A decade ago, I wrote about our parasha. I’m going to share it with you in its entirety before adding some reflections from today:
—–begin 2001 thoughts——–
Sometimes, there are things that are beyond a persons comprehension. Sometimes, we humans can’t see outside our paradigms. Therefore, interacting with people often requires us to work within a framework that others can understand. If this is true for one human to another, how much more so it must be true for an incomprehensible deity.
Sometimes, the deity needs to maintain the mystery. “Eh’yeh asher eh’yeh,” is the deity’s answer to Moshe’s question “who shall I tell them has sent me?” At others times, it’s in the best interests of the deity to be more direct. “I am the L”rd. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as Kel Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name, [the tetragrammaton].” But for you, dear Moshe, I have revealed my true name (at least as much as I wanted you to know.) At this time, it was important for Moshe to comprehend the deity, at least as much as was humanly possible. So G”d personalized things a bit.
The question is always asked-why did G”d put the Egyptians and the Israelites through this whole plague thing when, as an all-powerful deity, G”d could have just freed the Israelite people without a hitch or hassle. We all know some of the well-worn answers to this-some attested to in the Torah itself-that G”d wanted to demonstrate absolute sovereignty over all, and so needed some effective demonstrations. Or that nothing worth having should be easy to get. Or that G”d really needed to hear the Israelites cry out in their despair-a despair so deep they could not hold back any longer, could not be complacent or silent.
Whichever of these reasons you choose, the simple fact is that G”d was choosing to operate in a manner which could be understood by all the parties involved. Oh, the truly wise might have seen how great G”d was from a simple one-step act of freeing the Israelites from slavery, but the average Israelite & Egyptian needed something less abstract.
So G”d gives us Moshe, a human being, to carry out G”d’s plans-putting a human face on it all. No big mysterious deity, but a real flesh and blood person through whom G”d could demonstrate power.
G”d also understood something about Pharaoh. Pharaoh thought he himself was a deity. And to Pharaoh, his courtiers and the Egyptians, the idea of some unseen, non-physical deity was simply too bizarre. So G”d appointed Moshe to the role of “god to Pharaoh.” Moshe (and Aharon) put a face, something tangible, to represent G”d so that Pharaoh could interact and play out G”d’s little charade.
This helps me understand something that has always puzzled me. Why was it necessary for Moshe to plead with G”d to stop several of the plagues once Pharaoh appeared to have agreed to let the Israelites go worship their G”d? Surely the omnipotent and omnipresent deity was aware of this.
So the theory is this: Pharaoh was, as they say, just not getting it. Pharaoh continued to see G”d as just another rival, a potentially more powerful deity than he was. But this Pharaoh did not have the foresight or open-mindedness of an Amenhotep IV or an Avraham, and comprehend the idea that there was only one all powerful deity. To compensate for this, Gd even went so far to accommodate the Egyptian ( and to some extent Israelite) world views, that, even though G”d was perfectly well aware of when Pharaoh had acceded to Moshe’s demands after several of the plagues, Moshe had to go plead with Hashem to stop them. Pharaoh could not comprehend otherwise. And I’m not sure that Pharaoh ever really “got it.” I’m not even sure we Jews have ever completely “gotten it.” But we try.
G”d is exceedingly wise. G”d’s understanding that sometimes we humans “just aren’t getting it” has enabled G”d to do some things necessary for us to be able to comprehend, in some form, Gd. It’s why we are not just a people with a covenant in thought and memory. We have a document-a physical something which Gd gave us so that we could have a form in which to understand and appreciate G”d, in the limited ways possible to us.
And we have Shabbat. A reminder, once every seven days, of the G”d who created us, who commands us, and watches over us. Shabbat is the perfect time for us when we are “just not getting it.” The workaday world, with all its trials, tribulations, disappointments, problems, bad things happening to good people, etc. With all that going on, it’s no wonder we sometimes can’t comprehend or understand G”d, the One who set it all into motion and keeps it going. No wonder we are “just not getting it.”
