This week’s parashah is Shemot (Exodus/Shemot 1:1 – 6:1). The saga of slavery and redemption that we remember each year at the time of Passover, as well as now during the Torah reading cycle, begins with this parashah.
The narrative opens by reminding us of the names (Shemot) of the sons of Jacob/Israel. Then we read that the Israelites multiplied greatly in Egypt. In fact, the Torah tells us that they “swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (1:7).” This increase in population is the reason given by Pharaoh for his decision to enslave the people.
Many commentators have wondered why it was necessary to give any reason for the enslavement. After all, Abraham was told in Bereshit/Genesis 15:13 “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.” If the enslavement was portrayed as part of “God’s plan” then Pharaoh needed no reason for his persecution of the Israelites. And yet, the Torah text provides us with precisely that.
In her excellent and compelling book on Exodus The Particulars of Rapture (which I HIGHLY recommend) Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes that the concept of the Israelites ’swarming’ over the land is viewed in two different ways. The majority of midrashim (rabbinic exegetical tales) comment that the increase in the Israelite population represents a victory of life over death and serves as a reminder of the eternality of God and God’s promise that the people shall be numerous. Jacob and his sons, including the great Joseph, may be dead, as the opening lines remind us, but the people itself lives and flourishes. This is all due to God’s promise and serves as a reminder of the Divine presence. Life and God are eternal and the proliferation of the Israelite people is proof of this.
However, Seforno (16th century, Italy) is holds a minority opinion that views this description of Israelite growth as a condemnation. The phrase “and they swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly” is likened by him to the swarming and increase of insects. Actually, the root of the Hebrew verb “to swarm” (sh-r-tz) is also the root of the word for insect. Seforno condemns the Israelites by claiming that the people, which once consisted of individuated and highly evolved persons such as Jacob and Joseph, has now deteriorated to the point where they were simply a mass of “unindividuated ‘insect-like’ conformists, whose whole effort is to assimilate to their surrounds…”(Zornberg, p. 19). In other words, Seforno
As I read this interpretation I rejected it immediately. It reminded me too much of the those who would readily blame the Holocaust on the assimilation of the German-Jewish population or who blame any number of contemporary “ills” on the perceived assimilation of Jewish society today. In blaming the victims it would appear that Seforno is relieving Pharaoh of responsibility for his actions. And yet, as I stated above, if this was part of God’s plan, why does anyone need to be blamed? Why can’t we simply take the slavery as a “fact” and move on?
The answer is simple. If we were to do this we would miss the opportunity to learn anything from this central story of our people’s religious mythos. In her analysis of Seforno’s commentary Aviva Zornberg points out that his interpretation “has constructed a narrative of failure, guilt, punishment, where the biblical text seemed to give us only the facts of suffering…” However, Zornberg continues, Seforno “invites us to reflect on the ways in which slavery, persecution and alienation … are generated by human beings…and - in the same vein - on the meaning of redemption, exodus, freedom. In doing this, he stands in a tradition of commentators who read the Exodus narrative psycho-spiritually, from the point of view of the victim who seeks redemption, in the intimate as well as the political sense.” (Zornberg, p.21).
In reading Zornberg’s analysis my feelings about Seforno’s original commentary were turned around. Rather than viewing his remarks as simply blaming the victim I was instead able to view them as a way of giving the people responsibility for their growth and redemption. For in order to say that we play a role in bringing about our own redemption we must first admit that on a deep level we play a role in our own enslavement. believed that the people were being punished for their assimilation, as represented by their ’swarming’; the punishment for this was slavery.
If we interpret Mitzrayim (Egypt) as meitzarim (the narrow/constricted places), as do numerous commentaries, then being caught in the snares of slavery in Mitzrayim represents how our own spirits are caught in the snares of the narrowness of our self-enslavement. Slavery then comes to represent how we constrict ourselves by becoming part of the assimilated masses rather than standing up for who we are and what we believe. I am speaking here not simply of the concept of religious and cultural assimilation, but of the assimilation of the individual into the swarm of humanity. For this is what causes us to turn our backs on what it means to be a unique individual created in the image of God, yet also part of a greater community.
Therefore, if, as Seforno posits, we become part of the swarm by simply merging our individual selves with the communal “self’ of society then it is up to us (with the help of the Divine that flows through each of us) to bring about our redemption. We achieve this by separating ourselves from the communal swarm and instead becoming individuals dedicated to caring for our world, our people and ourselves in our own unique ways rather than simply being like ‘everyone else.’
This is a message of the story of slavery and redemption that I had never considered when reading this story in the past. However, I think speaks to us today in the 21st century, when assimilation, acculturation and being ‘part of the swarm’ seems to be a force that is gaining more strength. This commentary calls on us to strive for the sense of individuality combined with communal responsibility that was at the heart of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the various movements for social change and justice today. These efforts stand in opposition to the idea of merging with the masses and swarming that was at the root of so many dark times in American history from the Salem witch hunts to the McCarthy witch hunts and up until today. And it is a call that I believe it is important for us to heed at this, and every, time in our history.
However, what can prevent us from becoming part of the negative swarm? How do we maintain our sense of unique godliness and individuality in the face of the numerous forces urging us to join the masses and be just like everyone else - which in the end means being like nothing? The answer would seem to be that we must have a clear sense of self. We need to have a strong ego. We need to be sure of who we are. Yet, perhaps that in itself a is dangerous misconception. For in the end it is merely a trick of the ego itself, and the ego wants nothing more than for us to believe that we are who we are and that we will never change. For this keeps us ensnared and reliant upon the ego to tell us who we are. It also separates us from others and from Divine flow in the universe.
This may be the opposite of swarming, but it’s effects are just as damaging. For in feeling so secure in who we are, we forget that who we are is ever-changing, and that it is dependant upon how we connect with others and the world around us. This is how reliance on ego keeps us separated from others. It also keeps us separated from God by making the ego itself into a kind of god. All the overemphasis on the power and importance of the self can ultimately lead to enslavement, just as the mob mentality and lack of individuation found in the swarming phenomenon does the same.
Whether by swarming as part of the mob or separating ourselves with the help of our ego, either extreme leads to enslavement and despair. The only way to prevent us from going to either extreme is to remember that the ultimate center of our existence is God and the Divine flow that connects us to all other human beings and to the world around us. For this sense of connection and oneness can only lead to compassion for all and promises to release all who are enslaved, no matter who or what the master might be. If we remember this and keep this at the center of our being, then we will remain on the path towards righteousness. And it is this path that will ultimately lead to the redemption of our world and enable us to split the seas of oppression and injustice that hold us back so that we may all cross to the other side where freedom awaits.
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