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I arched my head back and looked up at a tower of nearly 9,000 human skulls. Rising 62 meters into the air, stacked and piled and encased in glass, the skulls belonged to Cambodians murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. This upsetting memorial now stands in the infamous “Killing Fields,” where prisoners were butchered after enduring torture at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s interrogation compound in Phnom Penh.
It has been a couple of years since I visited Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. But my memories of the piles of bones came tumbling back when I encountered a midrash on Parashat B’shalah. The Torah portion tells us that following the Exodus, God did not lead the Israelites on a direct route to the Promised Land, through the land of the Philistines, lest the Israelites have “a change of heart when they see war.” The midrash suggests what vision of “war” they would have seen: the bones of 300,000 Israelites from the tribe of Ephraim, laying “in heaps on the road.”
A Troubling Midrash
This troubling midrash relates a tradition that some or all of the tribe of Ephraim died in the wilderness. Having miscalculated the end of the 400 years of slavery which God prophesied to Abraham, they left Egypt on their own, 30 years ahead of schedule, and were slaughtered by the Philistines. God circumvents the scene of this tragedy, believing that the rest of the Israelites, having just emerged from their long period of oppression and violence, are not ready to encounter the sheer horror of these skeletons. As the midrash states, “Therefore the Holy Blessed One reasoned: If Israel behold the bones of the Ephraimites strewn in the path, they will return to Egypt.”
Confronting the bones of the past has taken on new urgency in Cambodia recently, as the former commander of Tuol Sleng, known as Comrade Duch, has stood trial for the atrocities that took place. The trial has offered an opportunity for the Cambodian public to revisit the scenes of horror from that era, but it has also raised difficult questions about the usefulness of these revelations in a developing country that is still struggling with profound and immediate challenges, including deep poverty and public health crises.
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