The Exodus:5 Project
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” Exodus 14:5
I don’t know that I have made any big decision in my life without second-guessing myself after the fact. The most consequential decision I ever made was to marry. The night before my wedding, I woke up at about 3:00 a.m. and said to my brother, sleeping in the next bed, “I don’t think I can go through with this.” He spoke these words of wisdom in return: “Shut up and go back to sleep.”
When we bought a house and contracted for a renovation, I came up to it one day as the peak of the roof on the new second floor was being finished. It looked enormous and I was seized with panic – what had we done to the neighborhood?
After more than a dozen years and 100,000 miles, the car we schlepped our kids in was ready for retirement from our emerging needs – commuting, transporting older passengers, visiting our children in other cities. So we bought a car we knew would last us another dozen years with a better kind of road-worthiness. After research and budgeting we looked at the dealer’s best offer – exactly what we expected. Once again, my heart began pounding as I realized the size of the dent we made in our savings.
The technical name for these worries is buyer’s remorse. I am among the billions of human beings – probably including you – who have experienced this sense of insecurity after a major decision. There is a complicated psychological explanation for it, but it boils down to a version of something a friend of mine who is a legislator told me: you get behind a bill about 60% sure of your position and work your way up beyond 90% at the time of the vote; then you have time to think about it.
All of the examples I offer here are about consequential decisions that not only were the right decisions, but ones that were beneficial (especially the first). But reconsidering a consequential decision that was the wrong decision, or that was not beneficial, can also be an example of buyer’s remorse. What they all have in common is the need to change. If the change is for the better, we tend to come around to early acceptance. If it for the worse, then we have two choices. We can either make the best of it or try to undo what we consider a mistake.
What is the nature of the consequential decision that Pharaoh made to release the Israelites from slavery? It was not a decision of principle, that’s for sure – Egypt in general and Pharaoh in particular were exhausted by the suffering visited on them ten times. The eradication of the first-born among the Egyptians cast a darkness on every surviving soul more profound than the darkness of the preceding plague. Pharaoh capitulated. He was not convinced. And when three days had passed and the upending of a way of life settled in as a reality, buyer’s remorse was an understandable reaction.
Unfortunately, nobody said to him, “Shut up and go back to being Pharaoh.”
The same scenario has played out in our society many times. As Americans we have made lurching progress toward the grand vision we have of an enlightened democracy. My cousin Brent said to me that he worries that we have lost the desire to live into the Enlightenment values that form the conscience of the Constitution. Those are the ideas, he said, that were too big to be fully contained by the document.
Sometimes out of principle but most times out of exhaustion we have done the right thing to the native people we had chased off their land, the Africans we had stolen and imported, the women we had kept disenfranchised, the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Each time we considered capitulation, we imagined it meant relinquishing something to which we felt entitled. It was hard to see the benefit of being right if it meant being less.
And here we are today, some segment of our society finding a champion for their buyer’s remorse for an America less white, less European, less Christian, less heterosexual than when it was “great” in their imaginations. Maybe they will mount chariots and chase their lost chance to dominate into the unknown. But the good guys will prevail as, eventually, they always do.
And soon the rest of us will shut up go back to being America.
The Exodus:5 Project
So, when the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe in this month the following practice Exodus 13:5
In Woody Allen’s movie “Love and Death,” the family patriarch owns a valuable piece of land. It was, as the film illustrates, small enough to carry with him wherever he went. It’s a great sight gag, very much in keeping with the intersection of cerebral and slapstick humor in Allen’s earlier films, when we could still watch them without feeling a little creeped out.
This whole notion of who owns land and what that means is one of the great conundrums of human existence. For example, I live in a house built on a piece of land that my wife and I (and Quicken Loans) allegedly own. We bought it from the previous owner, who bought it from the developer who bought it from the private owner who bought it from the city which acquired it from the Commonwealth which, presumably, seized it from the native tribes that claimed it by virtue of being the first humans to do so. There yet remain a few trees in the neighborhood that are, if not original residents, are the grandchildren of the towering oaks that shared the land with the Indians.
Something legal and mystical both ties us to subdivided portions of land. We call it real estate, understood as immovable property, as opposed to movable property like apparel, transportation and household goods, usually known as personal property. A thief can make off with your car, but not the land it is parked upon, the aforementioned patriarch notwithstanding.
Although, the theft of land is an accusation that is made often enough. Refugees and victims of government actions may find that their immovable property has been confiscated – stolen out from under them. The losing side in a war almost always forfeits real estate to the conquering army. The entire United States is under the dominion of the descendants of immigrants who displaced the people who were here before them.
I don’t mean to reduce real estate law to fiction or fantasy. However, except in the Bible, there really is no such thing as an original owner with rights over immovable property. And in the Bible, that original owner is God, as in “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). It is God’s to distribute and to promise, also according to the Bible. But promise and distribution is not without consequence, and the long history of land squabbles, large and small, ought to remind us of that.
The Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites were tribes that were long-time residents of the Holy Land before the Israelites came to claim it. Like the native tribes in America, they were in place before anyone else came along to claim the land as their own. If it were a simple matter of redistributing ownership, even by God, there would be no instruction to the Israelites later in Torah to take the land by force.
I am not a believer in the notion of might making right. The forcible wresting of control by physical means or financial from the previous owner/occupant is not necessarily determinative or even just. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of years Bob Hittite or Edna Jebusite could trace their families on their land. My ancestor rabbis were uncomfortable enough with the stories of the conquest of the Land that they declared the ethnic cleansing unique and not precedent. Middle East custom to the contrary, physical position is not nine-tenths of the law.
So we all need to be very careful when claiming ownership of real estate, especially in a part of the world where the question of authority – tribal, governmental and theological – is settled mostly in favor of whomever is doing the claiming. There is justification for everything and rationalization for even more, though justification is not always just and rationalization is not always rational.
You are reading this and wondering what the point is. In terms of the verse above, it is to demonstrate that at least five tribes believed themselves to be the owners of real property before the Israelites showed up. Even God seems to acknowledge it.
In terms of the contemporary iteration of the Land, there remain competing claims and we can’t simply wish them away. People live there, and they can’t pick up a clump of dirt, stick it in their pocket and walk away. You fill in the blanks.
On January 6, 2018, I will have officially lived longer than my father. It is a silly obsession that I have with this milestone. Maybe I can trace it back to his own father’s early demise from heart disease, or his bouts throughout his adult life with assaults on his heart, his knees, his prostate, his back, his skin, his lymph nodes and, ultimately, his brain. He was gaunt and infirm by the time of his last Rosh HaShanah, the start of his final decline, and he was gone before Chanukkah. He was robbed of the chance to see and influence the lives of his remarkable grandchildren, only a couple of whom have any real memories of him.
I marvel at my relative longevity when I look in the mirror as I think of him, searching for a glimpse of him in my own reflection. He shaved his mostly-bald head before it was a thing, and mine is still obscured by tenacious salt and surrendering pepper. But here I am, anything but gaunt and relatively firm and not feeling anything near the age I imagined 65 would feel like when I looked at him 28 years ago.
There are great stories to tell about him, and I have told most of them, but two I repeat here. He saved a stranger’s life once as if it were nothing. Chicago had been pelted with over two feet of snow in a matter of hours, and as he trudged for miles the next day from his business, where he had slept, to the downtown train that would take him home, he caught sight of someone passed out in a snowbank – drunk, from the smell of him. My dad with the bad back picked him up and put him inside a warm apartment house doorway. He did not consider it remarkable. Obviously, at 14, I did.
And then there was the last private conversation I had with him. After that last Rosh HaShanah, I came to see him hooked up to tubes and monitors in the hospital. He was barely coherent. I sat with him for the better part of three days, summoning the courage to say all those things I rehearsed about what he meant to me. When I could wait no longer, I pulled up a chair next to his bed and asked him if he was afraid to die. He took a breath and said, “No. I’m not ready, but I am not afraid.”
Here was the opening for my speech. “Well, I’m afraid of you dying,” I began. I did not get another syllable out of my mouth before he lifted himself up, trailing wires and tubes, and wrapped his arms around me. I never gave the speech.
For most of his life, he was not particularly demonstrative. But somehow, this gesture was quintessentially who he was. He took care of people – his 37-year-old frantic son and some guy on the street.
