The Exodus:5 Project
And Moses said to Pharaoh, “You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile? Exodus 8:5
Among the challenges I faced during my years as a pulpit rabbi were the occasional members of my community who attempted to exercise power and control over me. There were two basic kinds of folks who wanted to manipulate me. Some of them were exceptionally insecure and pushed hard against me in almost a dare to prove what they feared the most – that they were unworthy of affection or disliked for being inadequate. Others brought to our relationship some type of resentment against rabbis or of figures of authority in general.
Of course, from the time I was a mere wisp of a lad, mature beyond my years, I never took the bait and went head-to-head with my antagonists. Yeah, right. Even today, it is pretty easy to get a rise out of me (especially internally) by trying to diminish me. I don’t like it, and I don’t know anyone who does.
Over the years I have wrestled with the question of whether my indignation has more to do with justice or ego. It is a hard distinction to make. To the outsider, the behaviors I find objectionable – belittling, acting dismissively, misrepresenting or plain insulting – appear to justify my reactions. But the fact is, I prefer to be liked rather than disliked. My own insecurities and resentments past are unpacked when someone else puts his or hers on display.
There is an old military riff about the drill sergeant who tells his recruits that when he orders them to jump, he expects them to ask, “how high?” on the way up. I know how those recruits feel; I suspect you do as well.
But I wonder how to develop the presence of mind to turn insecurity and resentment back on the antagonist. Is there any worth in an attempt to change the dynamic in such an exchange to make someone who is insufferable more tolerable?
In this little exchange between Moses and Pharaoh, there is a clue. You can tell even without context that the confrontation is occurring over the second plague: frogs. Reading too quickly the lead-up to this verse may make you miss a certain comedy in Pharaoh’s belligerence; when Moses and Aaron produced a land-invasion of frogs, Pharaoh ordered his magicians to do the same. And they did. By challenging Moses’ power and authority, Pharaoh made things objectively worse.
And then in a remarkable show of bravado, he dared Moses to do something about the infestation. “If you (and your God) are so great,” he all but taunts, “see if you can get rid of these frogs.”
I can imagine how I would have responded. “You want me to clean up your mess?” I would likely reply at a certain volume. Depending on how worked up I was, I might also suggest an anatomically impossible act.
But the more effective tactic seems to be to ask, on the way up, “how high?” Moses capitulates, saying, “I’ll let you win this contest. And not only that, but at just what time shall I stop the frogs?”
Completely disarmed, Pharaoh responds with an early completion date: tomorrow. And Moses agrees. Pharaoh believes he has prevailed, though Moses walks away with a (soon-to-be-broken) promise of a concession. And just to put the exclamation point on his real victory, (spoiler alert), Moses stops the frogs literally dead in their tracks the next day. And they stink up the joint.
I hope I am getting better as I get older. There is less at stake these days, or maybe I understand how little there ever was at stake when insecurity or resentment are directed at me. I am most certainly not perfect. Because even if I could turn the contest effectively back on my antagonists, I would still want to slip a dead frog in someone’s bed.
The Exodus:5 Project
And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst. Exodus 7:5
I had the great experience of spending some time with all my kids this past week. They live relatively close to us, but it has been a busy time for everyone and the chance to be together helped me appreciate what remarkable people they are. I like to tell people that their mother raised them well, and she always objects, saying it was a highly collaborative process. She is right, of course.
I can have a pretty high opinion of myself. What brings me down to earth, however, is when I hear other people carry on about themselves. A good friend was telling me about a dining companion who described himself as a self-made man. He insisted that everything he accomplished, he accomplished on his own. He would not accept the suggestion that he had any kind of help – the buildings he built he built without anyone else’s assistance – not even the construction crews. He is wrong, of course.
But he believes it. In his arrogance, he dismisses the skill and effort that assemble to ensure his success. It may very well be that, given enough time, he could have built his real estate collection from the ground up, digging foundations by hand, mixing the concrete with a wire whisk, dragging the steel beams from the forge after he let them cool, and so forth. It is nonsense. In this world, no accomplishment is the result of an individual’s effort.
