Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Normalizing Pharaoh / Parshat Va'era 2017-5777

In playwright Eugene Ionesco’s, “Rhinoceros,” a rhino charges down a street in a small French town on a Sunday afternoon. People are frightened and outraged. Soon, another rhinoceros barrels down the street. People are startled but begin to argue whether the second rhino was the first one making a second pass, and whether the beasts are Asiatic or African rhinos. Banality reigns. As rhino appearances increase, people in the town begin, themselves, to metamorphose into rhinos. Eventually, virtually everyone becomes a rhinoceros. The only holdout is Berenger, an apathetic alcoholic who becomes the unwitting savior of humanity when he refuses to succumb to turning into a rhinoceros and seeks to save Daisy, his love interest. Ionesco’s allegory, which explores the mentality of those who capitulated with fascism and Naziism, asks: How do horrific ideas become “normal”?
Artwork by Jonah Scheinerman

Last week we began reading the Book of Exodus and were quickly introduced to Pharaoh, a thin-skinned autocrat who wields vast power to feed his narcissistic sense of entitlement, and who lacks empathy and concern for the welfare of others. His paranoia about the Hebrew immigrants whom he views as sub-humans is fully exposed. The very same people his predecessor welcomed to Egypt, recognizing that they would strengthen the country, he now views as Egypt’s gravest threat. Deportation? He has a better plan: enslave them and intimidate the midwives, and later the entire Egyptian population, to murder Hebrew infants boys who might one day grow up to join his enemies.

What did the Egyptians think of their Pharaoh’s policy goals and strategies? Did they say to one another: “Hey, these are Joseph’s people. Joseph saved us from a devastating famine. His people have contributed to our economy and society all these years. What is going on here? This isn’t normal and it isn’t right.” Torah provides no sign that such thoughts are voiced, that anyone questions, objected, or criticizes Pharaoh’s policies. Rather, it appears that Pharaohism—as deeply immoral as it is—is normalized in Egypt.

If the society as a whole normalizes Pharaohism, there are individuals who refuse to do so—they will not become rhinos. Quietly, a resistance movement of women arises. It begins with the midwives, who conspire to save the very infants they have been commanded to kill. Resistance continues with Yocheved and Miriam, who are determined to save Moses’ life. Yocheved swaddles her infant son and places him securely in a water-proof basket. Miriam launches her brother’s tiny ark into the Nile River, watches and waits. And Pharaoh’s daughter plucks the infant out of the water and adopts Moses as her own son, raising him in the palace under the nose of her father. These five brave women—Egyptians and Hebrews—band together to undermine Pharaoh’s authority and subvert his dictates.

In his documentary film released this past October, “HyperNormalisation,”[1] Adam Curtis offers this perspective: Since the 1970s, in the face of an increasing complex, chaotic, and dangerous world, those in power retreated from reality and constructed a simpler “reality” they could comprehend.  The “real world,” he argues, has been run by corporations; the job of politicians is to insure stability and promote the facade of a simple fake world. And, Curtis adds, all of us went along because the simplicity of the fictional world they created is reassuring. The result is that dark and dangerous forces festered and eventually erupted into our false reality. Curtis spoke with UC Berkeley Associate Professor of Socio-Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology Alexei Yurchak, who grew up in the Soviet Union and who first used the term “hypernormalisation” in connection with the fantasy promoted by the Soviet government that their failing system was thriving. Paraphrasing Yurchak: “No one could imagine any alternative. You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was hypernormal.”

“Normalcy” is a term that is intended to evoke comfort, stability, propriety, respectability. But whose “normal” are we talking about? The vision of male, white billionaires who have moved into Washington to run the country?

The current administration is unabashedly racing full-tilt to abolish the social and political progress made in the past few decades (indeed, all the progress since FDR) in civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights, concern for the poor; tolerance, diversity, and racial relations. They are turning the clock back decades, even centuries, to a world in which women’s bodies are under the province of white men, racism is out in the open and socially acceptable, and xenophobia is unapologetically pedaled as patriotic. Will we participate in their attempt to affirm these as “normal?”

The most powerful man in Egypt is challenged by women who refuse to normalize his attitudes and policies, and above all his lies that fuel them.

For Moses, growing up in the royal court, Pharaoh’s brutal oppression of the Hebrews seems normal—after all, it has always been this way from his perspective—until one day he ventures out among the slaves and observes first-hand the suffering his (adoptive) father has wrought. What has been accepted as “normal” is revealed to be utterly immoral. Moses refuses to metamorphose into a rhinoceros.

In this week’s parashah, Va’era, God summons Moses and appoints him to confront Pharaoh.

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name, YHWH. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that i swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I Adonai. (Exodus 6:2-8)

One would think that the Hebrew slaves would be ecstatic to hear this message. Freedom! Liberation! Slavery has been normalized.

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:9)

Pharaoh has so normalized slavery that not only the Egyptians finds it acceptable, but even the Hebrews have turned into rhinos.

God next sends Moses to Pharaoh, but Moses demurs, citing his speech impediment, not once but twice. Ionesco’s Berenger might have made a similar argument. But God will not accept it. God warns Moses that there is no quick fix to the Hebrews’ situation. Pharaoh’s heart will harden. For him, the plagues will become normal, and he will find them easier and easier to ignore.

See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. (Exodus 7:1-2)

The literal meaning of the Hebrew in 7:1 is, “See, I have made you God (or: a god) to Pharaoh.” God? Really? The classical commentators sprint to explain this. Rashi tells us, “judge and chastiser, to chastise him with blows and suffering.” Abraham Ibn Ezra tells us that Moses would appear to Pharaoh like an angel. It would seem that when Moses stands up to Pharaoh, who is accustomed to brooking no dissent, his words have divine power and his countenance is that of an angel because Moses’ charge is to deliver the message unequivocally that “normal” is immoral and must change.

The demonstrations around the country and around the world this past Shabbat echoed the resistance of the midwives, of Yocheved and Miriam, and of Pharaoh’s daughter. They were a resounding rejection of the normalization of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, which once were woven into the fabric of our society, but should never again be deemed even remotely acceptable. More than one million people gathered around the nation and on every continent (even Antarctica!) to protest the new administration and the danger it poses here and abroad. I stood with thousands upon thousands, shoulder to shoulder, packed like sardines in the streets of D.C. Throughout, everyone was calm, courteous, and peaceful. Yet many times during the day, I thought, “It’s 2017 and I still need to shout to the hilltops that women’s rights are human rights? Something is very wrong.”

The last words of Berenger’s colleague Botard, before he metamorphosed into a rhinoceros were, “We must move with the times!” Torah’s message is a resounding: No! Do not normalize that which is cruel and unjust, immoral and unconscionable. Do not think, like the character Dudard in Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” that “If you’re going to criticize, it’s better to do so from the inside.” Once inside, you’re swallowed whole and alive. We must take our cues from Yocheved and Miriam, from the midwives, from Pharaoh’s daughter—and resist with every ounce of strength we have.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Friday, January 20, 2017

Torah That Comes Before the Torah / Parshat Shemot 2017-57

         Today, thousands of people will converge on Washington, DC to celebrate the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. Tomorrow, shabbat, Washington will again be flooded with people arriving for The Women’s March on Washington. The Mission & Vision statement[1] of the Women’s March explains its purpose: “In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore,” to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights.” Further: “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families - recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”
            The Women’s March on Washington was organized because so many people are terrified of what the Trump presidency may hold for America and do to the fragile democracy we far too often take for granted. Abraham Lincoln famously warned, “American will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
            Freedom is the banner theme of Parshat Shemot, the first portion in the Book of Exodus, the beginning of our epic story of redemption from slavery in Egypt. It is a story we return to again and again for wisdom, insight, and inspiration. Our lives revolve around the quest for freedom and redemption, our falling away from them and into various dark pits of pain and even despair, and our renewed efforts to rise up and overcome. Pursuing, losing, regaining, and maintaining freedom is a roller coaster ride of the ups and downs, turns and twists, gut-wrenching descents, and exhilarating ascents.
            The underlying purpose of the Women’s March on Washington is to galvanize those who fear that the incoming administration will either erode or outright destroy the freedoms we hold dear, and to send an unequivocal message that we will not permit that to happen. For many coming to Washington tomorrow, the underlying agenda includes: protecting and improving the global environment, protecting and uplifting those living in poverty, bridging the abyss between ethnic and racial groups, ensuring that all Americans have access to decent medical care and that women have control over their own bodies, increasing access to voting and eliminate cynical attempts at voter suppression, instituting campaign finance reform, and so much more.
            How can the story of the Exodus shed light on the situation in which we find ourselves?
            Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl[2] looks at the story of the Exodus from an expansive perspective, broad enough to encompass far more than the purported historical escape of the Hebrews from the clutches of Pharaoh. He pinpoints what undergirds the story and propels it beyond a moment in history into every moment of time, beyond one experience in our past into every experience of our lives. In Me’or Einayim, he writes:

We all know the secret meaning of our exile in Egypt: דעת (mindfulness/knowing) itself was in exile. We knew nothing of the Creator or God’s Torah. In the generation of the Flood people said: מַה-שַּׁדַּי כִּי-נַעַבְדֶנּוּ What is God that we should serve Him? (Job 21:15) Even though Torah hadn’t yet been given in the generations before the Flood, it existed in this world as the power of the Maker within the made. It had not yet been garbed in specific worldly forms, such as it would have after being given. But there were certain select individuals who fulfilled Torah just as it exists above, having come to grasp it through their own expanded minds. They understood its true inner essence as it was before it was given. Such people were Methusaleh, Enoch, and Adam, who were all students of Torah. But at the time of the Flood, humans were so wicked that they cut both world and Torah off from their connection to the Creator. Both world and Torah were separated from their Root; that is why the Flood came to destroy the world.

Where was Torah cast down at that time? It fell into the shell of Egypt. That is mindfulness/knowing in exile, for the Torah represents mindfulness/knowing. And this is why Israel had to go down into Egypt, to raise up fallen Torah…

            Before there was the Written Torah (the words in the scroll we study and revere), there was primordial Torah. Before God revealed Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai (“garbed in specific worldly forms”), there was Torah with which God created the world: wisdom and the inherent potential of everything in Creation (“the power of the Maker within the made”). Before there was an established set of laws—expressed (“garbed”) as mitzvot— there was wisdom and potential. But few people grasped this and thought, behaved, and lived accordingly. The Chernobler rebbe identifies for us only three: Methusaleh, Enoch, and Adam—each of whom has special resonance in Jewish mysticism—operated according to the insights of wisdom. Everyone else, cut off from the Torah of wisdom and the potential for goodness, behaved wickedly and violence flourished.
            This, then, is the root meaning of Exile, which goes far beyond the story of Israel in Egypt. It is separation from knowing, from mindfulness, from wisdom and insight. It is the lack of a foundation of goodness and decency, an attitude of kindness and compassion, that underlies one’s behavior and choices even before someone dictates the laws of what is permitted and what is not, what is required and what is not. Exile is not a social or political state of being; it is a spiritual state of mind. This is a wide and expansive understanding of Exile: it speaks to universal concerns about the human condition and human behavior, with immediate implications for hard social and political reality of our lives and current situation.
            Reading the Chernobler’s words, I wonder if he is telling us that if we were to tap into the universal wisdom of primordial Torah—the Torah of wisdom, of decency, compassion, and righteousness—we would not be in spiritual Exile and need countless laws to regulate our behavior. Or perhaps he is suggesting that all the formal laws in the world (religious or secular) cannot create the society we would want until we achieve the Exodus from Exile and achieve mindfulness and knowing, wisdom and compassion.
            This thought brings me back to the events unfolding around us, all of which is happening in a climate of “ethics are dead,” dramatically illustrated but the House Republicans’ middle-of-the-night surreptitious attempt to gut the independent ethics committee—their very first act. The “swamp” that President-elect Trump vowed to drain is now being filled with a fire hose to float the yachts sailing to Washington, piloted by the bevy of billionaires he and Mike Pence have tapped to run the country. For days we have watched the confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in which it is being revealed that nominees for the cabinet of the incoming administration are riddled with improprieties and failures to conform to rules and standards of their positions, are hiding information from those in the Senate entrusted with vetting them on our behalf, and hold in contempt the very institutions and departments they have been tapped to head.
            Where is the Torah that comes before the Torah?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] https://www.womensmarch.com/mission/
[2] Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730–1787) initiated the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty. He was the student of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch and his Uncle Nachum, both of whom were disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Twerski was the founder of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, and published one of the first books of Hasidic thought.