The imperative to fight against dehumanization

Parashat Shemot

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The parasha moves quickly through events: the loss of historical memory with the rise of a new Pharaoh, the enslavement of Bene Yisrael, the psychology of that enslavement and its concomitant cruelties, the emergence of Moshe’s existential self-understanding as he moves from a position of privilege and aligns himself with slaves, Moshe’s flight to Midian, his epiphanic encounter with God at the burning bush, and his return to Egypt as a God’s emissary.
These events describe the foundational experiences of who we are and need constantly to become as Jews. The events of Egypt impact us in an even more seminal way than the encounter at Mt. Sinai. I suggest that because together with the creation of the world, we mention the exodus from Egypt during the amidah of virtually every holiday, during every kiddush, in the daily recitation of the Shema, and by reciting the haggadah in the transformative ritual of the seder. This parasha raises the moral challenges that lie at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. The Torah is teaching the imperative to internalize our memory of abuse and enslavement, to speak the truth, especially truth to power, and to respond actively to assert and protect the dignity of all human beings. To ignore this imperative is an affront to the Creator of those who have been dehumanized by leaders who have successfully intoxicated their followers with false ideas, or terrorized them into submission.
The Book of Exodus opens with dehumanization. Here is how the process unfolded. A group of immigrants were living peacefully in society, thriving and productive: Bene Yisrael became a great people there. This means that they distinguished themselves throughout society. (Devarim 26:5, Sifrei Devarim 301:5, Passover Haggadah) Years passed. Tensions must have festered beneath the surface of society, until a “new” king arose in Egypt who “did not know Yosef.” This was a Pharaoh without historical memory, a person with no sense of the context, values, traditions and the aspirations that lend stability to a society. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: the world rests on three values: justice, truth and peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16) (Pirke Avot: 1:18) Perhaps when Yosef stratified society the hierarchy of peasant, priest and royalty ossified, leaving a population alienated and stagnant. Perhaps society’s technological advancements were accompanied by an arrogance resulting from avarice, from an insatiable lust for power and control, and from a sense of entitlement at all costs. The Zohar’s reflection on how such a leader could emerge makes precisely this point:
Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Yehuda were sitting and learning Torah with Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Yehuda said, “Look at this verse: ‘A new king arose in Egypt….’ As they were discussing this verse, they taught: ‘He took power on his own. Previously, he had no leadership position of power, and therefore was unfit to lead. He rose to power by virtue of his wealth. Rabbi Shimon added, This is exactly what happened with King Achashverosh as well. He was unfit to lead, but he declared himself king, and acquired power as a result of his wealth, and then attempted to annihilate the Jews. This is the same situation here, in Egypt! This Pharaoh was unfit to serve as king, grabbed the position through his own machinations, and attempted to annihilate the Jews, as the text continues: ‘He said to his people, Let us outwit them….’” (Zohar Shemot 7a)
A leader motivated by wealth and power will be enabled by a group of supporters also invested in their own wealth and power. When the text describes Pharaoh as one who “did not ‘know’ Yosef, Rashi famously offers two readings. Either the leader of the most powerful civilization in the world lacked an awareness of the significance of the past, or he feigned ignorance. Both readings, however, result from fearing the loss of power. Bene Yisrael became too noticeable. They distinguished themselves in society. They had forgotten “their place.” They might leave the country in a great migration and join forces with other powers. Pharaoh used the Jews to his advantage to fulminate division in an already fractious society. He needed them for labor, but feared them at the same time.
So Pharaoh fabricated a conspiracy theory. It was as if he declared to all of Egypt: “The Hebrews will not replace us! They will not replace us!” Rashi quotes this exact explanation: What did Pharaoh mean by the words, And the nation will go up out of the land?…These words mean that Pharaoh spoke like a person who is pronouncing a curse against himself but attaches the curse to others (because he does not wish to utter words against himself), so that it is as though the Torah wrote “and we will have to leave Egypt” and they, Bene Yisrael, will take possession of it! (Rashi, quoting Sotah 11a). What had been a stratified society of a peasant class, military, priesthood, and royalty, kind, open, welcoming and giving to immigrants, became transformed into an oppressive regime incited by falsehood and conspiracy. The 19th century Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin expanded Pharaoh’s paranoia in greater detail:
Lest they will multiply. They might multiply further and fight against us. But he could not rationally feel that there would be so many soldiers amongst Benei Yisrael so that there could be a campaign against the Egyptians who were armed with horses and chariots. Rather he believed they would incite a war. Then Egyptian soldiers would be preoccupied with war, and they would fight us [as a fifth column] in the country and then emigrate, after plundering us….But this is also fanciful. Bene Yisrael could not afford to emigrate….They were nothing compared to the might of Egypt. But Pharaoh felt that during war Egypt would be preoccupied with the external enemies, and then Bene Yisrael would also fight from the inside, plunder the country, and then leave the country with all the good they can get their hands on…. (Ha’Amek Davar)
So the enslavement, humiliation and dehumanization of the Jewish people started with fear; the fear of losing one’s wealth, one’s position in society, one’s fame. That fear then spread throughout society like a contagion. A pandemic of fear overwhelmed the population, spreading with the infectious virility of a conspiracy theory without foundation or evidence. “They will replace us. They will take our wealth. They will become Egyptian instead of you. They are imposters.” One is reminded of Richard Wagner’s 1850 letter, The Jews in Music, in which he castigated Jews for stealthily robbing Germany of its culture through a technically proficient but superficial imitation of the arts. In his world view, the insidious penetration of authentic culture threatened the existential identity of “true Germans,” just as Pharaoh’s conspiracy theory against Bene Yisrael caused Egypt to fear this population of immigrants and designate them as “other.”
Who dared resist this lie projected onto society? Who had the strength, the resilience, the grit, the moral fiber to speak truth to power and save not only the dignity of the oppressed but their very lives? Falsehood, fear, cruelty, and violence had become the new normal. The population acclimated, either because the condition of society afforded them new opportunities, or because they were understandable terrorized into complicity. Only three people, two women, and a member of the aristocracy, resisted.
The two women, Shifra and Puah, were midwives. There are two ways to read the Hebrew original. Either they were Jewish midwives who served other Jewish women, or they were Egyptian midwives serving the Hebrews. I prefer the latter reading: two Egyptian midwives, willing to cross the boundaries of caste, willing to risk their lives in an act of political protest to protect a higher value of human life and dignity. Midrashic sources, Rashi and other commentators note that the midwives did more than just facilitate the birth. They nourished the infants by bringing the mothers food and water for the growing infants. Indeed, they acted with a higher sense of purpose, with a powerful oral compass to preserve and sustain and nourish life.
The midwives were in awe, fear of God. Look at how powerful the quality of God-fearing is, from the example of the midwives! Moshe taught the same goal of character development in his final speeches when he said, “At the end of the day, what does God want for all of you? Nothing other than to live as a God-fearing person!” (Devarim 10:12) There are so many examples of this throughout the prophets, such as, “Being God-fearing is Hashem’s most precious gift.” (Isaiah 33:6) Midrash Lekh Tov 1:17:1
The moral compass of these Egyptian midwives of holding the Creator in awe, of feeling the awesome majesty of human life and their obligation to protect the divine image at all costs, directed them towards preserving life at the risk of their own. These were the exemplars of compassion and love who protected the dignity and intrinsic value of human life. Their decision was not based on nativistic passion, on ethnic loyalty, on cultural affinities, or social status. They were not motivated by a calculus of self-interest, advancement or wealth. They were motivated by awe, and awe that humbles, that recognizes the truth of a shared humanity in the lived experience of shepherding a new life into the world. They would have died themselves acting on this moral compass. God rewarded Shifra and Puah with “households.” (Shemot 1:21). According to the midrashic tradition that identifies these women as Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe’s mother and sister, the “households” refers either to the Priesthood and Levites, or to the house of King David. (Midrash Lekh Tov, Shemot 1:21) In other words, yirat shamayim, the humility that comes from a God-fearing perspective on humanity and the world, is the required quality of character for authentic political and religious leadership. Arrogance, on the other hand, is the quality of character that emerges from a place of self-worship, the worship of one’s own power and position, leading to grandiosity and the fear of losing that position of power. Once overwhelmed by that fear, the corrupt leader in desperation will act with impunity to lie, cheat, abuse, and terrorize anyone and everyone that leader perceives to stand in his way.
The Hebrew wives of Israelite slaves also conspired to dignify themselves, their husbands, their families, with a vision of hope for the future. Hope, under these circumstances, was also a form of resistance and courage. According to one tradition, the redemption from Egypt occurred in response to the righteous compassion of the Hebrew wives. Rabbi Akiva taught that the women drew two buckets of water for their exhausted husbands. God made certain to put fish in one of them. The women then prepared stew for their husbands, and also bathed them, and then rubbed them with oil, seducing them. When they were ready to give birth, they went out to the apple orchards where they had seduced their husbands as the verse in the Song of Songs says, “I aroused you in the apple orchard.” (Shemot Rabbah 1:12). Rashi brings a related tradition. When God commanded Israel to make donations to build a sanctuary in the desert, the Israelite women brought mirrors. Moshe thought them unseemly and inappropriate, since they are the objects of vanity and self-worship. God set him straight: God said, “These are the most precious donations! With these mirrors the women seduced the men in Egypt and bore children for the future.” We learn this from that same verse: “Under the apple orchard I seduced you.” (Shemot 38:8, Rashi). Despite the fact that the word, tapuch, “apple,” probably means, “etrog/citron” in the Tanach, it has been taken to mean, “apple. The moral courage of these women is celebrated every Pesach by eating the aphrodisiac we call charoset, according to the recipe of walnuts, wine and apples. Here, again, the Torah teaches that in times of crisis, in times of abuse, one’s humanity is preserved, nourished, protected and saved by acting with a sense of awe, of respect for life, with a commitment to the truth that love and compassion outlives abuse, cruelty, and lies. The Israelite and Egyptian women rose up and acted truth to power. They refused to be intimidated by the maniacal corruption of a delusional leader subscribing to conspiracy theories that resulted in the dehumanizing abuse of thousands of immigrants, Bene Yisrael, on whose backs the society had now come to rely.
Of course, the story of the origins and signs of dehumanization, is incomplete without some reflections on Moshe’s origins. Moshe’s life began in hiding. The predisposition to hide was already deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Jewish people. Yitzchak refused to see Yaaskov for Esav, and inner blindness. Yaakov ran to hide with Lavan. Yosef hid behind his position as viceroy of Egypt. Yosef ended up looking, speaking, thinking, dressing, and eating like an Egyptian. It took his entire life to repossess his true identity.
Moshe started life hidden under the floorboards of his home. His mother then hid him in a basket in the Nile. He was then hidden in the aristocratic house of Pharaoh’s daughter. However, Moshe became the aristocrat, the elite, the entitled, who crossed the impenetrable boundaries of caste. Here was a person who inherited an entitled life, raised in royalty, completely at home in the indigenous culture of Egypt. When Yitro asked his daughters how they returned home from the flocks so quickly, they replied, “An Egyptian saved us from the shepherds.” (Shemot 2:19) He looked Egyptian, dressed Egyptian, walked and spoke Egyptian. The Torah is silent about Moshe’s younger years, and then suddenly says, Some time after that, when Moshe had grown up, he went out to his brothers and saw their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. (Shemot 2:10) His existential struggle must have been significant. Ibn Ezra explains that his “brothers” were the Egyptians; Ramban clarifies that they were the Jews. I suggest that Ibn Ezra’s comments are more powerful for us today: Moshe completely expected to see himself as Egyptian; why would he have any reason to assume otherwise? It was precisely the heartbreak, his natural sense of compassion, his ability to feel a shared humanity with other human beings, that enabled Moshe’s inner transformation. He “saw” their suffering, he felt it, he became one of those dehumanized beings, and, overwhelmed by that experience, he took the life of the abuser.
This parasha places the question of how to respond to dehumanization that occurs before our eyes. What are we willing to see? How are we to respond? Moshe’s humanity was born through his ability to see the suffering of people with whom he had nothing in common. The Egyptian midwives and Israelite women responded to the humanizing experience of hope for the future. Moshe married a Midianite woman, able to see the humanity of another culture destined, in fact, to become an insidious enemy of the nation two generations later. He was able to shepherd a flock and save a runaway. He was willing to speak to God with a stutter. All of the weakest characters emerge with the strength to humanize, with the courage to act on the humanizing quality of awe, compassion and love. The heroes of humanization are women, foreigners, and a stutterer who crossed social boundaries and caste lines. Their strength can become ours, in the face of falsehood, fear, cruelty, abuse, and oppression.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov
About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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