The spectacle that has afflicted the highest office in the land is an embarrassment. Yet another Twitter war has erupted, this one between the father of a college basketball player who was arrested in China for shoplifting and the President. The father was particularly ungracious after the Chinese government acceded to the request of the President to release the three young men rather than try them for the crime they committed. It is doubtful that anyone hearing his ingratitude would approve of his behavior. Out of his disdain for the man who holds the office, he declined to give thanks and assigned the return of his son to diplomatic efforts in different corners of the government.
The President responded with unkind words of his own directed at the father. That much we have all come to expect. But like the aforementioned dinner companion, he added this: It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence - IT WAS ME.
“It was me.” In all capital letters, no less. It may very well be that, given enough time, he could have recreated the political and economic circumstances that define US-China relations all by himself, flown the plane that landed him there and driven himself to a meeting he himself arranged with President Xi, who gave into his singular charms. He is wrong, of course.
Each of us is created in the image of God. I suspect that, like me, each of us confuses being in God’s image with being God, or at least God-like. More than one thinker of theological thoughts has suggested that we were created to reflect aspects of God, or to provide a lonely God with companionship or even to be God’s partner in this complicated world. Certainly, that is who Moses was. Was it beyond God’s capabilities to extract the Israelite slaves from Pharaoh’s oppression? Did Moses have to proclaim God’s intentions and demands? Could not much suffering and delay have been prevented if we dispensed with all the drama?
If indeed there were truth – or even value – in isolating God’s “boast” in the verse above, the Israelites could have been swept out of Egypt by a singular miracle instead of a series of unnatural disasters. Pharaoh could have awakened to empty slave-quarters to see, written in capital cuneiform in the fields of Goshen, “IT WAS ME.”
Instead, the verse sits in the context of the collective efforts of increasing numbers of people – two brothers, disgruntled slaves, skeptical court officers, disillusioned subjects – to show not the isolated power of a competing dictator, but the collaboration that is necessary to accomplish more than a transfer of personnel. An arrogant god is insufferable, as Pharaoh was. Arrogance makes people insufferable, especially when they are, of course, wrong.
Why bother with this critique of Donald Trump? Doesn’t everyone know who he is already – critics with one set of opinions, admirers with another? Because we mustn’t forget amidst the tabloid distractions of bad behavior that he is not just another celebrity. As President of the United States he sets a standard for others who feel empowered to declare IT WAS ME at the dinner table and anywhere else. And the functions of our government and our society must be debated and evaluated, not hijacked under the radar by ideologues who believe they have permission to make decisions for us all under the doctrine of IT WAS ME.
The Exodus:5 Project
I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Exodus 6:5
Liberation being what it is, oppression is necessary to it. So would this world in which we’re living have been a better place if liberation were never necessary? That’s either a profound or sophomoric question. Before I prove your opinion right or wrong, let me acknowledge that the question is purely hypothetical because liberation does exist as a response to the preexisting condition of oppression.
I cannot continue without a glancing (and therefore inadequate) reference to liberation theology. This originally Christian school of thought contends that overcoming oppression is possible only by addressing its root cause, sin. Where the oppression is viewed as economic (like Latin America), poverty is oppressive, and the sin is economic inequality. Where the oppression is viewed as racist (as among many black churches in the United States), injustice is oppressive, and the sin is a hierarchy of human value based on race. Where the oppression is viewed as political (as among many Christian churches in the Holy Land), the oppression is viewed as displacement, and the sin is colonization. I am inadequately thoughtful to argue the pros and cons of liberation theology, so I will not.
But I will suggest that there are two ingredients to liberation – will and power. Neither one is sufficient without the other. It sounds counter-intuitive and completely unfair, but it does not mean it is not true. Oppressed people who want to be free but do not hold the power to be liberated will remain oppressed – that much makes sense. But people cannot be dragged into liberation by someone else, no matter how powerful. The first move is the victim’s.
The dilemma illustrated by the verse above is the subject of discussion each year during the Passover seder. It is not the first time God preconditions liberation on hearing the laments of the Israelite slaves. It seems remarkably cruel to allow generations to pass and innocents to be born into slavery and buried from slavery. The proud and empowered family that arrived in Egypt to escape famine became slaves with incredible rapidity. Didn’t God see the contrast immediately? Commentators offer suggestions that defend God (the people had sinned), that blame the oppressor (the slaves were not allowed to bemoan their fates) and that deflect the question to the Bible itself (Abraham had been told his offspring would be enslaved, and therefore they had to be).
