Redemption

January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

What does it mean to be redeemed?

The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah. Who is like you, God, among the gods that are worshipped?

What does it mean to be redeemed?

We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:

“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”

Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.
Three days later, they are complaining.

What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?

I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’

The hardest part of redemption is learning to think of yourself as worthy of it.
As the commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, “This sidra portrays the character of the ‘generation of the wilderness’. We are able to watch, for the first time, the reactions of the children of Israel suddenly redeemed from two centuries of persecution and slavery.”

And, as we discover, it is very difficult to leave that mentality behind.

It is very hard for them to see themselves in a different light, to fundamentally believe that they are worthy of receiving the kind of attention and care that is being lavished on them. If, for your entire life, your needs did not matter, then how do you understand this extraordinary redemption? And, if all of your life, the only needs of yours that mattered were the basics of nutrition, would you not focus on these very same basics?

So, not surprisingly, they do not react well. As Leibowitz continues, “what do we see? – timidity, skepticism, twisted thinking – the residue of hundreds of years of bondage and exile.”

To illustrate her point, Leibowitz focuses on the opening lines of our portion:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Instead of taking the direct route, they will spend a fully generation in the wilderness. Why is this detour necessary?

According to Leibowitz, there are several possibilities suggested in the commentaries. For example, “Rashbam [otherwise known as Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of the famous commentator Rashi] explains that God diverted them from the short route, since they would be immediately plunged into the hostilities with the Canaanites in the attempt to conquer the land and would prefer to return to Egypt.”

It would appear that they needed some time to catch their breath, so to speak. Better to regroup in the wilderness than face a war right after this initial redemption.

She offers another possibility: “Rambam [also known as Maimonides]… in his Guide for the Perplexed offers a rather different explanation.” According to Rambam, “Divine Providence wished to accustom them to hardship in order to toughen them for the fight to conquer the Promised Land.” In other words, the detour was not just to catch their breath. “Had they immediately been confronted with the task of conquest,” she writes, “after their sudden redemption, they would not have been capable of undertaking it. Man cannot suddenly be freed from persecution and slavery and then be expected to wash away the sweat and toil and fight against such enemies as the giants who populated Canaan. The tough conditions of the wilderness would serve to harden them, teach them endurance and heroism.”

They would need to learn how to defend themselves, rather than crumpling in a heap before their foe. Learning self-reliance would be a good start.

Similarly, she writes, “Ibn Ezra analyzes the character and morale of the people. It is indeed astonishing, he observes, why such a large body of six hundred thousand men should fear their pursuers. Why did they not immediately turn round and fight for their lives? In his answer, Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelites were psychologically incapable of putting up a fight against those who had been their lords and masters for centuries.” Imagine being a slave and then trying to fight your master after having been afraid of him for so many years. It is not a task easily done.

Yet the slaves did take those first, most difficult steps toward freedom. We should not underestimate how difficult it is to liberate yourself. Leibowitz points out, rightly, how hard it must have been for the Israelites to take that first step out into the desert. As she writes, “beside the pettiness and grumbling we also encounter greatness, intense faith and trust in God.”

For example, in the rabbinic literature we see the following comment: “Rabbi Eliezer said: This reflects great credit on Israel. For when Moses said unto them: ‘Arise and go forth’, they did not say: How can we go forth into the wilderness when we have no sustenance for the way?”

I am reminded here of the testimony of one of the survivors of the concentration camps, relating what it was like to have been redeemed:

“All of a sudden I saw…a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing the swastika, but a white star. It was sort of a mud-splattered vehicle but I’ve never seen a star brighter in my life. And two men sort of jumped out, came running toward us and one came toward where I stood. He was wearing battle gear…His helmet was this mesh over that and he was wearing dark glasses and he spoke to me in German. And he said, “Does anyone here speak German or English?” and I said, “I speak German.” And I felt that I had to tell him we are Jewish and I didn’t know if he would know what the star means or anything…I was a little afraid to tell him that but I said to him, ‘We are Jewish, you know.’ He didn’t answer me for quite a while. And then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I.’ I would say it was the greatest hour of my life. And then he asked an incredible question. He said, ‘May I see the other ladies?’ You know…[to think of how] we have been addressed for six years and then to hear this man. He looked to me like a young god. I have to tell you I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. And you can imagine, I hadn’t had a bath in years. And this creature asked for ‘the other ladies.’ And I told him that most of the girls were inside, you know. They were too ill to walk, and he said, ‘Won’t you come with me?’ And, I said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know what he meant. He held the door open for me and let me precede him and that gesture restored me to humanity. And that young American today is my husband.”

