Sunday, May 20, 2007

Moses as Leader: Defending our People

One of the places where Moses shows to greatest effect is after the Golden Calf. He comes down the mountain to see his people engaging in a bacchanalia in honor of this new god. He can no longer bear the weight of the tablets and throws them to the ground, where they break into shards. He confronts the sinners and destroys the object of their desires, restores order and otherwise regains control. But note his conversation with God, before all that. God wishes to destroy all the Jews. Moses responds:
    יב לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה; שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ, וְהִנָּחֵם עַל-הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ.

    12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did He bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people.

    ~Exodus 32: 12
This is a very strange verse. Why is Moses asking for God to consider the outlook of the Egyptians? Does God really care what these people think of Him, whether they receive the wrong impression of his talents and abilities? No, most would answer, not really. But Moses is grasping at straws. Moses is going to bring every argument at his disposal to help his people; he is going to defend them in every which way.

Note that Moses does not say that the people repented and therefore deserve to be forgiven. This is because they are still in the midst of their sin; this conversation Moses has with God is far removed from them; they do not even know what he says. But he defends them, he pleads for them, he prays for them- and why? Because of "what the Egyptians will think." Because of the merit of their fathers.

From here we learn to defend people, even sinners, with whatever reasons we can, no matter how foolish or silly they seem. Because people are precious and we try to preserve them at all costs. Of course, Moses then returns down the mount and puts an end to the sin, holds a court and trial and metes out justice. But at that moment, he wasn't sure of any of those things or of whether the people would repent at all. He was merely arguing, arguing, it would seem, for the sake of people.

The same kind of argument is advanced in one of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's speeches:
    The kinah elegy begins: "Behold, at the time when [Israel] fair as Tirzah, was in fullness of abundance, the angels cried without [and] when [Jeremiah], the son of Hilkiah, left the Temple, he met a woman whose beautiful face became repulsive" [Kinot, trans Abraham Rosenfeld London, 1965), p 136]. The theme of this kinah is that Jewish women are all beautiful. It is only the difficulties of poverty that cause them to appear homely. Our sages already expressed this idea: "The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty disfigures them" [Nedarim 9:10]. Similarly, the Jewish people are beautiful, but the difficulties and the povery of the Diaspora distort them.


    Who speaks about luxuries? I remember I wanted a bicycle. It was as far from me as a Chinese warlord is distant from us at this moment. I wanted a ball. I could not afford to buy one. I made an artificial ball from paper and glue. Yet we were in the middle class. The so-called proletarians were simply hungry. They did not have enough bread to eat.

    Under such circumstances the Jew sacrificed, and sometimes he acted in an ugly fashion. He was cantankerous and constantly started fights. Nevertheless, the Jewish people were basically beautiful. Sometimes they were defiled because of trouble and indifferent, cruel circumstances which corrupted them. [emph mine]

    ~Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik from The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, volume 1, 262-263
And there is a Hassidic tale that stresses the same idea.

Once a layman was greasing the axle wheels of his cart and simultaneously saying his morning prayers. One Rabbi saw this and was horrified, believing that what the man was doing was an insult to God and to the prayers. He upbraided the man. Another man, a Hassidic master, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed with love and joy, "Look how much your people love you, O God, even when they grease the axle wheels they pray to you!"

These men all have something in common: their love for the Jewish people. This love so colors their view that everything must be seen in ways that will help and defend the Jewish people, that will spare even those who sin and where they can justify or excuse them due to their poverty. This is not to say that these men were unaware of halakha or of the law. Moses was certainly aware that the Jews had committed a grave sin when they erected and served the Golden Calf. Nevertheless, he prayed on their behalf, and he did not pray for them to repent but rather for them to be spared, to be saved.

This is the love of the Jewish people that we most need to emulate nowadays. I may be aware that what you are doing is halakhically incorrect or wrong or I may see that you act in a fashion inappropriate to your status. Of course, if I have the ability to rectify this by simply pointing this out to you- if you're the kind of person who is willing to listen and I am the appropriate party to convey such information- I can and should. But that is not always the case. And what am I to do then, stew and be angry because people are not acting as they perhaps "should?" No, I don't think so. Then I must go craft excuses and justifications and pray for the welfare of our people Israel. Then I must explain to God- as Rabbi Soloveitchik does- what it is that it is impacting our people and leading them, perhaps, astray. Does he not know this? Of course he does. But it is upon me to bring it to his attention. It is upon me to craft the arguments and defenses and to tell God that "the Egyptians will speak," or that the people are only acting as they are because of their poverty or explain that everything they do is meant well, look, "even when they grease the axle wheels they pray to you!"

Why is it upon me? Two reasons.

1. So that I may understand and love my own people instead of hating them or hating any who are unlike me. I must engage in such diversions and arguments in order to build my own empathy and understanding and realization that we are all part of one nation.

2. "Every person has the ability to be as righteous as Moses our teacher or as wicked as Jeroboam." Moses prayed for the Jews at all costs, even at times when it would have been easier for him to abandom them or to give God leave to destroy them. He used any and all arguments at his disposal, including those that seem quite irrelevant, "the Egyptians will speak." Jeroboam, on the other hand, wanted to exercise his own power to the point where he caused his people to sin and created golden calves for them to worship and new holidays. Jeroboam cared so little about his people that he actually led them to sin under the guise of furthering their religiosity.

Obviously, we all want to be like Moses.

Which means that I have to understand my brethren and rather than condemning them, defend them. Which is the reason behind why I say that our people errs out of love rather than hate and that everyone means well. Because I think we do. And I also think it is our defense.

"God, look at your people," I can say. "We love you so much that we are all fighting because of you. What you see as baseless hatred are actually people who are striving so hard to fulfill your precepts and your laws that they have perhaps lost sight of the real goal. Everyone wants others to please you and to deserve the goods that you give us. And that is the reason that people will mistakenly hurt others, that they will act in a cruel fashion towards them or turn them away from you. They mean well, God; they simply don't know how to implement their good intentions in a good way. But they're trying. Surely you cannot be angry at such people? Surely you see how good they mean to be?

"God, we may be misguided but we are sincere. Everyone wants to come close to you and to help others do the same. Even those who attack you or believe you do not exist merely aim to help. The skeptics and the atheists simply feel sorrow for those who they feel are caught in an extremist religion that limits and hurts us. They are acting out of compassion and out of love as well, because they want us to realize that this is unnecessary. And so they, too, you should understand and act kindly towards. Because they are not against you purposely, because they hate you, but rather because they believe you are a figment created by others for the purposes of enslavement and they wish to free others from that.

"God, in the end, the great majority of us- of all of us- are good people. So please look at all of our mistakes, our fights and hatreds and the grudges we bear one another, and realize that this is all because we do not have any of the gifts you once gave us: we do not have prophecy, which could prove who is right once and for all, we do not have open miracles, we do not have men who commune with you. We only have our minds and our hearts and your laws and we struggle, God. But we mean well, in the end, the great majority of us mean well, even if we are hurting and attacking one another while we do it. But please forgive us, God, all of us, because you see, our defense is this: we are trying to fight for You; there are those of us who truly mean well but who hurt others instead, and if they knew what they did, I am sure they would not. I know that I would not, if I realized."

Yes, let us defend our people. That is the only way for us to grow.


Anonymous said...

And that is one of the reasons why we temper truth with shalom.
Great post.'ureh betuv yerushalayim.'

Matt said...

This is not a comment on your idea per se, but on one of your premises: namely, that caring about what the Egyptians think about God is a "foolish and silly" reason to save the Jews.

Kiddush Hashem - publicizing truth about God - is one of the fundamental reasons for the giving of the Torah. Chazal say that if the only reason why the Jews were taken out of Egypt was to sanctify God's Name, that would be enough of a reason.

Furthermore, the pesukim themselves testify to the fact that one of the main reasons for the Exodus was for teaching the Egyptians - and Pharaoh in particular - ideas about God. "Pharaoh will not heed you, and I shall put My hand upon Egypt . . . and EGYPT shall know that I am Hashem" (Shemos 7:4-5), "So says Hashem, 'Through this shall YOU (i.e. Pharaoh) know that I am Hashem'" (7:17), "And on that day I shall set apart the land of Goshen upon which My people stands, that there shall be no swarm there; so that YOU (i.e. Pharaoh) will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land" (8:18), "Hashem said to Moshe, 'Pharaoh will not heed you, so that My wonders will be multiplied IN THE LAND OF EGYPT" (11:9).

Here is a particularly explicit one: "For this time I shall send out all My plagues against your heart, and upon your servants, and upon your people, so that YOU (i.e. Pharaoh) shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. For now I could have sent My hand and stricken you and your people with the pestilence and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, FOR THIS HAVE I LET YOU ENDURE, IN ORDER TO SHOW YOU MY STRENGTH AND SO THAT MY NAME MAY BE DECLARED THROUGHOUT THE WORLD" (9:14-16). In this pasuk Hashem openly states that He could have very well taken the Jews out of Egypt at that moment by killing the Egyptians. Instead, however, he kept them alive. Why? Not for the sake of educating the Jews, but (a) "to show YOU (i.e. Pharaoh" my strength, and (b) "so that My Name may be declared throughout the world" (i.e. kidush Hashem).

Once again, I am not criticizing your message per se. Nevertheless, I strongly object to the notion that Moshe was just "grasping at straws." You ask: "Does God really care what these people think of Him, whether they receive the wrong impression of his talents and abilities?" The answer, according to the Written and Oral Torahs, is a resounding: yes!

Matt said...

One more thing: if you look at the text of Monday and Thursday tachanun, as well as the text of the selichos, you'll see one petition repeated over and over: "Though our iniquities testify against us, O Hashem, ACT FOR YOUR NAME'S SAKE," "treat us with charity FOR YOUR NAME'S SAKE," "O my Lord, be attentive and act, do not delay; FOR YOUR SAKE, my God, FOR YOUR NAME IS PROCLAIMED upon Your city and upon Your people," "Save us FOR YOUR NAME'S SAKE, our Rock," "Why should they say among the peoples, 'WHERE IS THEIR GOD?'" "So may You have mercy on us, O Hashem, and save us FOR YOUR NAME'S SAKE," "be gracious with us and answer us, FOR YOUR GREAT NAME HAS BEEN PROCLAIMED UPON US," "save us FOR YOUR NAME'S SAKE", "treat us according to Your abundant mercy and save us FOR YOUR NAME'S SAKE," and many, MANY more.

This is really the last card we have to play: save us Hashem, if not for our own sake, for Your Name's sake - because we are the sole vessel of knowledge of Hashem among the nations, and if we are obliterate, knowledge of You will be lost to humanity.

Chana said...

Wait, Matt! We're in agreement! Note the way I phrased that sentence:

"From here we learn to defend people, even sinners, with whatever reasons we can, no matter how foolish or silly they seem."

I purposely used (and meant to stress) the words "they seem." I am very aware of the arguments you raise and completely agree with you; I simply wanted to suggest that this does not seem to be the most logical reason/ defense. And I think most would agree that that is the way it *smiles* seems.

Anonymous said...

Dear Chana,

I do not completely agree with your interpretation of the story surrounding Moses. I do not idolize Moses nor do I want to be like Moses. I do not have the intellectual capacity that you do to articulate my point of view which I firmly believe is closer to truth. However, I do grasp through your talented writings a deeper message. It is as if your are saying two things at the same time. One is the literal message that you write, but the other message is the spiritual value that you convey through your writing. At first I did not like the content of your writings at all but I have come to feel and appreciate what I feel through your writings, that more than the content I think that is the real strength of your works.

I do not idolize Jesus nor do I want to be like Jesus. I think the following verses shed light on things that are not understood by either Christians or Jews. I was wondering if you would share an opinion on only the content and spirit of the following verses:

(The same truth exists in Tanach only in different words)

4:10 Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
4:17 “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
11:25 “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;”
18:1-4 “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

1:15 The kingdom of God is at hand.
4:9 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
4:14-20 The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky grown: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they stumble. And others are those sown among thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.
10:15 “…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
10:18 “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

11:28 “…blessed are those who hear the word of God, and keep it."
17:20-21 “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘There it is!’ For in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”

1:1-5 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness, did not overcome it.
3:6 What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
12:44 “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.”
7:38 ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’

1 John
2:9 Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother is still in the darkness.
2:27 and so you do not need anyone to teach you.
4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
4:7-8 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
4:12 if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
4:16 God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
4:18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
4:20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers are liars.
4:21 those who love God must love their brothers also.
5:7 There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.

Anonymous said...

I have a tendency to speak and write (with love) from the heart. I have posted many comments on many forums because I like the truth. Generally speaking I get a negative response from Jewish people and on Jewish forums. It is almost entirely predictable that I will face the wrath of my people when ever I dare to open my mouth. Often this wrath is directed at me not in words but in the form of very negative often paralyzing energy. This negativity that my people direct at me can block my ability to think clearly and it can take days and even months for me to find the path of light and love in my heart again. I don't really have this problem with non Jews or Sephardic Jews. I deeply regret having posted any comments on your blog, albeit in most of them I was speaking the truth and I acted out of a deeper love and respect for you. I cannot hide the fact that my words are also tainted with bitterness of previous bad experiences and the desire purge myself of these struggles but getting others to understand my pain and the deep desire to shine love and light on all the darkness that does exist among the Jewish people. I really wish I could make a difference for the entire Jewish people but my mind is limited and I know there is really nothing I can do about all the ugliness the Jewish people have and continue to bombard me with. I really want to walk away for my own good.

Chana, I really appreciate the opportunity to post on your blog. I really appreciate the fact that your reaction to my posts have been positve in nature. I notice this in several ways:
1. Your responses have always been kind and respectful.
2. You did not delete my posts.
3. I feel love, warmth and peace in my heart as the reaction to my writings. I hope that what I feel is real.

I really like the fact that you try to promote the spirit of love in your writings. The content has always been irrelevant to me and often more complex than my mental abilities allow me to understand. Though I do understand what you try to point out.

I suddenly now decided that I want to help you understand this verse, but I don't know that I will succeed:

Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did He bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people.
~Exodus 32: 12

All verses of the bible are speaking symbolically about the spiritual. It uses external examples as illustrations but the bible is always speaking about things internal, in the soul.
Moses it seems is struggling with himself to find his true eternal living God. The Egyptians is the physical world and the physical body. In the struugle to unify all the elements that comprise the spiritual and physical souls to recognize and unify and be lead by the one true God, Moses askes if the elements of the physical soul will say that all that was shown was for the God which is evil (the physical) or the God which is love (the spiritual).

"Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people."
'Thy fierce wrath' is not the eternal God but the forces of the physicial world that turn against the spiritual soul if a person's will is not strong and capable of mastering the elements of his physical soul. 'against Thy people' are all the elements of both the physical and spiritual souls in one body. But also it means the elements of the soul that belong to or originally come from God. Think of the concept of the 'holy war' in I-slam, that' is what it really means. It is purely within, in the heart.

There I am sure you will learn to read and write Chinese before any of this makes sense to you. So, please pray that I keep my mouth shut least I damage my soul or anyone else's any further in my love and desire to tell the truth.
I have no right to tell anyone anything unless the ask me first and certainly you have never asked me.

God bless you.