Allow me to suggest that this question goes back to the Garden of Eden. It is hard to imagine a less oppressive environment than the paradise posited for the primogenitors of humanity. Every aspect of Creation was open to Eve and Adam, except one – the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I have written before (and will certainly write again) about what that tree was doing there in the first place. If it was forbidden, then what was the purpose of planting it? Who compelled God? No one, of course. It was meant to be there, and it was meant to provide its fruit to humanity. (Perhaps the timing was the issue, but that’s a different speculation.)
When the human beings tasted the fruit, their eyes were opened, and they noticed what they had been unable to see before. They had not been physically blind, but they were unaware of their circumstances. They had not been prepared (yet) to deal with the inevitable fault lines in the world. To be liberated from their comprehensive dependence on God, they had to recognize the oppressiveness of surrendering their autonomy, even in paradise.
With evil let loose in the world, oppression was inevitable, and liberation became a constant necessity. But first, the oppressed needed to see the injustice of their circumstance. If the fruit of the trees opened human eyes, the moaning of the Israelites opened God’s ears. They recognized that they were suffering. They recognized that the suffering was undeserved. They recognized that their taskmasters were to blame for their circumstances; it was not simply the way of the world. The first demand of their unlikely champion, Moses, gave permission to the Israelites increasingly to feel empowered and to be ready to take the steps to toward their own liberation from their oppressors. God, out of wisdom, neutrality or lack of awareness, was shaken into action.
I think about this subject because I ask myself, “Didn’t men see the way so many of us have been oppressing women and vulnerable men?” The constant stream of news about politicians, entertainment personalities, business moguls, military officers might make some people think that this problem is new. Of course it isn’t. And now that my own ears have been pried open a little bit and my ears unmuffled, now that cries of the victims are empowered by each other, the hard questions include now that the will has been unambiguously expressed, what is the power that will join with it?
What would this world have looked like without the necessity for liberation? From the perspective of victims – and few among us have never been victimized – it would have seemed like a paradise. But unable to change the past, I think we have no choice but to face the future with open eyes to the good and evil in the world and open ears to the cries of the oppressed. Because no one will put the fruit back on the tree, nor should they.
The Exodus:5 Project
And Pharaoh continued, “The people of the land are already so numerous, and you would have them cease from their labors!” Exodus 5:5
I have been challenged lately in conversations about privilege in American society. Only people in deep denial would challenge the advantage of being white in America; while it does not translate into consistent benefit for every individual, it is true that in comparable circumstances, being white almost always puts a person closer to the head of the line than being of color. Jews may or may not be considered white by all white people, but they are closer to the head of those lines than others who are others.
The term of art in discussing these circumstances these days is “white supremacy.” The choice of that term strikes me as purposeful. For those people who are pushing back on inequity and inequality in this country, the presumption is that even white allies accept their privilege as a matter of fact. Perhaps they are willing to voluntarily surrender some aspects of it, but they are not willing to have it taken because they have earned it…somehow. Calling privilege “white supremacy” makes every white American sound like an ally of the white supremacists, the alt-right, the neo-Nazis.
Famously, anti-Muslim organizations try to thread a needle by distinguishing between “Islamic” and “Islamist” in their rhetoric. Most of the “anti-Islamist” organizations have a hard time identifying trustworthy Muslims, especially if they practice their faith. As a white guy (or an almost-white guy), I hear the lack of distinction between “supremacy” and “supremacist” in the same way.
We are at this point in race relations in this country because of what Rabbi Dovid Asher calls the stain on our democracy: slavery. Enshrined in the Constitution is the notion that people of color are less human than white people. It is irrelevant to argue that the definition had to do with the census or taxation or the economy. Its effect bypasses justification, and we are seeing it hundreds of years and tens of generations later. The content of character is irrelevant; the color of skin is disqualifying.
Here’s an absurd comparison, but it makes my point. Remember the TV series “The Jeffersons?” One story arc involved the mixed-race couple with two children, one with darker skin and one with lighter skin. It was shocking to hear the siblings argue over their resentment of each other because of the accident of their pigmentation. But more than forty years later, the President of the United States, the child of a mixed-race marriage, raised by his white mother and her white parents, was hailed as our first black President because his skin favored his African father’s genes.
