Saturday, December 29, 2007

Parshas Shemot - Knowing God

A few centuries after a man living in Ur Kasdim rediscovered what mankind had forgotten, that the world had a Creator, his descendants had become mired in slavery, degraded and finally subjected to selective genocide within the bowels of the mightiest empire on earth. Egypt had enslaved the Jews so thoroughly that only one man escaped from it.

Sentenced to death at birth, thrown in an act of desperation by his mother into a basket, left to float on the Nile to a seemingly hopeless fate, raised in the royal court, banished into exile, intermarried in a foreign land and distanced far from his people, Moshe was chosen by G-d to rediscover him and redeem his people.

A great-grandson of Yaakov, the last of the patriarchs, it would seem that Moshe had little to recommend him. Raised by his people's slavemasters he was far removed from his people's heritage. He spoke like an Egyptian and dressed like one, so that Yitro's daughters identified him as one.

When Moshe sees the burning bush, what follows is as much an introduction to G-d as a call to his destiny. Before Moshe can go to Egypt to confront the might of an empire to redeem the Jews, he must know who G-d is. Much as Pharaoh goes on to do, Moshe asks who G-d is and by what name he should call him. G-d responds by stating that he is self-defined, unlike the idols who are the projections of the human ego, G-d is an entity apart and above from man who is unique and self-defined as the essence of life and as the force that powers the future.

With Shemos the beginning of the process of Exodus gets under way and at every step Moshe appears to question G-d, this is impertinent on the one hand, yet understandable on the other. If the simple purpose of Exodus was to free the Jews from Egypt and deliver them to Israel, it could have been done in the wink of an eye by an omnipotent G-d. But Exodus was ultimately about a showdown between human oppression and divine power.

From the first murder as Kayin struck down his brother, human force had been used to defy G-d, to pervert, to enslave and to abuse. The flood had ended one such era in human history but the Tower of Babel had begun another, under the rule of tyranny from which Avraham escaped. That too had been broken but a third tyranny had now risen under the Pharaohs, an empire built on slavery and directed at idolatry, at the cult of personality of the Pharaohs and the material constructions of their cities. Exodus would confront Pharaoh, all of Egypt and the Jews with the reality of divine supremacy over the world and the fates of men.

The plagues that would follow were not simple shows of force or intimidation, like the miracles that G-d gifted Moshe with such as the leprous hand and the serpent staff, they were specific demonstrations of G-d's power over all facets of life, from the river to the sky, from animal and plant life to insects and even the dust, from the great calamities to the small irritations and finally to the life and death of Egypt's future and its armies, by the time Exodus was concluded, Egypt would know G-d.

With Joseph's arrival, Egypt had been given the chance to know G-d in a benign manner, as the architect of the world and human destiny. Instead Egypt squandered that gift to build a slave empire, just as Babylon and the generation of flood had done before. Egypt chose power and so G-d communicated with it in the language of power, beginning with the humble request of an exile for a mere three days to worship G-d and ending with the annihilation of Egypt's power, at each point Pharaoh was given the chance to turn back from the abyss of power and at each point he rejected it.

Ultimately Exodus would serve to answer both Pharaoh's denial of G-d and Moshe's question of who G-d was, for Moshe had been chosen because he had struck the Egyptian beating the Jew and Pharaoh had been chosen because he commanded the beatings that the Egyptians meted out to their Hebrew slaves. Both men would learn who G-d was and one would lead a nation to return and another to Mount Sinai.


Anonymous said...

seamless, enlightening, beautifully written. Are you a rabbi?

Sultan Knish said...

thank you very much for the compliment, no I don't have semicha and am not a Rabbi

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