Parshat Shmot which we read this week contains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of the Torah. By putting it in its psychological context and reading it as psycho-drama, we may comes to terms with it and uncover its deeper meaning.
Moshe Rabanu (Moses our teacher) grew up in the royal palace of Egypt and was raised by the daughter of Pharoah. As a youth his connection to his birth family was apparently non existent, or tenuous at best. He was nurtured among the Egypt aristocracy – dressed like them, talked like them. He was educated like them and indeed was one of them. Yes, he harbored some vague memory of his biological roots, which comes to the fore in a late adolescent identity crisis. He goes forth from the palace to “see his brethren”. Deeply touched by their desperate plight, his empathy is aroused and he strikes out at a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and kills him. The crime is witnessed by none besides the Hebrew slave that Moshe had rescued, but none the less the next time he approaches the slaves he is taunted for his crime. Word of his act reaches the Egyptian authorities and a warrant is put out for his arrest. Moshe is forced to flee to Midian.
He becomes a man without an identity. The Israelites with whom he might have thought to reconnect, have stabbed him in the back. The Egyptians with whom he shares a common culture have turned against him. He is forsaken and utterly alone. In Midian he is taken in by the local idolatrous priest and begins life anew. He marries Tzipora, his benefactor’s daughter. Moshe gains a family and an identity – he becomes a Midianite shepherd. The memories of Egypt recede, as do those of the enslaved Hebrews. For approximately sixty years Moshe lives a quiet life in Midian.
And then his simple life is shaken to the foundation by the Voice that echoes out of the Burning Bush, the Voice that forces him to unearth the distant memories that he has all but forgotten. He hears about the bondage and suffering of his long lost brethren, about a covenant forged by Abraham with a mysterious and hidden God who now commands him to return to Egypt, stand up to the despotic Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land.
Moshe is reeling, sent into a psychological spiral by this frightening Voice and its utterly outlandish demands. How could he return to the land that made him a fugitive and to the people that rejected and betrayed him? What connection could he possibly forge with those distant wretched slaves? Why would he want to leave his comfortable life and identity and become a crusader on a suicidal mission? So Moshe refuses to accede to the demands of the Voice. But it is unrelenting. Moshe stands his ground but the Voice does not back down. Yes – no. Yes – no. They go back and forth. Five times God comes at him. And at the end of the encounter, God reiterates His request/command and disappears … and Moshe is left utterly alone. If he intended to refuse one last time, there is no one there to hear his refusal.
Will he go back to Egypt? We do not know and either does he. He is completely confused, hurt, lost. He packs up the family for a journey in order “see if his brethren in Egypt are still alive”. Not a word about leading them out of slavery, for he does not know what he will do. And neither does he know any longer who he is at all.
“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at his legs, saying, You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me. He then released His grip upon him, and she added, Bridegroom of blood – to the circumcised!”
Moshe experienced God as trying to kill him. Perhaps waking up at night in a cold sweat, after thrashing about for hours in the darkness while wracked by nightmarish questions of personal identity and doubts concerning his own adequacy, Moshe can take it no longer. He cries out in anguish in the dead of night. Tzipora awakens, realizing that her husband is in the throes of a complete breakdown. She takes things into her own hands, in a flash circumcising the couple’s young son, thereby making a powerful statement and showing her husband where his true loyalty must lie. We are of the circumcised she tells him, the blood covenant of circumcision will define who we are from this point forward. My husband – let there be no more equivocation, says she to him.
And Moshe at that moment experiences catharsis. The tension is broken. He now knows with utter certainty who he is and what he must do. The doubts are gone, the tensions resolved. Everything becomes clear. It is as if God has released the death grip upon him and he has been granted a new identity, and new lease on life. The man Moshe comes full circle and returns to his roots and to his true self. Through the sacrificial act of Tzipora, Moshe is transformed from a Midianite shepherd into the leader of the Israelites. The bridegroom of circumcisional blood will now make his way to the people whose identity will be cut in their flesh. And the Israelites will be redeemed!
True, things could have been worse for Joseph – but not much worse. First, growing up an orphan – his mother had died when he had been an infant. Yes, Joseph had a father. His Dad Jacob was alive alright, but he was most probably preoccupied with the tensions and jealousies of an extended family composed of his three remaining wives and over ten other children. There was rivalry, resentment and then hate among the brothers, culminating in their ganging up on Joseph and leaving him for dead, having thrown him into an empty well in the middle of nowhere. Fished out of there and sold into Egyptian slavery, he was framed by a sexually starved Egyptian princess, wrongly accused of attempted rape, and condemned to the dungeon. And that same Joseph – at the age of 30 – rises to become the viceroy of Egypt and the savior of the Children of Israel. Is there any connection between the two parts of Joseph’s life?
It really hurts when a seven year old falls off his bicycle and skins his knee. He wails in anguish. As parents it hurts us too, and we wish that it wouldn’t have happened. But we also know that no one every learned to ride a bike without taking a nasty fall at least once or twice.
There is no way in the world to grow, to learn, to advance and progress, without taking risks or being thrust into challenging situations, and stumbling once in a while. No pain, no gain as we say. That is the way that God created the universe, that’s human nature. It is only the possibility of failure, the experience of adversity, which steels us and refines us and pushes us forward. Only when we go way beyond our comfort zones, do we discover unexplored regions without ourselves. Real growth requires pain.
The Hasidic master Rav Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbitch, tells us that the deepest source of meaning in life is to be found in the fact that God does not shield us from tribulations and suffering. He watches over us, as it were, by allowing life to take its natural course. Because of His concern for our ultimate growth and success, He refrains from preventing us from falling. We have been placed in a reality that allows us to err, to know grief and heart-ache, to endure pain, for only under such circumstances do we have an opportunity to grow. It is only through the struggle, the turmoil, that we become fully alive to the significance of life. It may be that only he who has suffered may fully live.
Not that suffering guarantees meaning. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We may not always take advantage of the opportunity. We may wallow in grief, we may feel sorry for ourselves, we may not find the inner resources to overcome our adversity. Tragedy may break us. But if we do surmount the obstacles, we are far better off than we were to begin with.
When all is good, life is emptied of its transformational power. When you have it all, that is when all may be lost. Only through the lack, only when we are far from having consummated our desires and dreams, only when all is not revealed and clouds still cover the heavens, only them is the deepest meaning available and only then can we access the wealth of potential greatness hidden within our souls.
The very nature of creation is that God cannot simply vouchsafe to us meaning and greatness. It can only be attained though struggle and travail. May we all harness our pain as Joseph did to reach the heights of personal accomplishment and spiritual grandeur.
Sarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.
Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!
In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.
Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.
Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!
In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.
Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.
And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.
And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.
But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!
So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”
“Why do bad things happen to good people” is the most fundamental question of theology. Just about everyone has given it some thought in his lifetime. It’s a simple question, and its outlines are more or less like this: If God is indeed omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), and if He is just and righteous as well, why does He permit upright and honest individuals to suffer. It would seem to be a contradiction in terms, and this apparent contradiction has brought many to the brink of despair … and beyond.
The issue actually presents itself at the very outset of the Torah, which we are just beginning to read anew this Shabbat. We are told that two sons are born to Adam and Eve. One of them, whose name is Abel, is presented as a fine, God-fearing man, while God is extremely displeased with his brother Cain and as a result the latter becomes angry and sullen. To make a long story short, Cain ends up killing his brother with no apparent provocation.
Why did God let him do it? The Torah says explicitly that God knew something malevolent was brewing. Immediately before the murder, God says to Cain “sin crouches at the door.” So God is right there at the scene of the crime, and he is totally aware of what is going on. Yet He deliberately refrains from stepping in to prevent the homicide from taking place!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Put aside the question of why. The fact is that God did not save Abel from his brother’s onslaught. The Torah is telling us straight out that God does not see His role as one of intervening to prevent crime or to protect the righteous. If we use the argument of “why do bad things happen to good people” as a basis to challenge religious faith, we are seriously mistaken, for it turns out that “bad things happen to good people” is actually a fundamental of biblical religion! To put it differently, this tragic story of fratricide is right here at the beginning of the Torah to nip in the bud any potential misunderstanding: God is right here, but He is not here to stop us from harming each other.
And why not? – Well, right after God says to Cain that “sin crouches at the door,” He adds that “it endeavors to gain mastery over you, but you may yet overcome it.” There is a mighty struggle going on with us, and apparently, allowing this struggle to run its course is more important to God than ensuring that human events always turn out justly. This struggle is the source of evil – when we fail to overcome temptation – it is also the very source of all good. It is of the very essence of the meaning of being human. God created us to grapple with the evil inclination and to choose good, and that entails the possibility of us choosing evil. We are given free will to make bad decisions, and it is exactly that option that makes good decisions good. If God were to prevent all evil – thereby stymieing free will – good would lose all meaning. Life would be emptied of its primary significance.
God has created an unredeemed world, and it is for us to redeem. He has put within us an imperfect character and it is for us to perfect. God will not do it for us. That would fly in the face of the entire Divine plan. It is man’s job.
So when bad things happen to good people, don’t ask “where was God?” God was most certainly there. The question to be asked is rather, “where was man?” God was there, providing us with the opportunity to better ourselves through choosing good. It was one of us who dropped the ball.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Nine months ago I opened the front door of my apartment in Alon Shvut and took a 20-minute walk that began to change my life. My wife asked me to reconsider—it might be dangerous, she said—but I went anyway. My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills.
Just a few days earlier I had sat in my living room with a Protestant pastor from the US who had come to the Holy Land in order to meet Palestinians, meet Israeli settlers, and then introduce them to each other. He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish history—and then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.
Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart.
For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious.
For 3 hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and saw—despite my prejudices—human faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heard—of deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflict—were authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.
One Palestinian man—who turned out to be a very close neighbor, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homes—told me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kipa and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kipa and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”
As it began to get dark and there were about 25 or 30 of us left, we sat around in a circle and heard the life story of Ali Abu Awwad, former militant turned nonviolent peace activist. He spoke of nocturnal raids by the Israeli military, of rights denied, of prison. And I knew it was true. I had suppressed my memories of participating in those raids and guarding those prisoners decades ago as a young soldier—and it all came back to me, flooding my consciousness.
Ali’s reality made its way into my heart … and I will never be the same. His truth has not made mine any less true, rather it has shown my truth to be only part of the complex web of the reality in which we live. My life has become so much more complicated as I hold within my consciousness two conflicting truths that are both valid. Loose ends are dangling within me. I have become much more fragmented yet much more whole. As I embrace more and more partial truths, my horizons expand in the direction of the Infinite One, within Whom all truths find their proper place.
These days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are days of teshuva—soul searching and penitence. May my teshuva this year—the most intense and the most paradigm-shattering I have ever experienced—be acceptable before God.
Postscript – The events described above gave birth to Roots/Shorashim/Judur – The Israeli Palestinian Initiative for Grassroots Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. For more information, go to www.friendsofroots.net
A few summers ago, on a trip through Samaria, Israel, a passage in this week’s Torah portion jumped out of the past and came alive in front of my eyes.
The portion of Re’eh introduces us to a stupendous covenant ceremony that Moses commands the people to enact upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval when the Israelites enter the land of Israel after his own death. The outlines of the ceremony are further fleshed out near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 27, where Moses instructs the people that the ceremony is to include, among other things, the construction of an altar on Mount Eval, “an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them…”
And indeed, after the death of Moses, it is reported near the end of chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua that the Israelites built the altar and performed the ceremony exactly as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy.
And here we were, 3000 years later, gazing upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval from up close, and taking in the contours of the altar built by Joshua, Moses’ successor, exactly according to the biblical requirements. Our guide, Benny Katzover, grippingly described the discovery of the altar upon Mount Eval over two decades earlier by his friend Adam Zertal, a well-known archeologist. Zertal, so we learned, had been at that time part of the consensus of secular scholars at Tel Aviv University who were certain that most of the Bible has no historical veracity.
And then came the dig that was to change his life. Made of only unhewn stones, it was dated to the early Iron Age, about 3,400 years ago. At first they had no idea what this strange structure could be. A storehouse, a watchtower? But as the excavation progressed no entranceway was to be found. And the debris that filled it up—it slowly become clear that it was not random sediment, but rather had deliberately been placed there at the same time that the walls themselves had been erected; it seemed as if the use of the structure was not inside of it but rather upon its top. It was like no other edifice unearthed in the Near East. What could it have been?
A tremendous number of bones, representing over 700 animals, were found scattered about. Scientific analysis indicated that they were all from animals that had been roasted over an open flame fire of low temperature. Perhaps what had been discovered was an altar for animal sacrifice! And all the bones without exception were from kosher animals! Furthermore, all of these animals were within their first year of life, exactly as the Torah demands for sacrifice!
And then the ramp on the side of the altar, and the measurements of the alter itself—completely unlike pagan altars of the period, and conforming exactly to the specifications found in rabbinic texts.
I was almost brought to tears as Katzover described how Zertal, over the course of many seasons of the dig, gradually came to the conclusion that the only explanation for the amazing find was that it is indeed Joshua’s altar! The dating, the location, the measurements, the bones—it all fit like a glove. Here on the slopes of Mount Eval the Bible had been corroborated. For Zertal the discovery was life transforming, and he began to change his whole professional orientation towards the biblical text.
And here we were, spellbound by the saga and by the altar itself. The Bible had come alive before our eyes. And as the meaning of the whole thing penetrated my soul, I felt indeed that we had come one step closer to the real Bible, and to reuniting with our history and with the land!
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.