Monday, January 26, 2009

BO! The Slave Mentality and Freedom

Often, as I study the weekly parashah, the Torah portion, it seems that myth and reality, fact and legend, and past and present become woven together as I struggle with the text on many levels: the plain meaning, hints of something deeper, allergory and myth, and maybe twice a year, transcendance.

This week's portion, Bo! (Go!) is one that I struggle with every year, twice a year.
And, no, there is no exclamation point in the original. The word Bo begins a sentence: "Go to Pharoah." But I see it with an exclamation every time I hear the parashah read.

This portion picks up in the midst of the ten plagues upon Egypt.
And, although the plain meaning of the text is clear, the plagues are a contest between Pharoah and G-d, I still feel the sting of injustice every time I read that "every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharoah to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstone." (Shemot 11:4-5). This is myth, of course, and it is the meaning that we draw from myth that teaches something.

But yesterday, as I sat listening to the portion as it was read in Women's Torah Study, I heard a different piece. One that I have heard every year, of course, but one that my mind had not highlighted. (This is the reason that we tell and re-tell the great stories).

First I noted, as I do every year, when I read the Hebrew text, that when Moses and Aaron go before Pharoah, Moses says:

"Thus says YHVH, the G-d of the Hebrews . . . Send my people forth that they may serve me."

This brought my mind to a demonstration of idolatry that I saw on the internet the other day in which various actors and musicians take a pledge to do good in the name of the great and powerful Obama. (One wonders why these people did not until now do good in the name of their own free will.)

The part that I heard again in my head was toward the end of the video, when one of them says: "I pledge to serve Barack Obama . . ." and then they all say together, "I pledge to be a servant of Our President and all Mankind . . ." (you can hear the capital letters in their voices) as their individual likenesses all fade into the Che Guevara kitsch poster of Barack Obama's face.

Then I heard this part of the parashah:

"Pharoah's servants said to him: '. . . Send out the men that they may serve their god, YHVH. Do you not know that Egypt is lost? So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharoah and he said to them: ' Go, worship your god, YHVH! Who will go forth?" And Moses said: "We will all go, with our underlings and our elders,, we will go with our sons and daughters, with our flocks and our herds . . ." (Shemot 11: 7-9).

But Pharoah says no, that he would be a fool to let them all leave, when if this is just about a religious observance, then only the princes and elders should go. And he sends Moses and Aaron away.

And I began to think about the slave mentality. It is a way of thinking in which the slave's self is divided; someone else stands between a human being and her ultimate purpose. Someone else takes responsibility for the slave's will and being, making him less than a person.

Torah does not say, "Let my people go!" It says, "Send my people forth that they may serve me!"
Because in Egypt the people are servants to a man. They must worship his every whim. And by accepting their service, Pharoah commits the idolatry of seeing himself as above them in the eyes of heaven. He sees himself as a god. Thus the servant and the master both sacrifice to idols by the act of placing something lesser in front of their freedom.

And what is the sense of the "we will go . . ." piece? If the people are divided, so that some may leave to perform a religious duty permitted by Pharoah, they will retain the slave mentality. They will return to serve Pharoah. There is no half-slave and half-free. Freedom is all or nothing. People cannot choose the nice things about slavery, and refuse the hard choices that make up freedom and expect to remain free.

But if they all go forth, after seeing the signs and wonders, then in the wilderness, they will no longer be servants of Pharoah. And at Sinai, they can choose to make a covenant and accept Torah, placing themselves as servants of the Law of the Eternal.

And what of those signs? They are the plagues.
The plagues are a metaphor in this story for what happens to a land when people accept the slave mentality and must worship at the feet of a king, a master, an idol.
Then, even the innocent son of the slave girl behind the millstone will suffer. As will the mothers of Mitzrayim (the straits), who will mourn the destruction of the future generation in the name of the power of Pharoah and his priests and courtiers.

Free people do not place a person between themselves and the Eternal Law.
They choose to do what is right out of a whole self, not out of the half-being of servitude to others, be those others presidents or "all humankind."
A free human being may not worship at the altar of any man.

Thus I cannot, I must not, pledge to be a servant to Barack Obama or to all humankind.
To do so would be idolatry.
I serve a different covenant.
As an American, I pledge to uphold the Constitution.
As a Jew, I serve only the great I AM.*

*YHVH, the unprouncible Tetragrammaton, is a symbol for the root that conveys the meaning of being. It is a combination of three verb forms: I was, I am, I will be. The Name is unpronouncible because it is both infinite and incomplete. It comes from Moses question: "Who are you?" To which the Eternal replies something like: "Wait and see what I will do. Then you will know who I was, who I am, and what I will be."


Fairion said...

Thank you for such a thought provoking analysis of this week's parsha. This is why I love reading your blog. When I get lost in the preschool version of life, your blog gives me a renewing look into the intellectual world. Our discussion of both last week's parsha and this week's parsha have focused on "keeping one's deal" and why it is important to follow through.

Melora said...

The story of the death of the firstborn always bothers me very much, as it does my kids. (And for some reason, between our history, literature, and Bible study, we are reading about Moses & the Exodus three times this year in our hs.) I found your insights into the story very interesting -- thanks!
I love your note on the bottom about how YHVH answered Moses' question. Have you seen the Jewish Study Bible? I've looked at it on Amazon, wondering if it would provide a "fuller" translation, along the lines of yours.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Fairion, I remember those days of the preschool version of life! I used to actively search for intellectual stimulation as well!

Melora, Thanks. Yes, I like the Jewish Study Bible. But my favorite translation hands down is Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses. It is only Torah, though. He has not yet done the Prophets and the Writings. Although he's done a great job with Samuel and Kings in his Give Us A King!

Melora said...

Thanks Elisheva, I'll look at The Five Books of Moses!

Swylv said...

Wow! We had commented last week about how that Parshat was about the first of the plagues and also during the week of the inauguration(sp?) and it just continues with this week's Parshat and all that the one hollywood pledges to serve is doing...sad...but the hope for those of us who G-D is calling out!!!