We continue to think of each other in sweeping categories and, as a result, we continue to advantage and disadvantage each other in purposeful and accidental ways. Each member of our family is older or younger, accomplished or challenged, lovable or curmudgeonly, musical or tone-deaf, clever or dull, fun or boring – all the distinctions that intimacy allows us to see. The members of other families are categorical. They are rich. They are nice. They are upright. Or…they are just the opposite.
And those categorical approaches translate to roles assigned by society. They are the ruling class. They are the workers. They are the slaves. They are criminally inclined. They are the great unwashed. They are supremacists.
It is ugly from either side, and it reduces human beings from subjects to objects. That is Pharaoh’s point (this time) to Moses. Your people are our labor force, he claims. We rely on them because they are so numerous. They are “the people of the land,” dirt people, mud people, clay people. What are we supposed to do if they all go on a three-day holiday?
And it has an effect on “the people of the land.” They are diminished, unsure and fearful long after Pharaoh’s army is decimated before their very eyes. Who would blame them for turning this behavior back on the Egyptians? Yet they are instructed otherwise, specifically (in Deuteronomy 23:7) and generally throughout the Bible (do not oppress the stranger because you were the stranger in Egypt).
I think about these questions from a position of advantage, to be sure. When I am confronted by my privilege or my supremacy, I must push hard against the sense of insult and grievance that interferes with my ability to hear the pain behind those descriptions. Whether I am fully guilty, or guilty of only three-fifths, I can draw an understanding of the humanity of others and how they have suffered by being diminished, unsure and fearful long after Pharaoh was deposed.
The Exodus:5 Project
“that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you.” Exodus 4:5
The remarkable Gloria Steinem was told once by a journalist, “You don’t look forty.” She responded, “This is what forty looks like.”
As a quip, it is clever. As an insight, it is profound. She discussed her remark as emerging from her frustration with an artificial construct of how women should appear in certain ages and circumstances. I don’t think she gives herself enough credit. The wisdom of her response is both broader and deeper than the imposition of some paradigm of youth and age on appearance.
I am guilty myself of making comments about the disconnect in my mind between appearance and reality. I know I have said, “You don’t look like a Marine, you don’t look like a grandfather, you don’t look like an auto mechanic.” (Not all to the same person, duh.) And I cannot count how many times I have been told, “You don’t look like a rabbi.”
The observation comes from experience and stereotype, or sometimes despite it. My two grandfathers worked with their hands. Though I never knew my father’s father, a mechanical whiz, his pictures always show a dapper man. And my other grandfather was a plumber, willing to deal with every kind of water emergency. You would never know it to look at him; in his day, he could have been a model.
My sister, who inherited her good looks from both sides of the family, is a funeral director. She actually hears “you don’t look like…” more often than I do. She breaks the stereotype my father loved to joke about: the guy with the tape-measure eyes.
The fact is that no matter what picture I have in my head, a person defines himself or herself by the circumstances of their own. Gloria Steinem did not look forty – until she was. Grandpa Jack did not look like a guy who could fix a car engine with a hairpin – until he did. Grandpa Nate did not look like a guy who was willing to reach down a clogged drain – until it was clogged. And my sister morphs into a combination of strength and compassion the moment the phone rings, even if she was in the middle of dancing to a Spanish pop song about what ducks do (you had to be there).
Jewish tradition reminds us of this truth at least three times a day. By plucking the second half of this particular verse out of context and placing it at the very beginning of daily devotion we are reminded that each of our forefathers (and, certainly, our foremothers) was an intimate of God, but each in his own way. Moses is not told that his encounter is with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses is told that his encounter with the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. An unchanging and eternal deity is both transformed and held in a moment of time by unlikely successors – the pioneer, the homebody and the adventurer. Moses, shepherd and fugitive prince doesn’t look like an intimate of God – until he is.
This is what God’s messenger looks like.
If you are reading this column with the eyes of faith, you should be assured that you, like Moses and his forebears, have a unique relationship with God. Look in the mirror. That’s what an intimate of God looks like.
But if you are looking through a different set of eyes, the lesson is at least as important. As you encounter people in your orbit, you will represent to them a paradigm. You are what an attorney looks like, a receptionist, a tech consultant, a teacher, a taxi driver, a sailor, a chef. You are what a sibling looks like, a neighbor, an in-law, a cousin, a friend, a stranger. And if you happen to be forty, then this is what forty looks like today.