Using this gift of playing to the paradigm enabled Moshe to be G”d’s agent in freeing the Israelites from Egypt. We, too, can benefit from these gifts from G”d in forms we can comprehend. Torah. Mitzvot. Shabbat. Paths to “getting it.” Use them wisely, use them often, use them lovingly. And remember to offer thanks to the One wise enough to make them available to us.
—end 2001 thoughts—-begin additions for 2012—–
Wow. In hindsight, I have to say to myself: what a whitewash! It’s a lovely whitewash, but a decade later, it falls a little flat for me. I still have some credence in the thought that G”d may have been wise enough to work within human paradigms – and this helps explain a few things. In the end, however, it’s just a rationale. Now the thoughts in my head tend to worry less about Pharaoh not getting it, but about G”d not getting it. G”d may not truly understand G”d’s creations as well as G”d thinks G”d does. (Not that I object to gender neutral language, but boy does that make for a complicated sentence.)
Did we all really need this lesson in this particular manner? As an educator, I struggle with this all the time. I want my students to not just learn, but to understand. I even feel compelled to give rationales for rules of classroom behavior and demeanor. Yet sometimes, as I face problems in classroom management, as all educators do, I realize that it’s not always the best idea to get into a lengthy discussion of things.It may be that sometimes it really is okay to say “that’s just the way it it, like it or lump it.” Now, I have to admit I have a hard time with that. I don’t ever think it is reasonable to expect anyone to adhere to a set of rules without their full comprehension and understanding of them. (This is what I think drives scientists to continue to try and understand what is behind all the rules of the universe.) Yet there are times when I just want to say (and when other professionals encourage me to say) “because I am the teacher and you are the student. Just do it.”
It seems G”d may have been as uncomfortable with that (at times) as I am. There are certainly plenty of examples in Torah of G”d just saying “that’s the way it is, deal with it.” Yet in this parasha and a few other places in the text we encounter a G”d who insists on offering explanations and rationales. The aseret hadibrot (ten commandments) are rife with explanations, as are many of the rules laid out in Torah. Yes, sometimes the rationale is a simple “ani Ad”nai,” because “I am G”d.” At other times it can be things like “so that you may long endure on this earth.”
Our long history of interpretative text – Talmud, Midrash, and later commentaries serves, among pother things, to satisfy our natural human need for understanding, for rationales to support things. The rabbis have always been happy to provide them. Rarely, if ever, would a great posek simply say “because G”d said so.”
So once again I ask, why wasn’t G”d plainer and clearer? The need for centuries of interpretation, explanation and provision of rationales seems to me clear evidence that G”d just doesn’t get us.
Ah, but wait. What would our lives be like if G”d had laid it all out for us in plain language? We may have then been more like a totalitarian society – the trains would run on time, crime would be less rampant. Yet what would we lose in exchange? Some religions really do spell it all out for their adherents (or at least their adherents claim that they do) but Judaism, among others, certainly does not. We don’t have 613 rules. We have 613 (and more) things to try and figure out how and why to do. Life as a Jew is never boring. Other religions provide equally vexing problems, balanced with a dash of “just do it.”
Even if G”d always provided clear guidance, would that always work out? Let’s look at Gan Eden. G”d was pretty specific: eat anything you want except this. If Adam and Chava had followed the rules, what would humanity be like today? What I have often complained about as G”d’s bad parenting may just be G”d being wiley as a fox. Perfection will drive these creations crazy. I must find a way to challenge them and keep them occupied. I know, I’ll tell them they can do anything they want except this. They’re bound to do it. Just to be sure, I’ll even ask that serpent to help out.
I’m still not convinced that all the plagues and heart-hardening of Pharaoh was necessary, and I’m even still unconvinced by my own arguments from 10 years ago. Yet I’m willing to give G”d the benefit of the doubt.
Some people in the world need clear answers. G’d seems to have made provisions for them. Other people in the world thrive on trying to figure things out for themselves. G”d seems to have provided for them as well. G”d’s Torah seems to reach out to both types at different points.
Maybe G”d really gets us after all.
© 2012 and parts ©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: