Friday, March 23, 2007

Defying our Limitations

Most haggadot begin the story of our Exodus with the going down to Egypt. That is a beginning, but it is not the only beginning.

We might also begin with the defiance of two midwives – Shifra and Puah – who refused to turn their life’s work of ushering in new life to one of taking lives.

Or we might begin with the defiance of husbands and wives who, knowing Pharaoh’s decree for the killing of all Hebrew infant boys, loved each other anyway, and chose life.

Or we might begin with the defiance of Pharaoh’s daughter, who, knowing Pharaoh’s decree, plucked a Hebrew child from the reeds and raised him in her own house.

But there is another defiance which is often forgotten, as we leave his name out of the haggadah. Moshe, the prophet Moses, revered in our tradition as the most divine prophet, with the closest connection to G-d, defied his chosen place not once, but several times.

First, as a prince of Egypt, Moses defies his royal privilege when he throws in his lot with the oppressed by killing an overseer abusing a slave. Although most readings of this story imply that Moses does not know his own ancestry, there is nothing in the p’shat (simple meaning) of the Tanakh which states this. Moses was nursed by his own mother, and although he grew up in the Pharaoh’s household, he may have known early on that he was not born there. Certainly the usual meaning makes his actions all the more altruistic – he strikes down the overseer because of some inherent sense of injustice, rather than an affiliation with his people. We would like to see in him a model of Judaism, and Jews, that is altogether morally perfect; but even this interpretation is suspect. The rabbis reserved capital punishment for the most extreme cases, and required overwhelming proof and ongoing immediate threat for such a sentence. Yet Moses does not hold back, does not wait to consult with others more learned, does not attempt simply to restrain the overseer from beating a slave – he reaches out his arm and strikes the man down. And then he flees.

Does he flee from remorse, or from fear? The account implies the latter, but we must imagine he also felt guilt, or pain, from his own hasty actions. Why? Because the next period of his life is spent living in relative obscurity, seeking no authority or dominance over anyone but sheep. And when G-d seeks Moses out, telling him his Divine duty – to return to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and free his people – Moses makes excuses. “They won’t believe me, they won’t listen to me!” And G-d shows Moses that G-d has given him powers to demonstrate Divine might. “But I am not a man of words, I speak slowly, I stutter!” And G-d rebukes him - “Who has made a man’s mouth, is it not Me?” (ie., are you calling me stupid?)”Now go do what I told you.” But Moses hesitates, and prevaricates, and puts the journey off.

Marianne Williamson is famously quoted as writing, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

If Moses fled the evidence of his own mortal powers, how much more would it terrify him to be given Divine ones? Yet, despite all his doubts, he accepted the duty G-d had laid before him and returned to Egypt. This time, he does not just defy Pharaoh’s law, but his own fear, and self-limitations.

The question has been asked – why are there ten plagues, each increasing in severity, until finally the Egyptians must suffer the Death of the Firstborn?

Moses’ own past experience makes him the perfect instrument for delivering G-d’s 10-step approach to liberation. In killing the overseer, and then living with that act for years, Moses has learned, as the rabbis later made clear, that the way of freedom does not always require violence. The way requires, instead, justice, deliberate choices, and moderation, and second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) chances. Had G-d not allowed Moses that early choice, he would not have learned regret, he might not have valued the Egyptians lives as well as those of his own people. He might, like Jonah, have sulked and raged and been impatient, demanding of G-d the immediate use of Final Force.

Moses, instead, takes it slow. G-d says, the river will be blood, and Moses gives them blood. G-d says frogs, and Moses gives them frogs.

The haggadah traditionally makes no mention of Moses at all, preferring instead to direct all praise for our deliverance to G-d, and reminding us of the actions required of all the Israelites to participate in their own liberation. But Moses represents all that the slaves go through, the internal shift that must take place before we can free ourselves from Mitzrayim, the “narrow places.” First, we must see our own power and potential, and acknowledge it honestly. We must accept the consequences of our actions, for good or ill. And we must accept the help that comes our way once our purpose has been identified, and go for it, with all our heart, with all our being, even when we are terrified that we are not good enough, or that it won’t work. A slave remains a slave if he takes no part in his liberation. We remain oppressed so long as we refuse to acknowledge our powers to liberate ourselves and others from all that holds us back. And we must work together. That is how we move from the narrow places to the wilderness, the place we cannot yet fully imagine, where we do the next work of becoming the people we have the potential to be.


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