Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Parshat Shemot 1

We find in this week’s Torah reading that Pharaoh tries different methods of limiting the Jewish population explosion. First he gives the men so much work that they won’t have the time or energy to have children. When he sees that this is ineffective, he tells the Jewish midwives to kill all the Jewish boys that are born. Finally, in a last desperate attempt, he orders that all baby boys, including the Egyptian ones, should be thrown into the Nile.

Pharaoh had received information from his astrologers that the saviour of the Jews would die through water. Since he didn’t know whether this saviour would be Jewish or Egyptian, he simply had all baby boys thrown into the Nile in order to fulfil the decree of the astrologers. (What he didn’t realise of course, was that the prediction referred to Moshe striking the rock in the desert in order to provide water for the Jews, which was ultimately the reason that he was not permitted to enter the land of Israel, thus it was the cause of his death.)

Despite his fears of the Jews escaping, how could Pharaoh be so cruel as to have all the babies thrown into the river to drown? Surely there must have been some other way to prevent the Jews from leaving Egypt. Even if there was not, was it worth killing an entire generation?

Pharaoh, as the leader, represented the entire nation in his thoughts and actions. (We see this from the fact that all of Egypt was decimated as a punishment for enslaving the Jews. Had this only been Pharaoh’s private plan, the remainder of the nation would not have been destroyed.) His tyranny was motivated by the Egyptian “world view”. The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzraim”, which is closely related to the word “Mitzarim” meaning “narrow boundaries” or “definitions”. The Egyptians were firm believers in empiricism. They were only interested in those things that they could observe, or test. Therefore, when Moshe tells Pharaoh that G-d demands that he let the Jews go, his response is “Who is this G-d that I should listen to Him”. Furthermore, Pharaoh refused to believe in G-d, or His powers, despite warnings from Moshe, because all of the plagues defied scientific explanation. Pharaoh was unable to accept anything beyond the realms of the “definable”.

Taking empiricism to its logical extreme, even a person is defined only by what he or she has accomplished. A person becomes no more than the sum total of their activities and achievements; future potential is irrelevant. If I can’t see the result now, it has no value. Therefore a baby, which is a bundle of potential but has not yet achieved anything, has no value. Pharaoh decreed that the babies should be thrown into the Nile to fend for themselves. If they are able to save themselves, then they may live; if not, by what rights do they deserve to live? They have not yet earned any rights.

This attitude is antithetical to Judaism. Every new-born baby is a bundle of potential. It must be cared for and looked after until it is in a position to realise that potential. We are forbidden to stand aside and let another person suffer merely because they are not able to look after themselves. We have a collective responsibility to each other, regardless of whether someone “deserves” our giving or not. It is not for us to judge other people, or how well they are fulfilling their potential.

When we cease looking at what we can give to others, instead being interested only in what we think they deserve, we end up with petty infighting and eventually hatred.
This is known as “Sinas Chinam”, hatred for no reason. Our “justification” and motivation for behaving in this way is “What has that person done for me?”, or “Why do they deserve to be treated better?”. Once we look at what rights another has, based on our own evaluation, we are faced with a breakdown of society. This baseless hatred is what led to the destruction of the Second Temple. It is interesting to note that the period between the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the lead up to, and destruction of the Temple is known as “Bein HaMitzarim”, “Between the Boundaries”.

Concern only with the physical and measurable leads to a denial of G-d, even in the face of undeniable evidence. Worse than that, it denies any higher meaning to human life. If people are merely the sum total of their achievements, and have to earn their right to life, then a nation can throw their children into the Nile with no pangs of conscience.

No comments: