וַיּ֨וֹשַׁע יְהוָ֜ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֛וּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יִם וַיַּ֤רְא יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵ֖ת עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיָּֽם׃
וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ
“Thus the L”rd delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the L”rd had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the L”rd; they had faith in the L”rd and His (sic) servant Moses.” (JPS)
Feh. I want nothing to do with this. I am troubled to be an adherent to a religion which has this as part of its core narrative. We had faith in G”d because G”d did everything possible to cause the Egyptians to suffer more than they probably needed to suffer, in order that G”d might demonstrate G”d’s power? It’s just ugly. Bordering on unconscionable. The Torah shows us how people can be faithful to G”d for all the wrong reasons.
I believe my faith would have been greater if G”d had managed to have the Israelites delivered out of their bondage without anyone having to suffer. For that matter, how about our never having gone into bondage in the first place. Can’t we move directly from the covenant with the Patriarchs to receiving the Torah and inheriting the promised land?
Yes, it’s less likely we’d value something that came easy. Yet did we really need to go through all that? For that matter, did all those who suffered, both Israelites, Egyptians, and others need to go through all that?
I’m of extremely short stature. As you can imagine, this was not easy for me as a child. I wasn’t really in a position to protect and defend myself from bullies. So I learned to negotiate, to use my intellect to get out of a threatening situation. As a result, I respect all those who choose the non-violent path through a situation. (Would my attitude have been different if I were of normal stature, or even tall and athletically built? It’s hard to know. It is the body that makes the person?)
Thus, the best G”d of my understanding is a G”d that would find non-violent and peaceful solutions to every situation. A G”d that would simply reason with Pharaoh and win. A G”d that would talk Amalek out of it. A G”d that would convince the good people of Sodom and Gomorrah to straighten up and fly right. A G”d that would have found a better way than a flood wiping out all life as a solution for G”d’s own screw up.
However, there’s something about how this universe is structured (and do we hold G”d responsible for this?) Whether it is free will or something else, there is violence in this universe. Even the Hindu concept of ahisma, not doing harm to any living thing through action or words has an exception for self-defense. The venerable Dalai Lama himself has declared that today’s terrorism cannot be dealt with through non-violence.
(Judaism’s own supposed preference for non-violence is, at least based on the textual record, somewhat of a latecomer, and often observed more in the breech than in the keeping. This charge of being violent can, of course, be leveled at pretty much every religion. I may not agree with the likes of Hitchens-I do believe that religion has contributed much good to society, but it has also disproportionately contributed to the violence in the world.)
So, criticizing my own position, I might argue that I am being unrealistic in my expectations (of G”d and of human beings.) Arguing about a fantasy world in which there is no violence, and in which G”d has no need of employing violence (or encouraging/supporting it on the part of human beings) is engaging in mental onanism.
I was reminded by my muse, when working on this musing, that in order for G”d to communicate with human beings, G”d must do so in a manner that is comprehensible to those human beings. I have made this same argument in other musings over the years. Using this idea as a framework, we can see G”d’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the killing of Egypt;s first born,a nd the mass drowning at the Sea of Reeds as necessary parts of bringing the Egyptians to the understanding that G”d truly is G”d. Reasoning with them, even if the reasoning was done by G”d, may have been ineffective. Demonstrations of might, superiority, and miraculous acts were the currency of communication by the deity in those times. Both the Egyptian and the Israelite paradigms may have required G”d to act the way G”d did. We can certainly extend this argument to include earlier biblical times like the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.
However, can we ever truly understand the mindset of our ancient predecessors? Yes, the historical record does show us that human beings have been stubbornly consistent in their flaws and failings from the beginning, with, sadly, little and rather slow evolution in morals and behaviors over time. How do we know that what actually happened wasn’t a regression-that our ancestors were morally, ethically, and intellectually superior, and might have responded to a G”d who merely reasoned instead of utilized violence? In fact, maybe if the human race were to speak to its therapist, that therapist might suggest that the very violent ways of its G”d during humankind’s childhood are the source of their own violent tendencies as adults. G”d as toxic parent. Maybe we weren’t so badly behaved after all, but, for whatever reason, we weren’t living up to what “G”d/Daddy Dearest” wanted, and G”d felt the constant need to punish us, put us down, abuse us. So maybe the way we are today is not because our ancestors were like us, but because G”d treated our ancestors abusively and we are the adult children of abused children. (If I were crazy like L. Ron Hubbard, I might consider creating a religion out of this idea, sort of like a 12-step group – “Adult Children of G”d.” ACOG. Has a nice ring to it.
Maybe the Torah is not the record of how we really were in biblical times, but G”d’s record, as the abusing parent, of how we were. Time to write our own recollection? Oh wait, we’ve been doing that all along. The oral Torah, the Talmud, the midrashim, the commentaries, the tshuvot (responsa) – are they not attempts to otherwise correct, amend, or explain the Torah? It’s a theory I’ve not considered before-that the inconsistencies in Torah exist because our collective recollection as a race is different from the recollections attributed to us in the Torah.
Now there are all sorts of holes in this argument. If we accept human authorship of Torah, we have a problem. (If we accept Divinely-inspired human authorship, then we can at least accept that G”d inspired the authors to be less than frank and write G”d’s own agenda, G”d’s own messed-up view as an addict, abuser, and toxic parent.)
So here I am, stuck with competing understandings –the practical and the fantasy. As Judaism is, indeed, focused on the here and now, I supposed my efforts are better spent trying to work in the worlds as it is, striving to make it a better place, rather than pining for a world which does not (yet) exist.
Though The Torah shows us how people can be faithful to G”d for all the wrong reasons, I can seek better reasons to be faithful. I can have my vision of what olam haba could be, and try, each and every Shabbat, to get that little forshpeis, that taste, of what a world without violence on anyone’s part, including G”d’s, might be like.
So that’s how I can be thankful for even the worst of what Torah has to offer. That’s how I can turn being thankful for all the wrong reasons into being thankful for all the right reasons.
© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Beshalakh 5771 – Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 – Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd’s War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5760-Moshe’s Musings
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd