The traumas of oppression and freedom

Parashat Bo

Parashat Bo opens with the final plagues. Locusts devastate the remaining vegetation of Egypt. Darkness so thick that the rabbis tell us one who was seated could not stand, while those standing could not sit, descended throughout Egypt. The homes of Bene Yisrael remained illuminated, but cast no light onto the rest of the country. Pharaoh expelled Moshe and Aharon from his presence. Before departing, however, God prepared Moshe for the final, horrific plague. There will be one final plague, after which Pharaoh will send you from Egypt. No Egyptian family will be spared, regardless of rank or social position. No dog will growl at you, amidst the deep wailing that will resound throughout the land. (11:1-7) The death of the first born, the symbol of Egyptian strength and future hegemony, will affect every caste but the people occupying the lowest rank in society. Moshe told Pharaoh that ultimately, even he, Pharaoh, will humble himself before God. Moshe then left Pharaoh in a rage. (11:7) Commentators remain divided regarding those final moments. Resh Lakish said, Moshe slapped Pharaoh across the face before walking away. (Talmud Zevachim 102a). Alternatively, Pharaoh slapped Moshe. (Torah Shelemah 11:7, fn. 56) These slaps are powerfully symbolic. An enslaved people cried out to the Lord. They prayed. They sought leadership. They hoped. Their leader confronted the oppressor. He spoke truth to power. He brought evidence time and again of the devastating impact of enslavement. The advanced society with a history of slave labor, oppression, and a caste system of dehumanization ended up with polluted water, infected air, despoiled soil, broken health, and a shriveled soul. Minds and attitudes are more difficult to change than behaviors, and Egypt’s leader remained myoptically strident. The confrontation of leaders ended in the symbol of that slap. A slap across the face drains a person of their pride, their sense of self, their humanity. One leader’s identity was bound to enslavement, the other’s, to freedom.

With that final confrontation, the style and content of the parasha shift abruptly. The Torah’s language transitions from narrative to ritual and law. Suddenly, God instructs Moshe to transmit mitzvot to the Children of Israel. According to Sefer haChinuch, God teaches Moshe nine positive and eleven negative mitzvot in the second half of the parasha: Sanctify the new moon, slaughter the pascal lamb offer, eat the korban pesach, eat matzah, sanctify the first born animals in the land of Israel, recount the story of the exodus annually, accord special symbolism to the donkey’s first born and redeem them, since Jews were treated like beasts of burden in Egypt. (Sefer haChinuch, mitzvah #11) Negative mitzvot include: do not eat the korban pesach raw or boiled, do not leave any meat leftover, make certain there is no leaven in your household, do not eat the pesach outside of your home, do not include people in the meal who are not part of your community, do not eat any leaven. This shift shocks the reader, interrupting the most dramatic narrative in the Torah, literally stopping the movement towards climax.

By describing these mitzvot, the text ritualizes memory. Israel, the Jewish people, suffered terrible dehumanization. They became animals. Furniture. Owned like beasts by otherwise full human beings. Degraded. They were starved of spirit and strength, yet resilient in the continued hope for a rehumanized future. An Egyptian by culture and upbringing, a Jew by both nurture and nature, Moshe represents the fluidity of human identity. Moshe moved between cultures, spoke both languages, empathized with human suffering and challenged the institutional racism upon which the dominant culture relied. Moshe challenged Pharaoh and Egypt with the intrinsic humanity of the Jewish people. Hope, vision, prayer, commitment and purpose all humanize. That was precisely what Moshe presented to Pharaoh, and is precisely what posed the greatest threat: the humanization of slaves.

As the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh took its final, climactic turn, both peoples stood at the boundary that divided normalcy from trauma. The Israelites suffered, had known nothing but the burden of social control. At the same time, the unknown quality of freedom must have terrified them. The Egyptians only knew reliance on enslavement. To see Israel as human would undo the economic, social and cultural foundation of society. How would they restructure Egypt and integrate Israel into its rewoven fabric, without losing their own identity that relied on the less than human status of the Jews. As the structures of society were about to break, both populations faced the trauma of a radical, seismic upheaval that would have political, social, economic and cosmic repercussions.

The parasha acknowledges two sets of trauma. Israel suffered the trauma of dehumanization, along with the post traumatic disorder experienced by newly gained freedom. Concomitantly, however, is the trauma suffered by oppressors who lose their sadistic hold on their slaves, and as a result, feel enraged, lost, desperate. The penultimate plague, the plague of darkness, coming immediately prior to widespread death followed by the re-birth of Israel, places the trauma of slavery before us. The Book of Genesis identified blindness as one of the most debilitating conditions our earliest generations endured. Blindness was always associated with loss, falsehood, resentment, trickery, chicanery, and even the disappointed loss of entitlement. The plague of darkness emerges here as a phenomenon of national blindness. An entire nation can become blind. A society can choose to close its eyes to the truth of its present and to the truths of its past. An entire population can believe they are sighted by making themselves blind to the lived truths of people surrounding them. They can convince themselves that the machinations of their mind shape the reality outside of themselves, and when someone shines a light on the shadows they perceive as real, their blindness intensifies.

The plague of darkness attests to Egypt’s moral and spiritual blindness. The Torah says, Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (10:22-23) Midrashic traditions explicate the plague of darkness. The darkness was not a natural, simple darkness. Rather, it was choshekh ‘afelah, something thicker, qualitatively different. The darkness was so thick and dense that if an Egyptian were seated, he could not rise; standing, she could not sit. (Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi) The Ramban wrote that the darkness was so thick, it extinguished all flame. Hence, that explains why the Egyptians could not simply light their lamps. We would say that this darkness sucked all of the oxygen from the air, creating a vacuum throughout the land–a spiritual, ethical vacuum.

Rabbi Chanoch Cheynech Alexander, a disciple of the first Gerer Rebbe, wrote that the darkness in Egypt was an inner darkness. Each individual only worried about himself and only looked to save himself and the members of his household – and, thus, “did not rise from under the darkness for three days.” Not a single one of them rose to a higher spiritual level to help anyone else.” (Parpar’aot LaTorah, pg. 43) In the Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, 1855 – 1926, wrote that the darkness indicated Egypt’s inability to perceive God’s power, majesty and sovereignty in the world. Their tenacious dedication to enslaving an entire group of people attested to their blindness. They refused to see the dignity of all human beings. Arrogance and the fear of economic loss blinded them.

The most powerful interpretation of the plague of darkness as spiritual blindness was expressed by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He wrote:

Immediately before leaving Egypt, there was the plague of darkness. This is because Egypt had become a beast, symbolized by darkness. Humanity is characterized by the nefesh, an inner life of the spirit. That is captured by the essence of light. That is why when God infused Egypt with darkness there was light in the homes of Israel. This displayed the difference between Israel and Egypt, [between a society driven to dehumanize others for their own material gain, and those who preserve their sense of humanity.] Idolaters, like the Egyptians, have an insatiable materialistic appetite, which, like darkness, leads to a spiritual death. That is why they became surrounded by a thick, impenetrable darkness. [That darkness surrounding them on the outside was symptomatic of their inner depravity.] Israel was the opposite: they retained the ability to recognize the source of holiness in the world, and dedicate their bodies to serving that reality. That enabled Israel to overcome the pain of their physical enslavement, since they lived for a sacred purpose. That is why they were surrounded by light. (Likutei Halachot , Yoreh Deah, Laws of New Grain, 3:4:1)

Mendacity and the lust for power and control over other human beings resulted in a spiritual blindness. The following parasha captures Pharaoh’s panic when he realizes what he had done. When he realizes that his slave caste has fled, that they left Egypt in a great migration towards freedom, he irrationally pursues them into the sea. Without an enslaved, oppressed, dehumanized population, a society or leadership relying on a supremacist self-understanding collapses. Egypt is in a panic. As are supremacists everywhere. With the oppressed on a path of rehumanization, the oppressors suffer the trauma of loss: existential loss of identity, fear of economic loss, and cultural loss of status.

But as I mentioned, instead of resolving the drama of the plagues directly after darkness to the death of the first born, the text shifts to legal discourse. The textual interlude of chapters 12-half of 13 marks the potential trauma to the enslaved from their perspective as well. They are vulnerable, weak, unaccustomed to thinking for themselves. They are without direction or vision. So the Torah provides an antidote to this trauma. The interlude identifies a critical existential truth about human freedom. The Israelites could not gain their freedom by simply running away from Egypt. They needed, as Erich Fromm articulated so powerfully, a vision of something to run towards. They needed a “freedom to,” and not merely a “freedom from.” In this spirit, God structured their exodus. Create a calendar. Mark sacred moments of life. Have a meal together to create a sense of community within your homes. Join together with neighbors. Eat mindfully, not mindlessly, wearing sandals, with girded belts and walking staffs. Do not leave leftovers from your meal; eat as if you are sharing this meal with God, as a korban, drawing us close. Paint your doorposts with blood, because freedom requires a purposeful, active, forward-thinking, vision-driven feeling of re-birth all the time. In this primal moment, you will literally be re-born. You will rush from the womb of your homes through a narrow opening of a doorway surrounded by the life-essence of blood on the doorposts, and, with increasing speed and intensity, push yourselves through the broken waters of Yam Suf into the wilderness of pure human opportunity. Do these things: bake these matzot, gather together, eat this meal, leave with purpose, mindfully, so that these small actions of commitment provide a salve for the panic and fear of new life and the unshackled freedom of becoming full human beings.

Collectively, these actions ritualize memory. “In order to heal, people must remember.” Remember your own oppression, to thwart your inclination in the future to oppress others, to benefit from the suffering of others, to project yourself as powerful on the backs of others. The literary structure of this narrative includes a meta-cognitive ritualization of memory to ensure constant reflection on the primal experience of oppression even before the actual moments of redemption. The rabbis anticipated the tenuousness of memory: When your children ask you, ‘What is this ritual?’ tell them that this is the pesach offering our ancestors ate as God saved our homes but destroyed the Egyptians. These verses suggest both a blessing and a curse. They hint at a curse insofar as they suggest that without constant conversation, the Torah can be forgotten in the future. On the other hand, they foretell a blessing that we will have many children to ensure our future. (Mechilta 17). What Israel must remember, must never forget, is the experience of dehumanization. No matter under what circumstances, the demand to always protect a person’s humanity, must remain inviolate. There can simply be no excuse. Otherwise, you, too, shall become blind. These mitzvot of memory are critical to insure we protect and our own neshama, nourished by the compassion we must feel for others, the acts of kindness we must extend, and the upholding of the truth that lies at the foundation of the world. Without these memories, we will become what the Egyptians of that generation became, blind to their own humanity. In his powerful novel, Blindness, the Spanish author Jose Saramago describes the experience of blindness and memory this way:

Say to a blind man, you’re free, open the door that was separating him from the world. Go, you are free, we tell him once more, and he does not go, he has remained motionless there in the middle of the road, he and the others, they are terrified, they do not know where to go, the fact is that there is no comparison between living in a rational labyrinth, which is, by definition, a mental asylum and venturing forth, without a guiding hand or a dog-leash, into the demented labyrinth of the city, where memory will serve no purpose, for it will merely be able to recall the images of places but not the paths whereby we might get there. (Jose Saramago, Blindness)

It remains for us to construct a society whose rational contours protect the vulnerable, feed the hungry, cloth the poor, and celebrate the magnificent diversity through which God has created this world. The mitzvot of memory are our pathways to dignifying people wherever and whenever we encounter them.

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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