In a sense, their grumblings are an expression of their faith in God and their trust in Moses: we followed you into the wilderness because we knew that you would take care of us. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why their requests – multiple requests! – are answered. It’s true that both Moses and God appear to be irritated with the people when they engage in this behavior. And to us, safe from such deprivation, it might even seem ungrateful. But the grumbling receives a response nonetheless, because they are right; they do merit food and drink. They are worthy of sustenance. And for that reason, in this portion alone, they receive water at Marah; in the wilderness of Sin they receive quail and manna; and finally, water again at Rephidim.

Eventually this people will learn self-reliance; eventually this people will no longer look to Moses and God to provide for them. But at this moment of redemption, to merely speak their needs – whether as a request or a demand – is to acknowledge that they are worthy of being cared for. And, for someone who has just been redeemed, that is the hardest step of them all.

What’s wrong with ethnic jokes?

April 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester abroad in Germany. I was there, of course, to learn German: that was the express purpose of the trip. But I also had felt a need to go there to find out whether Germans were a different kind of people. I wanted to see if there was some kind of obvious reason for the Holocaust.

And what I found was that Germans are not particularly different. The German university students I met were much like the students I met in the U.S. Maybe they were a little more focused, on the account of the fact that they were older. The German university system is organized a bit differently than ours. But otherwise they were thoroughly normal. You might even say: depressingly so.

The Holocaust would be easier to fathom if the Germans appeared to be a different kind of human, wholly unlike us.

While I was living there, I hung out with a group of students from a diverse list of nations: some Americans, a Spaniard, some Brits, and a German. One night we’d had dinner together and were hanging out in the dorm kitchen telling jokes in English. And so one of the students made a tasteless ethnic joke, the kind of joke that starts: “A Jew, a Frenchman and an Arab…”

So he told the joke and almost everyone laughed — or at least groaned — except for Bernd, the German man in our group. He was very quiet, and very still. Thinking that Bernd did not understand the joke – for humor is indeed difficult to translate – the joke-teller proceeded to tell the joke again. This time, Bernd slammed his fist down on the table: “I understood it the first time.”

We were stunned: where was his anger coming from?

He calmed himself and explained: “In Germany, we have a saying. Asylanten, as you know, are asylum-seekers, refugees. Ausländer are foreigners. And a Witz is a joke. So this is the saying: Asylantenwitz… Ausländerwitz… Auschwitz.

I learned something that day.

Words matter. The names we use when we talk about each other matter. Our jokes matter. We should be careful not to hurt one another, and careful to avoid marginalizing each other.

There is, as you know, a backlash in this country to the whole concept of ‘political correctness.’ It has become popular to express disdain for those who would ask that we modify our language. Political correctness is perceived as a form of whiny victimhood.

But I disagree. To the contrary: I think, for example, that the Redskins should change their name, in deference to the repeated requests by Native American groups, because ‘Redskin’ is not meant as a compliment.

I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to the misuse of Holocaust imagery. I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to ethnic jokes.

Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such. Yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

In other words, when it comes to hurting others, I really don’t have much of a sense of humor. We can and should do better.

On this Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, I’d like to share with you the reflection I delivered at the Days of Remembrance program in the Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh:

We approach the enormity of the Holocaust with a sense of rupture. We have this sense of rupture because the Holocaust alters our view of what can possibly happen.

Even a nation as cultured as Germany can descend into brutality, and even a people as acculturated as the German Jews can be targeted for genocide.

In confronting the Holocaust, then, we find that we have to let go of the sense that culture will serve as a brake against the worst in human nature.

Speaking from the Jewish perspective, I can tell you this: the Holocaust has forced us to reconsider our theology and worldview. What is and is not preventable? What can and cannot happen? What might we reasonably expect from God?

On the other hand, I also can tell you this: the Holocaust is not the first time that we have had to reconsider our God-concept in the face of tragedy. The destruction of the Second Temple, for example, created a similar difficulty of how to relate to God in the absence of the Temple cult.

In that context, the question was not merely the ritual problem but also a theological problem: won’t the world come apart if the sacrifices are not offered on time and in the right manner?

And the answer is no. The world won’t come apart if we don’t offer the sacrifices on time and in the right manner. The world shrugs and continues, even after tragedy, and the sun dawns again.

Yet we simply cannot abandon the project. We cannot leave the past in a clean break without finding points of continuity. We are still very much a part and product of our world. We must mourn and we must build again.

So, in the wake of the Holocaust, that means that we live with the awareness that our narrow range of experience does not predict the full range of what is possible. Humans are infinitely clever.

In the negative sense, that awareness means that we must acknowledge that the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation. Let me say that again: the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation.

In the positive sense, however, the reverse is also true.

What is needed, therefore, is a cautious but tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.

Blessed is the Lord, our God, who gives us the power to transcend ourselves.

 

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