TAKING A STAND
The Exodus:5 Project
And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. Exodus 3:5
There is a place on the wide expanse in Tiananmen that is sacred ground. A protestor of still-unknown identity planted his feet in front of advancing tanks that had come to disperse a political demonstration. The tanks halted; the world was electrified. The protestor, “Tank Man,” as he was called, was named to Time’s list of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century.
In a museum maintained by Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama there is an ordinary city bus. It was on that bus that Rosa Parks took a seat in the “colored section” during the days of segregation. When a white man wanted her seat, the driver ordered her to stand. She refused. By doing so, Mrs. Parks fanned the spark that eventually ignited the conscience of a nation.
Billions of people have traverse that avenue in Beijing and thousands sat in the seat of that bus, yet we honor the two individuals whose insistence on stopping and, literally or figuratively, taking a stand changed the world. The places were unremarkable. The actions were unique. The results were sacred.
My colleague Rabbi Ronne Friedman called to my attention what he described as “a classic case of misdirection” in the Bible. Most of us who do not read carefully have the impression that when Moses noticed the burning bush and heard God’s call, he was instructed to remove his sandals because the ground around the bush was holy ground. Isolating the verse above, it is obvious that the instructions are very different. The miraculous bush was not situated on holy ground. It was the place on which Moses was standing. It was the place where Moses stopped and noticed what was askew. It was the place where Moses answered the call.
Reports from Beijing on that day in 1989 included eye-witness accounts of other protestors blocking the path of tanks. In 1955, Rosa Parks was not the first and not the last to refuse to give up her seat. And who knows if God chose Moses by appearing where Moses stood, or if Moses chose God by noticing what others overlooked. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner makes the point that you have to stare a long time at a fire to concluded that it is or is not consuming what is burning.)
But the fact is that the courageous actions of the individual have the ability to transform an everyday patch of asphalt, vinyl or sand into holy ground.
I don’t believe someone needs to be named to the “Time 100,” to provoke social transformation or to star in the Bible to imbue a place with sacred significance. I do believe that it is the act of stopping, noticing and bearing witness that can change the ordinary into the special. Sometimes doing so in the company of the many to repel noxious ideas and the people who promote them is what is called for. Sometimes stepping out of the shadows to call out the bad behavior of otherwise good people is what is necessary. Sometimes placing yourself steadfastly between a friend and a place of danger is the act of holiness.
The place where you take a stand, literally or figuratively, is the holy ground. Most of the time, the opportunity to act with courage and conviction is in plain sight; what will set you apart is paying attention to it. Once you notice, once you act, you will not just sanctify the place; you will consecrate your life and set a standard for others.
And if standing alone can be transformative, imagine the power of standing together.
The Exodus:5 Project
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. Exodus 2:5
I have written before about my friend Heather Booth. She has, over the course of her adult life, changed the world through ideas and organizing. Lots of people have stories about her; now there is a documentary that tells them. But I get to tell mine.
She and I were engaged to develop a curriculum for synagogues wanting to pursue social justice causes. The curriculum never came to be, but a friendship did. It started when I asked her what motivated her activism.
She told me a peculiar parable. She said that if there were a town by a river and suddenly the cry went out that babies were drowning in the river, the response of most people would be to run down to the banks and start rescuing babies. She instead would run upstream to stop the babies from falling into the river in the first place.
Lots of people scoff at the story – how would babies fall into a river, they want to know. These are folks who don’t read the Bible. We owe the existence of Jewish tradition and every religion that emerged from it to a baby in a river. Moses’ mother Yokheved tried to keep her baby at home despite Pharaoh’s decree that all male infants be thrown into the Nile. In the end, she followed the letter if not the spirit of the law when she made a basket of reeds and waterproofed it with pitch and tucked her wonderful child into it. Then, she set it afloat on the Nile in the hopes that someone would rescue him.
But was Moses the only baby afloat on the Nile? Was his mother the only one who loved her child so dearly that she went to such a length to save his life? I don’t have evidence for an answer either way, but we do know that when this basket was discovered by the daughter of that self-same Pharaoh, she knew immediately that it was a “Hebrew baby.” Was this a unique experience for a prescient young woman, or were Egyptians accustomed to the desperate cleverness of the Israelite slaves?
