Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Va-Era: Here come the plagues, here come the plagues ...

To begin, is it the question of the divine origin of Torah that keeps us from wondering whether the return to Israel for all Jews is the ultimate want of G-d? Ex. 6:4-8 says "I will free you ... and deliver you ... I will redeem you ... I will take you ... I will bring you into the land." These four phrases are one source for the four cups of wine we consume during the Pesach seder, and they have such significance in Judaism. The commentary in Etz Chayim says,
"Only when the Israelites have their own land can they become the special people they are summoned to be. Only there will they have the duty and the opportunity to translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life and fashion the model society from which all nations will be able to learn. ... [It] is the Torah's ultimate promise; ..."
Why do movements doubt the necessity of the return to Israel? Why have the numbers of individuals making aliyah decreased? Why does the Diaspora content itself with being dispersed and not within the land? What does the land mean to us, as Jews? On that note, what does Israel mean to me? My connection to Judaism has grown without a necessary connection to the land of Israel, itself. I relate to the "idea" of the Jewish homeland, and I stand firmly that Israel is the place that this homeland should be. I do not, however, know precisely whether I connect to the land at this point in my life. I long to visit, and intend to via Birth Right before I turn 26, which gives me only a few years. I connect to the history of the land, as early Jewish history is what thrust me into Judaic studies four years ago. It was a class of Abraham and Isaac, Egypt and Israel, the exodus and the Near Eastern tales.

So do I believe in the return to Israel, to be able to "translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life" or that Israel is the one place this can be done? I don't know. I do know, however, that it might very well be the easiest or most accessible place to do this. In a land where Jews amass, there is the possibility for kashrut and being religious, with few worries of the outside world knocking. Then again, look at Orthodoxy these days. Look at Tel Aviv and the dispersion of the Jewish community within the land.

+ Within the same passages, Ex. 6:6 says "... I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians ..." and I find the commentary by Menahem Mendel of Kotzk particularly profound and it reminds me of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and other moments when Jews acted "out of character" to most, compared with history. Historians often puzzle at the militarism and force behind which Jews protect Israel, but it is born of having had enough. As Mendel says in the commentary, "A first step toward liberation will be freeing themselves from their passivity and their tolerance of the intolerable." Is this not what happened within and following the Holocaust?

+ I draw qualms with Maimonides in regards to Pharoah's actions in this parshah. In a discussion regarding the hardening of Pharoah's heart, and how he can be punished for what G-d causes him to do ... Maimonides says, "Sometimes a man's offense is so grave that he forecloses the possibility of repentance. ... he forfeited the capacity to repent." It is my understanding that within Judaism, repentance is always an option. Although Pharoah's actions are the utmost of the grave ... is he also not given the opportunity to repent? Why is he exempt from this? Is it possible that the longer one refuses to choose the right choice, the more one depletes the choice to repent? I suppose it's a question of whether we believe that people truly can change and seek forgiveness. It is apparent that Maimonides believes Pharoah was hopeless.

+ I am perplexed at G-d's willingness to kill all the fish in the Nile with the plague of the bloody waters, considering the consideration of fish throughout as being free of the "evil eye" and evil inclinations.

+ The fourth plague is plagued by the word arov, which is not as debated as it was in the 9th through 12th centuries C.E. Various figures, including Rashbam and Abraham ibn Ezra, are among those debated whether the word, which is a noun based on a root meaning "to mix," means insects or wild beasts. There's a stellar analysis of the issue on the Biblical Archaeology Web site, if you're curious about the issue. Evidently English translations of the Pesach Hagaddah often translate the plague as "wild animals," because illustrations in the documents typically display lions or other wild beasts.


So while finishing up my book on the Holocaust's reach into Arab lands, I started thinking about something. When did the idea of divide and conquer go away? It could have been spawned by the isolationist ideal of "this is land is my land" and "that land is your land" ... so back off. But the days of boundary arguments and wars to take over lands and peoples is long gone. You find boundary battles in places like Africa and some Asian areas, but the world's largest nations -- France, England, the U.S. -- don't do a whole lot of conquering. Colonization is dead. The idea of world occupation, or even continent occupation is dead. When did this happen? Did it die with Hitler's attempt to kill the Jews and take over Europe? Did it become taboo to want to rule the world? Will manifest destiny become reborn someday? Or are we through with the idea of acquisition and are happy with what we have? Fascinating stuff, I say. Colonization ... exploration ... it created the world, and ruined entire peoples. Sigh.