He died at home on a very cold night when, ironically, the furnace died before he did. I wasn’t there, though by my sister’s account, he seemed to see me in the family tableau in his last moments. He lived 65 years and 147days. On January 6, I reach 65 years and 148.
That makes every subsequent day a gift, by my obsessive standard. The career I chose put me in conversation with lots of people who lived longer than they expected, surviving danger or illness. For a little while, most of them saw those extra days as moments to caress and time to focus on the really important things in life, eschewing the trivial and negligible. And then they discovered the blessing of living with less pressure, grateful for the ability to relax back into their semblance of normal.
I will be glad if I can remember just to be grateful and to build on the foundation he gave me.
The Exodus:5 Project
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Exodus 12:5
A very long time ago for me – more than thirty-five years – I fulfilled the peculiar rite of passage known as the Senior Sermon. Back in the day, each rabbi in the senior class had to give his (yes, his) polished homily in the synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Arrayed in the front rows were the faculty whose postures and expressions were read like tea leaves for indications of how a student was doing during his presentation. (These days the Senior Sermon is a kinder, gentler experience on Wednesday afternoons.)
The premier faculty member at the time was Prof. Saul Lieberman. A remarkable Talmudist, his attention was not easily engaged on Saturday mornings. In fact, the word was that if you could keep Lieberman awake, it was a great sermon.
The day I spoke was the only Shabbat I ever spent at the Seminary. I had begun my studies in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and then moved to Connecticut where I served as student rabbi most of the week including weekends. So when I arrived at services that Saturday morning, I was in unfamiliar territory. Never shy about public speaking, I stepped up to the podium and delivered my remarks. Throughout my sermon, Prof. Lieberman sat with his eyes wide open.
The sections of Scripture from that week were the story of the golden calf and the instructions about sacrificing the red heifer, born without blemish or even two white hairs. Two perfect beasts, two completely different contexts. I spoke about the jealousy of God, suggesting that there was (rightfully) room only for one perfect being in Creation. Anything that approached perfection – and was therefore worthy of devotion – had to be destroyed.
There aren’t many things I have believed for that long in my life. I still understand that the quest for perfection is futile and even, I would contend, blasphemous. It is futile because it is unachievable in the temporal world. It is blasphemous because it attempts to usurp about the only aspect of God that is unique. Our blemishes make us distinct in this world. Remove them all and they become part of the divine. Insist on remaining separated from the godhead in perfection and you set up a competition between the Holy One and the challenger. The pretender to the Throne of Glory must, of necessity, be the loser. That is why the Ten Commandments begin with the instruction to “have no other God before Me.”
(Since then, I have come to understand that even non-believers are governed by this rule in a peculiar way. We are all imperfect, and therefore the pursuit of perfection seems to me to violate the central tenet of atheism.)
The Israelites who were about to leave Egypt had to sacrifice the nearest thing to perfect they could find. It was a lesson of empowerment over the presumptive gods of Egypt. They had the power over false gods. Only the true God had power over them.
Not quite all of that was in my Senior Sermon, but it has held the attention of a lot of people in a lot of different contexts since that day. But it never ended for me quite the way it did the first time.
As I walked away from the pulpit, Prof. Lieberman motioned me to come over to his seat. I extended my hand. He took it, and pulled me close. People leaned in from every direction to hear what he was going to say to the student who kept him wide awake. “Young man,” he said, “you talk loud!”
The Exodus:5 Project
Every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. Exodus 11:5
I have had some pretty remarkable teachers in my life and, as the Hebrew saying goes, from each of my teachers have I gained insight. More often than not, what distinguished a great teacher from a good teacher (in my experience) was if I learned something more than information. The personal presence of the teacher contained as much value for me as the expertise – in fact, sometimes more.
Prof. J. Allen Hynek taught astronomy at Northwestern University when I was an undergrad. If you know his name, it may be because he became a reluctant expert in UFOs in the 1960s and 1970s, even having a cameo in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But I took his course to fulfill a science requirement, and in the process I learned about awe. Quite close to retirement when I took the class he taught dozens of times, Dr. Hynek nonetheless exuded an innocent excitement about the cosmos. On the first day of the course, he illustrated his place in the universe by pacing off the relative size of the building blocks of the physical world, from galaxies to quarks. (Spoiler alert: we are about in the middle.) He then enthused about the privilege of being located at a spot on the continuum that enabled him to appreciate matter of exponential difference in size. And he continued to teach us for the next twelve weeks from the spot on the continuum he had imagined in that lecture hall.
Sylvia Boorstein is one of the most popular teachers of mindfulness in the English-speaking world. She has opened Buddhist practice to novices and deepened it for experienced practitioners for more than thirty years. I encountered her for the first time at an annual retreat I used to attend where she accomplished a remarkable feat: she kept a dozen rabbis quiet for two and a half hours a night, four nights in a row. Her self-effacing and enjoyable way of explaining mindfulness and introducing meditative practices showed me the road less traveled in my spiritual life. Seeing how mindfulness enhanced her ability to appreciate the people around her – including initial skeptics like me – showed me the road I needed to travel in my interpersonal life.
I have others I could name – public school teachers, political mentors, friends who opened their hearts to me and, of course, many of the remarkable rabbis I was privileged to learn from in seminary and in my continuing studies. I would add my family to that list as well.
But I have one teacher who never applied for the job, yet has held it for her entire life. That would be my first-born. Each of the three kids has enriched my life beyond measure, and my favorite among them is whomever I am thinking about at the moment. But every aspect of my parenthood gets test-driven on her first. And, thank God, she has been generous with her feedback.
I will not continue with specifics that descend into sappiness or self-disclosure. I will just say this: navigating fatherhood for the first time is much easier with a child who will present the necessary challenges with love, respect and independence. Our other two kids would certainly have been equal to the task, but they are, by happenstance, not the first-born.
I have attempted to comfort too many people who are bereft of their first-born. There is a quality of grief that, I think, cannot be imagined by those of us blessed not to experience it. Even those people who are estranged from or are in conflict with or, God help them, dislike their first-born have a visceral understanding that their place on the continuum of relationships and their mindfulness of others is shaped by the lessons learned from that unique relationship.
The death, God forbid, of any child is an unfathomable tragedy, no matter the cause, the age or the circumstance. It is not the way of the world we desire that parents bury their children. The death of a first-born inherently carries a second blow. Perhaps ironically, it is less because of who the child is and more because of what the child represents to everyone from Pharaoh upon his throne to the servant behind her millstone. It is a horrible price to pay for freedom. For anything.
I imagine the worst sound to emit from any human community was the cry that went up from every household in Egypt on the fateful night of liberation. In that midnight moment, past, present and future were erased. The continuum had dissolved. You cannot be mindful when you have lost your mind. Egypt became a land without the kind of learning necessary for renewing the generations.
Every child becomes his or her own person without losing the mirrored corner of their personality that reflects back the nurture of others. The wise parent will learn early to pay attention to that reflection and honor the lessons it shows.
The Exodus:5 Project
They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field. Exodus 10:5
Within the next couple of years, the Washington, DC area will be revisited by the local 17-year cicada invasion. If you have not experienced the phenomenon, you have not visited the alternative universe that nature provides on a cyclical basis. These harmless but spooky insects emerge from their gestation underground, shed their hard exterior and fly haphazardly seeking the fulfillment that is the purpose of their arrival.
Cicadas emerge every spring and into the summer. But the 17-year cicadas are especially prolific and spend a week or two flying in any empty space and landing on any available leaf or branch. During that time, any human being who ventures outside must be forewarned. The cicadas don’t care what is in their way.
My daughter described a car trip during this infestation as being like driving through a video game.
And then they die, mostly with a smile. But because of their sheer numbers, the carcasses are absolutely everywhere. The piles in the gutters may not be as deep as leaves raked from autumn yards, but they are ubiquitous. The telltale crunch is unmistakable and, well, gross. Lasting until a couple of good rainstorms wash them away, cicadas become the landscape.
Other such pervasive natural phenomena have their season. In DC, the early spring sees cars, windowsills and patio furniture covered with a mustard-yellow powder emitted by fertile trees. The fuzzy output of other trees can make a front yard look like a cotton field. And a Nor’easter in the winter can obscure every feature of the landscape in an undulating carpet of white.
