Monday, January 4, 2016

Parashat VaEra Devolution

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat VaEra
You Say You Want a Devolution
Hard work is one thing, servitude quite another. Hard work is respectable, respected, and laudable; slavery is humiliating, dehumanizing. When a person is treated like chattel, the divine spark with which every human being is endowed is eclipsed. More often than not, this is true not only in the eyes of the enslaver, but in the eyes of the enslaved: Compounding the physical burden, slaves may develop psychological and emotional scars as the slave mentality seeps into their self-image and they begin to believe that they are unworthy, subpar human beings.

In order to implement his plan to enslave the Jews, it was important for Pharaoh to dehumanize his victims. Thus, the Jews birthrate is described from the Egyptian perspective, in language that would have made Goebbels grin: They multiply like vermin (vayishretzu). (Shmot 1:7). From this starting point, the murder of the males could be easily couched in politically correct terminology: This would not be infanticide; it would be pest control,  extermination. This dehumanization was so pronounced and so firmly entrenched that the Jewish midwives used Pharaohs own bias against him: In explaining their failure to comply with his orders, the midwives claimed that the Jewish women were like animals, that they gave birth in the wild, as it were, before the midwife arrived, and without any assistance. (Shmot 1:19) Captivated and convinced by his own anti-Jewish propaganda, Pharaoh accepted the midwives excuse as a reasonable explanation.

As the story of the punishments and plagues visited upon Pharaoh and his people unfolds, this theme of dehumanization comes to the foreground of the narrative in reverse: The plagues may be seen as a process designed to turn the tables on Egyptian society and to punish Pharaoh and his people for their dehumanization of the Jews. Slowly, relentlessly, the Egyptians themselves are reduced to the level of animals and the higher their original station, the more dramatic the fall proves to be.

Pharaoh was a self-anointed deity. He presented himself as god of the Nile the life force of Egypt:

Thus says Almighty God: Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great crocodile (tannin) that lies in the midst of his streams, who has said, My river is my own, and I have made it for myself. (Yehezkel 29:3)

For the Jews, the affliction of the Nile may have been perceived as Divine retribution for the murder of their innocent babies, but the Egyptians may have seen this plague very differently: The transformation of the Niles waters to blood was a severe strike against the power of Egypt the Nile and, by extension, Pharaoh, the god of the Nile. For Pharaoh himself, this first plague began the process of devolution from deity to man, and with subsequent plagues, from human to subhuman. Pharaohs fall would be the furthest and the hardest of all.

Other elements of Moshes confrontation with Pharaoh point to the steady devolution and eventual dehumanization of the Egyptian monarch. The verse from the Book of Yehezkel quoted above gives an additional clue to this general theme: Yehezkels prophesy refers to Pharaoh as a tanin (crocodile) the same word used to describe the miraculous omen performed by Aharon. When Moshe instructed Aharon to throw down his staff before Pharaoh, it was no coincidence that the omen took the form of the very creature Pharaoh chose as his symbol. The message was unavoidable: Pharaohs specious claims of power and supernatural ability were no more than smoke and mirrors. Aharons tanin swallowed up all the others (Shmot 7:12), just as the power Moshe and Aharon represented would soon swallow up Pharaoh and all his minions.

The omen of the tanin is, in fact, an evolution of a sort: At the burning bush, Moshes staff was transformed into a nachash (serpent); now, standing before Pharaoh, in a reversal of the events in the Garden of Eden, the serpent becomes a crocodile; its legs are (at least partially) restored. The primordial serpent had caused man to sin by claiming that eating the forbidden fruit could make him like God. The serpent was punished by being stripped of its human features; specifically, the serpent lost its voice and its legs. With each successive plague, Pharaoh, whose symbol was a serpent with legs (a tanin or crocodile), who saw himself as a deity, would lose not only his claim to divinity but his humanity as well.

As the plagues build up to a crescendo, confusion reigns - particularly when the Egyptians bring their cattle into their homes for shelter. (Shmot 8:20) Egyptian society, the hierarchical construct par excellence, the economic and political structure visually represented by the pyramid, is upended: Who is the master and who the slave? Who leads and who is led? Who is human and who is animal? In this context, Pharaohs eventual loss of free will comes into sharper focus: The ability to make conscious, intelligent decisions is a human trait, whereas the animal world is for the most part driven by instinct. Pharaoh had enslaved others by labeling them as sub-human. Gods response is to bring Pharaoh down, one rung at a time: First, Pharaoh is stripped of the trappings of divinity in which he had cloaked himself. Then, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, he is stripped of the symbols of humanity that he has forfeited through his own dehumanizing behavior. Pharaoh loses the quintessential defining trait of humanity, free will. When this final devolution is complete, the road to Pharaohs doom is a short one indeed.

For a more in-depth analysis see:
for “Echoes of Eden” Sefer Shmot click here

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