Friday, January 1, 2016

Points to Ponder

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
-Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

This Shabbat, we will begin to read the book of Exodus (Shmot שמות)—the second book of the Chumash. Shmot begins the story of the Jewish nation, from their slavery in Egypt, to their redemption and their travels through the desert. There have always been discussions, debates, arguments, disputes, altercations, and even – to our dismay – fist fights over the relevance of Biblical stories to our lives today, in the 21st century.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reading of slavery, suffering, obstinance, leadership, and heroism. Below, are a few facts and explanations, which seem to be very relevant to our situation today. I'm just going to relate the points to ponder, and I'll let you make whatever connections you like.

Point to ponder #1:

The book of Shmot starts with the story of the Children of Israel coming into Egypt and the first recorded case of anti-Semitism.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said to his people, Behold, the people of the children of Yisrael are more and mightier than we: come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it comes to pass, that when any war should chance, they also join our enemies, and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” Shmot 1:8

There is nothing at all in the literature to indicate that the Children of Israel were thinking of taking over Egypt, or fighting the Egyptians. This is all pure “the Jews have taken over international financing in order to conquer the world” stuff. Protocols of the elders of Zion, Egyptian style.

Pharoah first instructs Shifra and Puah, the Israelite midwives (commonly belived to be Miriam and Yocheved), to kill all the Hebrew babies. Yet, Pharaoh realizes that this is not suffiicient. At this point, Pharoah's astrologers have seen that the saviour of the slaves will soon be born, but they cannot see if he is to be Hebrew, or Egyptian. They also see something about water, but they are a little fuzzy on this point. And so, Pharaoh, in his great wisdom and mercy, decrees that ALL baby boys, when born, are to be thrown into the river, Hebrew or Egyptian. The fear and hatred of the Jews is great enough to sacrifice their own babies.

Point to ponder #2.

"And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi." Shmot 2:1. We know that this is Amram and Yocheved, but at this point neither is named. Yocheved is named as one of the 70 souls entering Egypt with Yaakov. She was born just as they arrive. Our sages have calculated that at this point in the story, she is 130 years old. When Sarah gives birth to Yitzchak she is 90 years old, and much is made of the miracle of his birth, and how an old women was able to give birth. Yocheved, on the other hand, is not even named. No mention of any miracles, no mention of her appearance, or how she reacted to the news of being pregnant. Why is that? One explanation is that there were so many miracles going on at that time amongst the Israelites that giving birth at 130 was not such a big deal. Many women were giving birth at advanced ages. Women, in awful conditions, were giving birth – according to the Midrash – to six babies at a time. Shifra and Puah were credited not only for not killing newborn babies, but also in resuscitating those who had died from natural causes. From this we learn that it is easy to overlook miracles when there are so many occurring all around. Sometimes we take things for granted, especially when everything is going well. You don’t notice the babies who DON’T die.

The trick, the hard part, is to see the miracles as they occur, and for what they are, G-d's proof of His love for us. Which brings me to:

Point to ponder #3.

G-d, being omnipotent, could have simply taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt with a snap of His fingers. But He didn’t. He first had to impose the ten plagues on the people of Egypt. He began by turning the water to blood. Why was blood the first plague? There are many explanations of this, not the least of which is that the river was considered holy; G-d wanted the Egyptians to understand that He and only He was the true G-d. Along with this explanation, however, it is also suggested that the river was chosen for the plague because of its very lack of change. The river was always there. It could always be depended upon. It was not at the mercy of rainfall. The river was never changing. And the people took it completely for granted. It was only when it changed that they realized how much they depended on it, and how lucky they were to have it. The next plague, frogs, emphasizes this even more. Frogs are totally innocuous. They don’t harm, and they don’t help. They are just kind of there. And nobody ever notices frogs, until they take over. This was one of G-d’s purposes in the plagues; to make people aware of G-d, not only in times of trouble, but to understand that a lack of trouble is also G-d’s work.

Point to Ponder #4

The slavery of the Jews in Egypt was not a personal slavery like those of the blacks in southern America 150 years ago. Individual households did not have slaves to work in their fields. Rather, the slaves were owned by Pharaoh himself, and were used to build cities, and storage facilities.

Nonetheless, the plagues were visited upon the whole population. When the river turned to blood, it wasn’t only Pharaoh and his court who went thirsty. It was the whole populace who suffered. The frogs tormented everyone, down to the last child, and the locusts and hail destroyed not only the king’s cattle and crops but every last person’s field. And of course the killing of the first born affected even the animals. This is to show us that a society that supports evil, or does not fight against evil, even when they don’t directly benefit from it, must be destroyed.

Today, the media would call this Disproportional response.

Point to Ponder #5 

At the Passover Seder (16 weeks from today!!!!!), we drink 4 cups of wine to remember the four affirmations of redemption.

I will bring you out ..... and
I will deliver you out ..... and
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm ..... and
I will take you to me for a people. Exodus 6:6

Most people stop there, but if you continue to read just a bit further G-d goes on to say:

And I will bring you into the Land, which I swore to give to Avraham, Yizchak and to Yaakov, and I will give it to you for a heritage. Exodus 6:8

G-d brought us out, and delivered us, and redeemed us, and took us in order to bring us to the Land. Something we must never forget. The miracles He performed/s for us were/are in order for us, as a people, to live in our Land, and follow His mitzvot.

The Haggada of Pesach was first compiled in Babylon, in exile, and it didn’t seem fitting to remember and celebrate the Land, which had been lost. Later, when so many Jews remained outside the Land, it still did not seem appropriate to add the 5th cup.

We are back in our Land. The exile seems to be coming to an end as Jews stream to Israel from the four corners of the globe. Miracles are taking place at a heart stopping rate.

Maybe it’s time to add the fifth cup?

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