We know what is under all of this stuff. It was there in years 1-16, in the middle of summer, in the dry days of early winter. But when they cover the surface of the land so that no one will be able to see the land, what is dependable and recognizable underneath disappears not just from sight, but also from consciousness. Crunch, achoo, brrr. It is what is on top that captures our attention and our reaction.
It seems to me that we are going through such a period of time in the political life of our country. The landscape is obscured by the detritus of phenomena that capture our attention and our reaction. The day-to-day functions of government, the necessary deliberations over sound policy and the difficult business of implementing law and policy seem unidentifiable because of the distraction of oversexed cicadas, irritating dumps of pollen and chilling blankets of precipitation. The landscape is still there; the processes are still in motion and the decisions made unnoticed are still being instigated.
I can understand how hard it is to ignore that top layer of concealment. It is quite literally in your face, provoking your discomfort and demanding your response. We are blinded by it, forced to remember the contours underneath instead of experiencing them. (And too often, our memories are less than accurate.) Unlike the stuff of nature, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t intentional to cast tantrums and tweets that obscure the questions that really need to be considered in our society.
My response to the cicadas and pollen is a broom, sweeping clean or near to it. My response to the snow is a shovel, valuable for other accumulations as well. I try to keep my eye on what is beneath the detritus so that I do not mistake the cover for the book.
But it is hard, I know. Especially when I worry that other plagues are down the road.
The Exodus:5 Project
God has fixed the time; tomorrow, God will do this thing in the land. Exodus 9:5
I am writing this message in the middle of the annual observance of Chanukkah (also known as Hanukkah, Chanukah, and חנכה. A traditional Jew will recite, somewhere between three and seven times a day, a declaration of Thanksgiving for the miracles that occurred “in those days at this time.” It is a reference to two of the kinds of measurements we use for time.
This holiday – like all holidays, communal and personal – commemorates something that occurred at a moment in the past. My birthday was in the 1950’s. My anniversary was in the mid-1970’s. The United States became a nation in 1776. Veterans Day began in 1918 when the First World War ended. Chanukkah happened 2182 years before this writing.
This holiday – like all holidays, communal and personal – occurs at a fixed time on the calendar. My birthday is during the summer. My anniversary is in late spring. The United States gains a year on July 4. Veterans Day happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Chanukkah happens at this time.
We live our lives in the constant intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. Every day is one of “those days.” (Some, I can attest, more than others!) And every time is “this time.” When we cycle back to the anniversary of an event – week, month, year – we will remember anything of significance in the new context of this time.
My home expression of Judaism – the Conservative movement – made a slight emendation to the prayers that upended the meaning of this marvelous phrase, “in those days at this time.” The editors of our prayer book added a single letter in Hebrew, a single word in English, between the two phrases, which now tells us that we offer thanks for miracles “in those days and at this time.” The phrase now seeks to serve dual purpose – to remember the past and to imagine the present. The two are unmoored from each other. You may have figured out that I don’t like it.
It relegates Chanukkah to the past and equates unrelated unlikely “deliverances” we might identify. Happy though I might be that a state election that concluded on the first night of the holiday this year saw the forces of light triumph over the forces of darkness, it does not have the staying power (or the theological imprimatur) to claim that God has fixed the time to do this thing in the land!
Moreover, it encourages the appropriation of religious traditions for self-serving purposes. That’s not to say that the significance of each candle cannot remind us of other values, but our Sages insisted that the lights of Chanukkah not be used for any purpose other than reminding us of the miracles in those days at this time. Attaching a different message is like using Memorial Day to sell mattresses.
I am just old-fashioned enough in my faith to seek to preserve the power of the original remembrance. The age we live in demands that I live my life as a multitasker – including theologically – but the words of this prayer of gratitude expect me to acknowledge a particular touchstone as unique in origin and timeless in inspiration. It is also true, in a different context, for my birthday, our anniversary, Independence Day and the day we acknowledge the service of our citizens to preserve our way of life. There is a difference between acknowledging that other things happened in those day or at this time – something that keeps us from seeing ourselves as the center of the universe – and acknowledging the meaning and significance that we can ascertain a sense of intention from the Source of all life in the intersection of those days and this time.
Whew. This is supposed to be one of the fun times! So get out there and have fun. Sing a little, spin a little, eat something fried. The price was paid 2000 years ago in those days, and this time is set aside to benefit from the investment!
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.