Friday, January 25, 2013

The "I Told You So" Mentality

Parshat Beshalach opens with Bnei Yisrael leaving Egypt. Pharaoh has second thoughts about “letting” the Jews go, so he rallies the remaining Egyptians to pursue Bnai Yisrael on their armored chariots. The Jews see the Egyptians approaching and get very scared and cry out to Hashem. This is what they say to Moshe (14:11-12):
“Were there no graves in Egypt that you had to take us into the desert to die?! What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?! Isn’t this what we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us be and we will continue to serve Egypt’ – for it is better that we serve Egypt than die in the desert.”

Rashi notes the obvious question: where and when did Bnei Yisrael say anything that resembles what they claim to have said in the underlined passage?
Rashi quotes the Mechilta’s answer to this question, and refers us to a verse at the end of Parshat Shemot. Moshe and Aharon had approached Pharaoh for the forst time, and instead of easing the burden on the Jewish People, Pharaoh had responded by making their slavery harder and no longer providing the straw for bricks. Upon hearing go this development, the Jewish leaders confront Moshe and Aharon and say (5:21): “May Hashem look upon you and judge, for you have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Egypt, and you placed a sword in their hands to murder us.”

At first glance, this Mechilta is very difficult. These statements in Parshat Shemot do not match up at all with the statements in Beshalach. Furthermore, even if you could in some way understand the parallels between these two verses, it completely ignores the ten plagues and Exodus from Egypt that transpired in between.

I’d like to suggest an understanding of our pasuk in light of a common parenting situation. Your child is jumping on the couch. You tell them to stop. They keep doing it, so this time you warn him, that he might hurt himself, so he should really stop jumping on the couch for his own good. He keeps jumping, and sure enough he falls off the couch and bumps his head, and he’s crying. What’s your first response? Mine is usually, “I told you so!” and then remembering that my child is in pain I ask, “are you OK?”

Many of us suffer from the “I told you so” mentality. We get stuck in our ways, stuck in wanting to be right that we ignore all of the other factors. The Jews are scared. So they respond defensively- by going on the offense against Moshe and by saying, “We Told You So!”

Hashem doesn’t get angry at Bnei Yisrael. He understands where they are coming from. Instead he merely tells them, “Be quiet”. Don’t open your mouths until you can overcome your “I told you so mentality.”
Bnei Yisrael overcome this mentality after the Splitting of the Sea. And it is at this point that the people begin to understand that God had been with them all along, and they respond by opening their mouths to recite the Song at the Sea.

This clarity doesn’t last long and soon enough the people are right back in their “I told you so” mentality. But Parshat Beshalach is proof that we can overcome this tendency, and focus on the “What can we do now?” instead of the “I told you so.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

Being Human is Understandable - But Not an Excuse

In Parshat Bo, Moshe commands the Jewish People concerning the Pesach experience in Egypt. One of the requirements is that (12:21) “no man shall leave the entrance of his house until morning.” Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, explains that once G-d let loose the Angel of Destruction, the only thing that could protect the Jewish people was staying inside a house that had blood smeared on its door. If a Jew would venture outside, they would end up “being caught up” in the Plague of the First Born. This Mechilta is sometimes utilized as a way of bringing comfort to the families of innocents who die in wartime or in some other tragedy.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter (in Nefesh HaRav) quotes an alternate explanation of this commandment, offered by Rav Soloveitchik. Perhaps the command to stay in their houses was Hashem’s way of insuring that Bnei Yisrael did not use this moment to exact revenge by their own hands on the Egyptians. Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed to the fact that many native Africans sought revenge against the white colonialists after those African countries gained independence. This is typical and (somewhat) understandable behavior for a former slave who has gained independence, and has an opportunity to subject his oppressors with oppression. Hashem did not want this to happen 1) because that’s not how Jews should act and 2) perhaps to reinforce the idea that the Jews freedom from Egyptian slavery meant only that they were able to subject themselves to G-d’s rule.

I particularly like R’ Soloveitchik’s suggestions because it emphasizes an idea that I find compelling and important: Hashem/ the Torah does not expect us to be superhuman, or to completely abandon normal human urges or desires. Rather the Torah recognizes human psychology and validates it. But the the Torah wants us at times to overcome these human tendencies and strive for holiness and greatness The Jews at the time of the Exodus had every reason to want to hurt the Egyptians. That’s why Hashem commands the Jews to stay indoors. Helping them to avoid a situation in which they would give in to these base impulses was a good strategy in Parshat Bo- and a good strategy for us to keep in mind our entire lives. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

What The Hail?

The seventh plague and last plague in Parshat Vae’eira is barad, hail. The Torah states that that 9:24: “there was hail, and fire flaming amid the hail…” Rashi quotes a Midrash that this plague was a “miracle inside a miracle” for the hail that rained down on Egypt had fire inside. Normally fire and ice do not get along, but in order to do God’s will, they made a truce thereby enabling this double miracle.

This year as I read about the hail I immediately began thinking about the difference between a contradiction and a paradox. Under normal circumstances, fire and ice are a contradiction. Yet in Egypt, to serve G-d’s will and in service to the Jewish People, what normally appeared as a contradiction was in fact merely a paradox and actually possible.

As Jews, we are often called upon to tolerate paradoxes- what might appear to other people as outright contradictions. There are many examples of such seeming contradictions: People who appear or claim to be Torah observant and yet dishonor the Torah or the Jewish People. A Torah that values compassion and yet commands the annihilation of the tribe of Amalek. An ancient tradition, yet it demands that we live in the modern world.

How do we deal with these seeming contradictions? In Egypt, this hail destroyed everything. Most of the world has difficulty dealing with paradoxes and nuance. They throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

However we are told that in Goshen, not only were the Jews not damaged by the hail, but in fact “there was no hail”. Even at this early stage of Jewish history, the Jewish People were able to tolerate and deal with paradoxes and nauce, as symbolized by hail. It did not destroy them or even negatively impact them.

There are many examples of such seeming contradictions in today’s Jewish world. We must learn from the plague of hail to persevere, survive- even grow- from these types of paradoxical experiences.