Another friend, Peter Pitzele, holds open the delicious possibility that many Hebrew babies grew up in Egyptian homes. (It would explain a lot – the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the Israelites, the “ransom” of valuables paid by the Egyptians to the departing slaves and the survival of sons assumed to be first-born in some households.) These are the people who ran down to the river banks to rescue the babies. Pharaoh’s daughter, a hero by circumstance or divine intention, deserves the deepest gratitude of Moses’ parents and the Jewish people.
But she was no Heather Booth. She did not run upstream to prevent the babies from falling in. Her act of defiance against her father was no small thing – bringing the Hebrew child and his nanny/mother into the palace – but in the end, Pharaoh’s decree and his attempts to oppress and repress our slave ancestors continued unabated until another hero arose. Ironically, it was Moses.
What would the upstream run have looked like? Perhaps knowing the compassion of the Egyptian people, it might have meant a gathering on the steps of the palace to demand a change. Or perhaps a corps of Egyptian mothers might have appeared where the river’s edge met the settlement of the Israelites and offered to foster their boys. Maybe, despite the taskmasters, the artisans and craftsmen who made and laid bricks might have slowed their work or stopped it entirely in protest of the policy.
I am sorry we have no such model on which to rely at this moment in our sacred Scripture. The courage of the individual is nothing to sneeze at, but collective action doesn’t turn up for many chapters, and then on the wrong side of the Golden Calf affair.
Fortunately, we know today what organizing looks like. And that is in large measure because of Heather Booth and her extraordinary life. If you would like to meet here, see the movie. Or run upstream. She’s still there.
(Welcome to the next series in Aliba D'Rav: The Exodus:5 Project. Each week for 40 weeks this column will focus on the fifth verse of the next chapter of Exodus -- a number chosen because, well, just because. If you would like to receive these columns directly to your inbox, just send a note to the Google Group "Aliba D'Rav." I invite you to subscribe AND to send your friends to this website where other writings reside. And if you got excited because you thought Leon Uris had sent in a long-awaited set of sequels from the World to Come, spoiler alert: Ari Ben-Canaan's grandson becomes a tech mogul and marries an Israeli actress who plays a comic-book superhero.)
The Exodus:5 Project
The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt. Exodus 1:5
My friend Randy gave me a terrific book that lampoons the notion that correlation has anything to do with causation. Though a series of overlapping graphs, Spurious Correlations (by Harvard student Tyler Vigen) demonstrates conclusively that over a ten-year period, the number of divorces in the State of Maine parallels the per capita consumption of margarine in the United States, and that the number of people who drowned after falling out of a fishing boat trends almost exactly with the number of marriages in Kentucky. (All this preceding Kim Davis skewing the results by refusing certain couples licenses.)
We have a fascination with numbers that leads us to believe ideas that are patently ridiculous. But because “numbers don’t lie,” we accept on some level connections that deceive us into illogic.
There is a “science” of numbers in interpreting the Bible that relies on correlations of this kind. It is called gematria and is a favorite of another friend of mine, Don (who knows Randy). In gematria, every Hebrew letter is assigned a number. By adding the numerical values of a given word, you can presume that it has a relationship to any other word with the same numerical value. For example, the Hebrew spelling of Chanukkah (which is more standardized than the English spelling) has a numerical total of 83. So does the word machala, which means “sickness.” A clever homileticist might suggest that the way we celebrate the winter holiday should make us sick or, conversely, that the events surrounding the rededication of the Temple reversed the sickness of foreign influences that weakened Jewish life. I could go either way.
But just because correlation does not imply causation does not mean that numbers are incidental. Back before mathematics, the days I yearned for in algebra and beyond, what we had was mostly addition and subtraction. Numbers were less exact or, perhaps, less factual than symbolic. As such, it is hard to read the ancient documents that we consider holy (like the Torah) with the same scientific precision as we read the algorithms that enable you to receive these words on the internets.
That’s true in very small ways today. Baskin-Robbins ice cream used to come in 31 flavors, and then it was 31 flavors plus chocolate and vanilla, and now they don’t even bother – but anyone of a certain age hears “31 flavors” and thinks “jamocha almond fudge.” Heinz probably had 57 varieties of sauces, but now it is simply a part of their logo. And when daylight savings time ends, 12:00 will be a different time than it was the day before – but will still represent noon and midnight.
