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PostSubject: Va'erah   Wed Jan 18, 2012 5:48 pm

From Rabbi Marc Angel...

A Talmudic passage (Sotah 11a) offers an imaginary scenario relating to when Pharaoh was deciding to enslave the Israelites and murder their male babies. “Said Rabbi Hiyya son of Abba in the name of Rabbi Simai: Three were involved in that decision: Bilam, Job and Yitro.” Bilam, who advised in favor of these evil decrees, ultimately died a violent death. Job, who remained neutral, was later punished with horrible sufferings. Yitro, who opposed Pharaoh’s decrees, had to flee, but was ultimately rewarded so that his descendants were great teachers of Torah.

The moral lesson of this teaching is that those who promote evil—like Bilam-- are eventually punished. Those who courageously resist evil—like Yitro-- may suffer in the short run, but will ultimately be rewarded. Those—like Job--who remain neutral in the face of wickedness will endure horrible sufferings.
Bilam went along with Pharaoh’s decisions either because he actually agreed with Pharaoh, or because he thought it was in his own best interest not to resist the monarch. By being a “yes man”, Bilam would gain power and favors from Pharaoh. He had no qualms about becoming an accomplice to enslaving a whole nation and murdering their babies. Justice demands that Bilam be punished for his moral turpitude.

Yitro resisted Pharaoh’s decisions, even at personal risk. Yitro would not be party to wicked decrees. He stood up on behalf of the endangered Israelites and was compelled to flee from Pharaoh’s wrath. Justice demands that Yitro be rewarded for his moral heroism.

But what about Job? What is the nature of his sin that made him deserving of terrible sufferings? After all, Job did not say that he agreed with Pharaoh; he did not validate Pharaoh’s decrees. He simply stayed silent. He was prudent. He may have thought: “Pharaoh is going to do this regardless of what I say. Why should I endanger myself? Why should I incur his anger? Why should I stand up for the Israelites, or for righteousness, or for compassion? The safest thing for me is to remain neutral.”

For his neutrality, Job was punished. Abstaining from moral responsibility is also taking a stand! When evil is not resisted directly, it is thereby allowed to flourish. As the great 19th century political thinker Edmund Burke said: “All that the forces of evil need to prevail is that enough good men do nothing.” Evil flourishes in a moral vacuum. It cannot be extirpated without active resistance. Individuals and nations who “abstain” in the face of evil are accomplices of evil. Neutrality in the face of injustice and cruelty is not a morally acceptable position.

Psychologists have written extensively on the “bystander problem.” Why do so many stand aside when they witness violence, cruelty, injustice? Why doesn’t everyone feel a moral commitment to stand up on the side of righteousness? Why are there so many Jobs and so few Yitros?

Job’s neutrality—the “bystander problem”—might stem from perceived self-interest. Why should I get involved? Why should I take risks that might have negative consequences for me? Why should I antagonize those in power?
A main reason for the “bystander problem”, though, seems to be that people do not assume personal responsibility. They rationalize: there are others who can intercede, there are others who are better able to help, somebody else will take responsibility so it isn’t necessary for me to get involved or to make personal sacrifices. It isn’t that bystanders are necessarily immoral or heartless; rather, they may simply not take things personally. They think: It isn’t my issue, it isn’t my responsibility, it’s for others to solve.

Erich Fromm observed: “Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot live a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide.”

This is the root of Job’s sin: he did not wake up and realize he was at a fork in the road where he had to make a decision. That decision would define the nature of his character, his life itself. By remaining silent, he chose to be a “bystander”, to let the forces of evil gain sway. He forfeited personal responsibility, not because he was a bad person but because he was a weak or self-centered person. The sufferings of others did not awaken moral indignation within him. As a result, he himself ultimately underwent horrendous sufferings.

The Talmudic lesson reminds us that we must not be part of the “bystander problem”, but must take moral stands in the face of injustice, corruption and wickedness. We must accept personal responsibility, and not assume that others will solve the problems for us.

The world is full of Pharaohs who promote wickedness and injustice. The world is full of Bilams who are only too happy to go along with the powerful Pharaohs. The world is very full of Jobs who stay silent and neutral in the face of evil. The world has a shortage of Yitros who realize that they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide, and have to take personal responsibility.
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PostSubject: Re: Va'erah   Wed Jan 18, 2012 11:20 pm

Ouch! Thanks for sharing, makes me look into myself.
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PostSubject: Re: Va'erah   Thu Jan 19, 2012 2:23 pm

That was very insightful!

I've heard "part" of that story before, but never all of it as you presented it.

Thanks for the share!
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PostSubject: Re: Va'erah   Thu Jan 19, 2012 9:06 pm

Just to add to the conversation, from Chief Rabbi Sacks (whose insights I usually LOVE, but I find this one a little lackluster.)

Freedom and Truth

Why did Moses tell Pharaoh, if not a lie, then less than the full truth? Here is the conversation between him and Pharaoh after the fourth plague, arov, "swarms of insects" (some say “wild animals”)

Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.” But Moses said, “That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, as he commands us.” (Ex. 8: 21-23)

Not just here but throughout, Moses makes it seem as if all he is asking is for permission for the people to undertake a three day journey, to offer sacrifices to God and (by implication) then to return. So, in their first appearance before Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron say:

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” (Ex. 5: 1-3)

God even specifies this before the mission has begun, saying to Moses at the burning bush: “You and the elders of Israel will then go to the king of Egypt. You must tell him, 'The Lord, God of the Hebrews, revealed Himself to us. Now we request that you allow us to take a three day journey into the desert, to sacrifice to the Lord our God'” (3: 18).

The impression remains to the very end. After the Israelites have left, we read:

The king of Egypt received news that the people were escaping. Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds regarding the people, and said, “What have we done? How could we have released Israel from doing our work?” (14: 5)

At no stage does Moses say explicitly that he is proposing that the people should be allowed to leave permanently, never to return. He talks of a three day journey. There is an argument between him and Pharaoh as to who is to go. Only the adult males? Only the people, not the cattle? Moses consistently asks for permission to worship God, at some place that is not Egypt. But he does not speak about freedom or the promised land. Why not? Why does he create, and not correct, a false impression? Why can he not say openly what he means?

The commentators offer various explanations. R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (Italy, 1800-1865) says that it was impossible for Moses to tell the truth to a tyrant like Pharaoh. R. Yaakov Mecklenburg (Germany, 1785-1865, Ha-Ktav veha-Kabbalah) says that technically Moses did not tell a lie. He did indeed mean that he wanted the people to be free to make a journey to worship God, and he never said explicitly that they would return.

Abrabanel (Lisbon 1437 – Venice 1508) says that God told Moses deliberately to make a small request, to demonstrate Pharaoh’s cruelty and indifference to his slaves. All they were asking was for a brief respite from their labours to offer sacrifices to God. If he refused this, he was indeed a tyrant. Rav Elhanan Samet (Iyyunim be-Parshot Ha-Shevua, Exodus, 189) cites an unnamed commentator who says simply that this was war between Pharaoh and the Jewish people, and it war it is permitted, indeed sometimes necessary, to deceive.

Actually, however, the terms of the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh are part of a wider pattern that we have already observed in the Torah. When Jacob leaves Laban we read: “Jacob decided to go behind the back of Laban the Aramean, and did not tell him that he was leaving” (Gen. 31: 20). Laban protests this behaviour: “How could you do this? You went behind my back and led my daughters away like prisoners of war! Why did you have to leave so secretly? You went behind my back and told me nothing!” (31: 26-27).

Jacob again has to tell at best a half-truth when Esau suggests that they travel together: “You know that the children are weak, and I have responsibility for the nursing sheep and cattle. If they are driven hard for even one day, all the sheep will die. Please go ahead of me, my lord” (33: 13-14). This, though not strictly a lie, is a diplomatic excuse.

When Jacob’s sons are trying to rescue their sister Dina who has been raped and abducted by Shechem the Hivite, they “replied deceitfully” (34: 13) when Shechem and his father proposed that the entire family should come and settle with them, telling them that they could only do so if all the males of the town underwent circumcision.

Earlier still we find that three times Abraham and Isaac, forced to leave home because of famine, have to pretend that they are their wives’ brothers not their husbands because they fear that otherwise they will be killed so that Sarah or Rebecca could be taken into the king’s harem (Gen. 12, 20, 26).

These six episodes cannot be entirely accidental or coincidental to the biblical narrative as a whole. The implication seems to be this. Outside the promised land Jews in the biblical age are in danger if they tell the truth. They are at constant risk of being killed or at best enslaved.

Why? Because they are powerless in an age of power. They are a small family, at best a small nation, in an age of empires. They have to use their wits to survive. By and large they do not tell lies but they can create a false impression. This is not how things should be. But it is how they were before Jews had their own land, their one and only defensible space. It is how people in impossible situations are forced to be if they are to exist at all.

No one should be forced to live a lie. In Judaism truth is the seal of God and the essential precondition of trust between human beings. But when your people is being enslaved, its male children murdered, you have to liberate them by whatever means are possible. Moses, who had already seen that his first encounter with Pharaoh made things worse for his people – they still had to make the same quota of bricks but now also had to gather their own straw (5: 6-Cool – did not want to risk making them worse still.

The Torah here is not justifying deceit. To the contrary, it is condemning a system in which telling the truth may put your life at risk, as it still does in many tyrannical or totalitarian societies today. Judaism – a religion of dissent, questioning and “argument for the sake of heaven” – is a faith that values intellectual honesty and moral truthfulness above all things. The Psalmist says: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord and who shall stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken My name in vain nor sworn deceitfully” (Ps. 24: 3-4). Malachi says of one who speaks in God’s name: “The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips” (Mal. 2: 6). Every Amidah ends with the prayer, “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech.”

What the Torah is telling us in these six narratives in Genesis and the seventh in Exodus is the connection between freedom and truth. Where there is freedom there can be truth. Otherwise there cannot. A society where people are forced to be less than fully honest merely to survive and not provoke further oppression is not the kind of society God wants us to make.
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