Saturday, January 8, 2011

An Ethical Challenge of Biblical proportions

Ed. Note: That this sermon was delivered in the shadow of a series of terror-inducing mail bombs in our immediate area, and on the eve of the cowardly shooting of an elected United States Congressperson, and murder and injury to multiple innocent bystanders, the questions raised seem only MORE significant as I post it, less that 24 hours later, and earlier than usual.

Be Careful What You Think You Know –
Sermon for Parshat Bo January 7, 2011
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Friends, my words tonight will be an incredible challenge to many of us. They were an incredible challenge to write, and an even greater challenge to decide to share. But, in a week in which we learned that a jury found innocent the man whose car struck and killed our friend, Dick Greenstein, we are already troubled and challenged, as we seek to make sense of an unthinkable tragedy, to reach out to our friends whose grief and mourning for a beloved parent and grandparent has been denied the full closure they sought and needed, even as we need to adjust our assumptions about what happened and why, yet still maintain our faith! In a week in which I have shared with our congregation, online, an incredible article by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach on the proper role of the Rabbi, I, and we, SHOULD be moved to embrace our roles, even in the most challenging moments.

I warn us of the impending potential discomfort that I am going to create, not from a desire to remain well-liked in the face of diasagreement, nor from a desire to lessen the challenge of our text tonight, but rather from a sense of fairness and concern. Not all of us who came to services tonight came in a mood to be challenged. Those of you who did not, I extend my apologies to you in advance. But I cannot, and will not, refuse to share these thoughts on our portion this week merely out of fear that some might be made uncomfortable by them. For if I did, I would be guilty of what Rabbi Boteach accuses the Rabbinate of in his article. I would be guilty of perpetuating a silence that, to my mind, has gone on for far too long in our tradition. And, worst of all, I would deny us the opportunity to possibly resolve what appears to be a huge disconnect between our faith and our ethics, that stems from the content of our portion for this Shabbat!

You see, we come back to our Torah text for another Shabbat, and we find ourselves with a very familiar and expected story on the one hand, yet, if we are careful readers, a couple of daunting challenges to what we think we know and believe. And that is outside of the usual difficulty we have simply in dealing with a text that appears to have God limiting Pharaoh’s free-will as an excuse to kill many Egyptians!

In parshat Bo, our story picks up with the lead-up to the 8th plague – locusts. Before the plague is sent, however, there is some significant by-play. The portion actually begins with a conversation between God and Moses that leaves little doubt but that we are supposed to understand that God is pulling the strings on Pharaoh like a master puppeteer. God is doing this, according to the text “that you may recount in the hearing of your children and of your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians…” This idea should give us pause, as I hope it is contrary to the theologies that most of us are comfortable with in our own lives. I am sure there must be times that believing that your God will abuse your enemies might be a valuable psychological construct, but it sure is a poor basis for an ethical system by which to live our lives!

Fortunately, the same explanation concludes, “in order that YOU may know that I am the Eternal.” The REAL reason for this elaborate puppet show, we are told, is because WE need to be reminded what our God is capable of doing to others, for us. A powerful statement of why we should worship God – and one that works as both positive and negative reinforcement. For those who are motivated by the carrot, we are thankful for all that God has done, and for God’s protection. For those who need the stick, look at what God did to the Egyptians, and imagine what God is capable of doing to us if we ever deserve punishment!

This last bit turns the heat off of God’s behavior, and focuses it on ours. What does it say about US that we need our God to go to such extremes in order for us to recognize the power of our God?! So, from the opening paragraph, we are already being forced to confront ugly truths about our ancestors, if not ourselves, and to deal with theologically challenging events. And it is only going to get worse as we go!

Pharaoh’s courtiers question the wisdom in continuing to prevent the Israelites from going out to worship, as Moses has requested. Even those advisors closest to Pharaoh have already read the handwriting on the wall far more accurately than Pharaoh is being allowed to do. And this change of heart from his most trusted advisors leads Pharaoh, still BEFORE the onset of the locust hordes, to summon Moses and Aaron, and accede to their last request to go to worship their God. Once again, Moses, instead of accepting the change of heart, ups the ante on what Pharaoh needs to allow, leading to further stalemate, and leading to the onset of the plague.

With the arrival of the plague, it appears Pharaoh is ready to cave in completely. He immediately admits his guilt before Moses and Aaron, and begs for an end to the plague. Moses must have been impressed by Pharaoh’s sincerity, as he immediately asked God to relent. And God did, but then immediately pulled the strings again on Pharaoh’s heart, to justify the 9th plague – darkness. The impact is clear – Pharaoh again accedes to the last set of demands, only to have Moses AGAIN up the ante, and again we end up in stalemate and confrontation when it appears that resolution is at hand.

All of this, even before we get to the killing of the first born, HAS TO make us wonder what is really going on here. Scholars have, for years, viewed the plagues in mythological terms – as a confrontation between godheads. Our One God on one side, and the pantheon of Egypt on the other. Starting with the Nile River God, and working in crescendo up to these last three plagues – in which first holy scarabs are turned against Egypt, then the Sun God Aton-Ra is literally eclipsed. Only the Pharaoh himself – seen in ancient Egypt as divine – remains of the Gods of Egypt. And the 10th plague will surely take care of that last item as well!

For the ancient world, such a story was clear – it worked. AND, because it worked, because OUR God emerged supreme, whatever ethical issues might have been raised would have been dismissed as minor quibbles. But for us modern readers, too many of whom already have God issues, we find the ethics troubling, and are not as easily assuaged to dismiss those concerns in acknowledging the victory of our God. This, too, is not our theology. But the REAL problems are about to begin!

At the start of the SECOND chapter of Bo, God is about to prepare us for the 10th and last plague. But first, God gives Moses THIS astounding command: I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go… Tell the people to BORROW, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” Borrow? After telling Moses that we are about to leave for good? How is this BORROWING? There can be no intent to return these items!

We moderns hear this story, and are troubled greatly – or should be -- even though the text tells us that the Eternal disposed the Egyptians favorably toward us and our request. So, we do what, surprisingly, our ancestors do not seem to have been willing or able to do. We ask the tough question, and make the challenging comparison.
We remember the midrash on Noah, that asked whether he was absolutely a blameless man, despite living in an age of violence and lawlessness, deserving to be wiped out. Or was he merely apparently a righteous man – nothing more than the best of a bad lot?

We remember the similar midrashic debate about Moses at the Burning Bush – did the Bush confirm Moses’ status as the one to lead us out of Egypt, because only Moses saw something worth turning aside and investigating that everyone before him had missed? Or did God place the bush there FOR Moses to see, to justify a decision already made?

But then WE compare Moses to Abraham – just as the Midrash tried to compare Noah to Abraham. The Abraham who seemed to blindly follow God’s commands, and attempted to sacrifice Isaac, seems VERY similar to the Moses we see here. BUT, the Abraham who argued and negotiated with God over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah, and didn’t rest until he would only have been negotiating for those who were his own family, clearly seems morally superior to the Moses we see here. Where, after all, is Moses, questioning the idea of BORROWING that is not borrowing, but is clearly meant to serve as a way to give reparations to God’s people for their years of servitude? Where is Moses, after the stunning reversals of Pharaoh; the words of God, almost bragging about being the puppet-master; and the suffering he has seen inflicted on the PEOPLE of Egypt through 9 plagues, showing even a shred of the caring and concern towards others which led him to slay the task-master in his youth?

Moses, our great LEADER, appears at this critical juncture to have been reduced, himself, to being just another pawn in God’s chess game with the gods of Egypt. While THAT, in itself, may NOT be so troubling to us – would that more leaders today, in all walks of life, had the hubris to acknowledge THAT truth – it raises other issues for us as modern readers. Are we ALL just God’s pawns? If so, where then is free will?

The Rabbis of old were troubled by this as well. They phrased their question far differently, however. They PRESUMED that we DO have free will, and therefore needed to find what it was that distinguished THIS generation as the one worthy of being redeemed! And they found answers that worked for them. However, taken together, those answers, at least to me, do not outweigh the negative of, effectively, wholesale THEFT from the Egyptians! Even as some kind of reparation.

And, I believe, even the Biblical author(s) and editor(s), were troubled here as well, because the last huge problem of the text tonight appears to be an attempt to ANSWER this question of worthiness – an answer, interestingly, that the Midrash itself does not choose to use!

