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


1 comment:

  1. Exceptional piece! Same thing I've been preaching all week!