post-Holocaust, post 9/11 and post 10/7/2023 when the forces of evil seem to be threatening our world. In times, such as ours, when we are beset by evil, we may choose the model of God’s shrinking—he has left us free to choose—and that many have chosen evil. We can choose to believe in a personal, immanent God, even if he does not seem to be around. He has shrunk and it is up to us to realize that we are on our own to choose good or evil and there will be many who choose to be evil. What does this have to do with Moses and Akiba? Rabbi Nachman of Breslau used this text to inform us that when we are faced with the enormity of the evil that man does to the other, there is nothing we can do—we have to be silent—and continue to believe. But the therapeutic way to do this is through the niggun (the melody), according to R. Nachman.
And here too, I am reminded of the reunion of seven survivors of the massacre at Be’eri who at the end of a moving event, staged a concert. Daniel Weiss, a professional musician, whose parents Yehudit and Shmulik were murdered by Hamas sang songs of resilience and peace. After one song he said “We must keep playing.” And at the end of the concert, all the people sang the closing line to Days of Quiet: “We can rise up. The end of the world is over–אפשר לקום סוף העולם עבר.” For them and for the many of us who cannot fathom the evil around us, rather than be silent, we can access the melody (niggun) as a possibility of repair (tikkun).