Chapter 12, the third and final chapter of Bo, begins with God giving Moses further instructions for the people to follow. God tells Moses: “Speak to the whole community of Israel, and say that on the 10th of this month, each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.” After some discussion of what to do when a family can’t consume a whole lamb themselves, and what qualities the lamb should have, God continues: “You shall keep watch over it until the 14th day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.” The instructions continue by telling us to use the blood of this sacrificial lamb to mark our homes so the Angel of Death will know to Pass Over us, and telling us to eat the lamb afterwards, dressed and ready for flight, because the 10th plague is coming, and all the first born of Egypt shall die.

The last words of the text before the onset of this 10th plague tell us: “The people then bowed low in homage. And the Israelites went and did so; just as the Eternal had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.” It is clear that the people obeyed what they were told to do by God through Moses and Aaron! One might think that by protecting themselves from the Angel of Death, our ancestors proved worthy of being saved, by following God’s commanded word!

However, looked at another way, this actually becomes the greatest indictment of the people and Moses -- for allowing unnecessary pain and suffering and wholesale death! Assuming that these words were delivered by Moses no later than the 9th day of the month, to allow the people to prepare to take the lamb the following day, our people had at least FIVE DAYS WARNING of what was to come! Where was the effort to save their neighbors from the horrible fate that awaited them? Why (and how) was there not even a leak of information to the Egyptians? Were Moses and our ancestors SO consumed that, after so long, the freedom that they had waited for was finally at hand, that they allowed a sense of entitlement or a desire for revenge to silence them to the ethical challenge of knowing that a holocaust was about to occur? If so, HOW could this generation been deemed worthy of salvation?
How has a text that leaves open such damning questions become canonized, and gone unchallenged by our tradition? And what does it say about those who came before us, and about us, that there has been virtual silence in the face of such an accusation? Has generation after generation been so blind to this reading? Is that whither the silence? Or is something more conspiratorial or fear-induced at work here? Is the silence caused by the unease of generations of learned Jews at the thought that opening the question might force many to question the origins of the Biblical text, or worse, the text’s ethical imperative for us? Even if that IS the explanation, it has been a couple of centuries since scholars have let the genie of the text’s origins out of the lamp. And since the genie isn’t going back into the lamp anytime soon, why haven’t WE moderns done what those before us were unable or unwilling to do? Especially we post-moderns, who experienced the Holocaust of World War II, and its aftermath, ourselves? I do not know! But I am INCREDIBLY troubled to recognize that this still appears to be the case!

Sure, there are answers given in every era of our tradition to justify God’s behavior during the Egyptian plagues. But suddenly, they seem far emptier than before, far more rationalization than acceptable answer. But then again, isn’t that true of most efforts to make theological sense of what the Nazis did to us and to so many others? Why shouldn’t that same sense of emptiness apply here for us?

And honestly, compared to this indictment, the inconvenient truth that is usually raised about this early warning to the people of what is about to come in the 10th plague, and how to prepare themselves for it – that it completely puts the lie to the traditional reason why we eat unleavened bread at Passover (namely, that we didn’t have enough time to let the dough properly rise) seems trivial at best!

Friends, tonight we begin a textual celebration of our ancestors’ freedom from physical servitude in Egypt, one that concludes next Shabbat, when our Bat Mitzvah will read of our escape at the Sea. It so happens that she will do so this year on the weekend on which we celebrate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and death were themselves a text of speaking truth to power – exactly what appears to be missing in our text for this Shabbat! That celebration in our text is capped off on the following Shabbat when we and our ancestors directly experience God at Sinai. Heady stuff, indeed!

At this season of a new secular year, I pray that we might find the strength, and the integrity, to confront these brutally challenging issues for us as Jews, raised by our own text; to regain a sense of consistency and meaning in our sacred text that helps us to make sense of our lives and brings an order to our world. I pray this not merely for its own sake, and ours, but so that we might once again be elevated by our Jewish tradition, moved to work for what is right for all people, empowered to question what needs to be questioned, and willing and able to sit together with others to seek real and lasting solutions. Until we can come to that table relatively untroubled by our own experiences and understandings, we can hardly be expected to give our best efforts to finding the common ground that unites us all as God’s creation, nor to recognize and value the differences in others that make us all unique.

I warned you this wasn’t going to be easy! It still isn’t. I pray that we are willing and able to rise to the challenge, and in the process, help to make it easier in the future! KYR

1 comment:

  1. Bo was the Haftorah for my Bat Mitzvah. Thanks, Rabbi, for the provocative analysis of the text. I can still chant it, but at last I have a better understanding of it.