Monday, July 25, 2011

If it's Tuesday, this must be Dopkhah / Masei

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. The 9-country, 18-day whirlwind bus tour depicted in this 1969 film pales in comparison to Israel’s multi-stop, 40-year excursion through Sinai, led by their intrepid tour guide, Moses, following a route charted by God.

Here’s how Masei begins. Does anything here surprise you?
They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. It was on the morrow of the Passover offering that the Israelites started out defiantly, in plain view of all the Egyptians. The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord executed judgment on their gods. (Numbers 33:3-4)
The dizzying travelogue continues:
The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etam, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-harhiroh, which faced Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol. (Numbers 33:5-7)
And just to make your head spin, here’s the itinerary from there: Etam, Marah, Elim, wilderness of Sin, Dophkah, Alush, Rephidim, Kibrot-hattaavah, Hazerot, Ritmah, Rimon-perez, Libnah, Rissah, Kehelat, Mount Shepher, Haradah, Makhelot, Tahat, Terah; Mitkah, Hashmonah, Moserot, Bene-jaakan, Hor-haggidgad, Jotbat, Abronah, Ezion-geber, Kadesh, Mount Hor.

Are you still with me?

Rare comments are offered about a particular place, but they are short (e.g., there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees in Elim; at Rephidim they had no water to drink). This makes the comments concerning Rameses especially striking. The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord had executed judgment on their gods.

Why does Torah pause to tell us what the Egyptians – Israel’s enemies on the other side of the Reed Sea – are doing? I would suggest to you that Torah’s overall primary goal is to instill in us the twin values of justice and compassion. The world depends not only on the exercise of justice and compassion, but on establishing and maintaining the right balance between them. If we approach others with strict justice alone, we will be judgmental and punishing. If we approach people only through the attribute of compassion, we will tolerate abusive, cruel, and violent. It’s a delicate balance. Strict justice is dangerous, but so is unmitigated compassion.

Our Sages tell us that even God finds it difficult to maintain the right balance. In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), the Rabbis envision God praying every day. They ask the very questions you would ask: To whom? God prays to God, of course. Next question?
What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rav: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Berakhot 7a)
In Masei, we find an example of the balance between compassion and justice:
The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord executed judgment on their gods. (Numbers 33:4)
Torah wants us, even in our pain, to consider the suffering of our enemies. Torah is telling us: While you experience freedom, know that it came at great cost. The Egyptians are burying their dead. Imagine their pain and grief. Imagine all the families who have lost a loved one. Know that justice was served by God, but do not be callous and unfeeling.

The Bavli (Megillah 10b) tells us that when the waters of the Reed Sea closed in on the Egyptians, the Israelites sang a song of redemption that is preserved in our Torah (Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea, Exodus15). The angels in heaven wished to join in Israel’s song of victory by singing “Halleluyah” but God rebuked them, saying: “How can you sing Halleluyah when My creatures are drowning?” Israel was allowed to celebrate in that moment, but the angels were not. In recording this midrash, the Sages teach us that we should do as the angels and consider with compassion the suffering of even our enemies.

It is not easy to feel compassion for one’s enemy on a battlefield but neither is it impossible. During the Vietnam War, the U. S. military used a powerful defoliant called “Agent Orange,” which contains large quantities of Dioxin. Dioxin is both a carcinogen (it causes cancer in those exposed) and teratogen (it causes birth defects in the offspring of those exposed). Somewhere between 2.5 and 4.8 million people were exposed to Agent Orange (mostly Vietnamese, but American soldiers as well) and the effects have been devastating. The damage to the ecosystem is likewise immense and continues to adversely affect the lives of those who live in the affected areas. The suffering caused by Agent Orange is inestimable. The U.S. government knew that Agent Orange contained high levels of Dioxin, and that Dioxin is a powerful carcinogen and teratogen. Yet from 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed more than 10% of Vietnam with this poison. Leaving aside for a moment the question of the legitimacy of the war in Southeast Asia, had the U.S. military exhibited compassion for the enemy – even as they pursued the war – they would not have used Agent Orange.

On a far smaller scale, how do we treat people we have decided are our “enemies.” Do we approach them with compassion, or see them only as obstacles in our lives, impediments to reaching our goals, irritants we would prefer to clear away? It is not easy to consider the perspective, feelings, and needs of someone we have deemed to be our enemy, yet Torah wants us to stretch ourselves in that direction. Our sense of justice – what we think they deserve – must be tempered by compassion, so that we see the full picture, and our justice is genuine justice, not merely revenge.

Who do you see as your enemy? How can you temper your sense of justice with compassion? The magic of this Torah teaching is that in our personal lives, it is sometimes the case that when we do this successfully, the “enemy” stops being the enemy. Still a problem perhaps, but problems can often be resolved.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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