One of the numbers with such meaning in the Bible is 70. There is a completeness to 70, a sense that it is a number that encompasses the wholeness of whatever is attached to it. The tradition insists that there are 70 nations in the world – the wholeness of the clans among the human family. The rabbis suggested that there are 70 facets to Torah – a reference to a cut gem that refracts light differently as it is rotated, but whose full splendor is impossible for the eye to capture at once. And Jacob had 70 offspring who landed in Egypt, not including Joseph, who was there already.
We don’t know the names of those 70 and therefore maybe we shouldn’t take the number so literally. But I am pretty sure we are meant to know that no one was left behind. Whatever happened to the children of Jacob happened to all of them. Whatever they accomplished, they accomplished together. Whatever blessings, whatever curses, whatever promises, whatever legacies – it was all or none. No one could stand apart and say, “I had nothing to do with any of this because my folks are back in the old country.”
There are 100 members of the United States Senate and 435 members of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, 100 is the new 70. In the House, it is 435. Whatever blessings, whatever curses, whatever promises, whatever legacies – it is all or nothing at all. Whatever they accomplish, they accomplish together.
And it may track with the number of listeners to talk radio or viewers of late-night talk shows. It may have a parallel graph with membership in certain churches or proclamation of absent faith. It may be remarkably similar to the per capita ounces of toothpaste in Utah or the number of calls for termite extermination in Phenix City, Alabama (population 32, 822). But correlation does not equal causation. Every one of those 535 human beings is responsible for the whole of ‘em.
The Genesis:3 Project
It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days Genesis 50:3
The end of an era. It’s a cliché that is trotted out with every sports retirement, business shuttering or celebrity death. Yet there are some occasions that validate the cliché.
I had that sense when the spacecraft Cassini vaporized in the atmosphere of Saturn a couple of weeks ago. It was launched in 1997, having been initiated as a project ten years earlier. Technologically primitive by today’s standards, huge in comparison to the drones that we navigate with our cell phones, incredibly limited next to the Mars rovers, this elegantly lumbering exploratory vessel boldly went where no one had gone before.
The photos alone take your breath away. Our earth, a blue dot against the black sky, rests dimly beyond the plane of the rings of Saturn. Geysers spew from one of Saturn’s many moons in silhouette against the distant sun. The largest moon, Titan, seemingly threaded on the edge of the rings against the backdrop of the pastel planet.
The scientific information is mind-boggling. While much of it sounds to science amateurs like me to be nothing more than answers for trivia night (“What is the length of a day on Saturn?”), the facts about Saturn’s gaseous bulk, the discovery of additional moons invisible to the most powerful earth-bound telescopes and the definitive examination of the rings continue our search of understanding of what makes up our corner of the galaxy and, by extension, what makes up us. And back at mission control, twenty years of math and physics were tested and refined to pilot and operate the ship from distances so great they need their own language to describe.
Cassini’s last moments may have been its most incredible. Sent on its final mission into the atmosphere of Saturn, it sent back data that will, as one scientist said, launch a thousand PhDs. And then, incinerated so as not to pollute the pristine moons that may be hospitable to life, it went silent.
If I am a little awestruck, a little bit of a Cassini fanboy, it is at least in part because the team that was Cassini touched my heart as much as the voyage excited my imagination. Project Scientist Linda Spilker was there from the beginning at the Jet Propulsion Lab. She dated, married and raised her family along with the ship. One of the engineers named his daughter Phoebe after one of the moons. The talented singers among the mission team serenaded their colleagues with parodies of show tunes and popular music about the expedition. People cried at the last transmission.
But (so far) two gorgeous insights have moved me the most. Science planner Jo Pitesky updated President John F. Kennedy’s vision when she said, “She’s us. We can’t go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there.” Cassini extended not only our reach, but our dreams.
And program manager Earl Maize melded science and theology (well, for me) when he described Cassini’s ultimate demise. The ship did not crash into Saturn. First of all, there does not seem to be anything solid for it to hit. But the atmosphere of the huge planet vaporized the carefully constructed spacecraft. Within seconds, Cassini the alien explorer and Saturn the object of its exploration were indistinguishable one from the other. Describing what would happen, Maize said, “It will become part of Saturn.”
When Joseph died, it was the end of an era. Though most of the children of Jacob barely knew him, he had been their inadvertent explorer, carrying hopes and desires they themselves did not yet realize. His presence in Egypt was the precursor to the formation of their future selves, the vehicle to the next iteration of the People Israel that Joseph’s brothers could not imagine. They cried at his last transmission.
Hundreds of years later, Joseph’s bones left Egypt with his distant descendants. By then, even with the embalming expertise of the Egyptian artisans, everything about him was vaporized, save the detritus of leathered skin and brittle bones. But also by then, legends were told and children were named and music was composed.
Joseph had become a part of those generations.
NOTE: Fifty explorations of my own, each one beginning with the third verse of the consecutive chapters of Genesis. Thanks for coming along for any part of the ride. After a brief hiatus, I will be back for another forty episodes of the Exodus:5 Project.
The Genesis:3 Project
Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor. Genesis 49:3
My friend Rachel Laser spent some years as Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. When she told me she was leaving that position to devote some of her considerable energies to talking about privilege among Jews, I remember my head cocking and my eye squinting as I tried to come up with a response. What came out of my mouth, at least initially, was the same kind of noise I often hear when someone discovers that I am a rabbi. “Hmmm!”
Privilege has been in the news, part of the zeitgeist, the subject of contrition by some and scorn by others. I got the concept right away, if for no other reason that the types of conversations I have learned that people of color have with their children were never part of my upbringing. Yes, we got the talks about prejudice and Nazis, but the kind of anti-semitism I experienced most of my life was primarily inconvenient and laughable. A good scrubbing takes most paint and markers off any wall. (I did, however, manage genuine shock and outrage.) Understanding, however, is only intellectual.
Much more recently, I wound up teaching myself an inadvertent lesson. Speaking on a panel about Jews in America for a leadership cohort of Asian-Americans, I answered a question about how Asians could begin to replicate the success of Jews in politics and policy deliberation. I replied that Jews have two advantages over Asians.
The first is that we have a signature issue. While we are concerned about many things, when a non-Jewish public figure hears “Jews” the next thought is “Israel.” Not every Jew has Israel front and center, and even among those who do, there is a gamut of interests in the subject. But “owning” an issue helps to define us as a constituency. Asians are so diverse in their countries and cultures of origin, their religions and their political concerns that they are rarely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a voting bloc.
The second is that we can pass as white. Maybe we are white, at least culturally, but what most people mean by “white” is not merely Caucasian. We have more in common, slogans aside, with Black Lives Matter than with white supremacists, but even in my Jew-fro days, nobody mistook me for African American.
And here I stumble on the Biblical verse in question simply by the accident of choosing to comment on the third verse of each chapter of Genesis. I never took it out of its context, the long recitation of blessings Jacob offers to his sons. Standing alone, however, it speaks to me differently, especially as a first-born son myself.
If you are not the first-born in your family, you know the impact of this deeply-ingrained preference in our families. I don’t believe that a first-born is better-loved, but a first-born is differently loved. For parents, the very first indications of success at any stage of life is how that first child is doing. I am aware that every practical lesson I learned as a father has been taught to me by my eldest – and that our younger children benefited from the mistakes she endured. I have also felt the expectations of achievement and responsibility placed on my own life, and the conviction that my younger siblings got off easier because of them.
None of it is earned or deserved. It is a function of what today we call privilege. Its origins are in incidental but deeply ingrained “blessings” that are canonized in our sacred literature.
When we are struggling with the notions of privilege, which so often feel like an accusation, it is helpful to have a point of reference. Not everyone will absorb the importance of the advantages that having lighter skin or presumed benefits or justified faith in rights and protections. For most people of privilege, that’s what we call “normal.” But everyone is or isn’t a first-born and is conscious of the differences – without presumed prejudice – that the accident of position bestows on that child from birth to, well, to always.
To deny it is to lose an opportunity to balance the scales at least a little bit. The first-born needs to step back a little to make for peaceful relationships.
But if denial is missed opportunity, pretending it is meaningful in this day and age is cruel and ignorant. And that’s why this point of reference is so important. White people know privilege in American society, and in that regard, most Jews are white. If we are exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor, it must be earned, not presumed, and not at the expense of those whose circumstances of birth put them inherently behind.