The Life Of The Oppressed

The antidote to the terror of living in a dangerous world is to participate in the liberation of others.

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"A divine need." Moses isn't crippled by God because he's helping to redeem God. God doesn't become Moses' terror because God is already Moses' cause. The act of liberation allows Moses to live with a frightening God, even an apparently demonic God, because the act of liberation is about God.

Oppression as Desecration

All oppression is a desecration of the divine image, a hillul HaShem: in Baghdad, or in Addis Ababa, or in the Sudan, or in Gaza. This is threatening to us, and rightfully so. Not because of the enormity of the obligation it imposes; we have plenty of obligations which we rarely meet. It's threatening for the simple reason that oppression is bad for the oppressed. It warps their souls, filling them with a bitterness and violence and hate that is not always directed at the oppressors. The duty to free the oppressed is threatening because it means living with them, and at best that can be a dangerous prospect.

Moses knew that. After all, what was Moses' experience of the Israelite slaves, even after he had demonstrated where his sympathies lay?

He went out again on the next day, and here: two Hebrew men fighting! He said to the guilty-one: For-what-reason do you strike your fellow? He said: Who made you chief and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian? (Exodus 2:13-14)

Both before and after the Exodus the Israelites were as obstinate, as proud, and as violent a group as could be found, and yet never once did Moses suggest that their liberation was a bad idea, that they did not deserve their freedom. People don't deserve freedom because they're good. People deserve freedom because they're people.

Isaac's Children of Moses' Disciples

Nevertheless, the danger is real. But as is increasingly clear, the world is dangerous whatever we do. We all experience the terrifying nature of the world, and we know it threatens us unjustly. But Martin Buber had something to say about that terror, as he meditated on the ambush at the night camp:

"If a power attacks a man and threatens him, it is proper to recognize God in it or behind it, no matter how nocturnally dread and cruel it may be..." There is no danger, he says, that is outside of God, and so the experience of living in a threatening world is the experience of God wanting to kill you; it is the terror of looking up at the knife and knowing that it was God's command that brought you to the altar.

And so we cannot escape that terror--we are, after all, Isaac's children. We can survive it, though; we can deal with the danger, and know it, and not be crippled by it. For while we must be Isaac's children, we can choose to become Moses' disciples.

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Rabbi Joshua Gutoff

Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.