Monday, February 6, 2012


Tyrant Turned to Toy  by Divine Power
When I first started out as a Rabbi, I did a lesson for young adults in which I talked about the greatness of God expressed in punishment of the wicked. A participant challenged me; why would we aspire to that instead of just wishing for peace for all. Good point, I thought.

Since then, I have been moved by the way some Christians seek to love their enemies. I see that idea as radical, visionary and subversive; not accepting the dynamic of conflict and hate but rather insisting on a spiritual approach grounded in love. This is not a comparison between Judaism and Christianity or their histories, I am well aware of the blood shed by Christian crusaders. I also think the fact that Jews were powerless for 2000 years is a factor. This is an honest exploration of my own tradition and familiar stories to discover ideas about the response to enemies I had not noticed before. I have discovered some legalistic elements, but most exciting was a radical and subversive aspect to what could seem to be callous harshness.

Playing with enemies?!
According to one traditional translation[1], we have a seemingly scary idea about enemies. God tells Moses that in the future, “you will tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I played with the Egyptians[2]”. Putting aside other translations that reject the meaning of “played with” instead rendering the Hebrew word הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי, as “my actions[3]”, can it be right that God has fun punishing people?! A sloppy translation of another verse would seem to support this idea, “just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do good for you and to increase you, so will the Lord rejoice over you to annihilate you and to destroy you[4]”.  The Talmud argues convincingly that the meaning here is not that God will rejoice over annihilation but rather will cause others to rejoice[5] in the destruction of the Jews. The Talmud categorically states that God does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked[6].

The meaning of God’s play with the Egyptian tyrants is about subversion of power rather than fun. The verse about Kings and Nation, “He Who dwells in Heaven laughs; the Lord mocks them[7]”, is explained as “a metaphor for mockery about something that is not considered anything[8]”. The tyrants with their exaggerated self-importance and trappings of power can seem invincible. Yet, the Jew, threatened, beaten, ridiculed and humiliated can take comfort that the Pharaoh in his/her own day may yet prove to be a plaything of God, like Saddam or Muammar in our recent times.

Funny Honda Boss
Here is a personal anecdote that is an illustration of the subversive power of humour.
As a Yeshiva student, I was sitting in the library late one night with a book while some of my fellow student has broken the lock to the kitchen and were frying shnitzels when they should have been in bed. The head of the Yeshiva, a bit of an absent-minded professor type, came screaming up the street in his orange Honda, vrrroommmrrmrmm.  He throws the door open to the building and screams at the top of his lungs, “Ahh Chutzpehhhhh!” All the guilty young scholars are by now safely in their beds, their lights out, while the Shnitzels continue to fry as if being cooked by ghosts. The authority figure- my Yeshiva head, runs up and down the stairs through the building like a ball in one of those old pinball machines. He finds no one, until he discovers me in the library. He gave me what sounded like a very harsh long angry lecture about how I was destroying the whole school. I put on a very sad puppy-dog face, nodded my head and was not in the least bit offended by the whole comic spectacle.

Does punishment upset God?
The mystics state that when we talk of divine emotions, these are not to be understood in human terms[9] at all and are essentially metaphoric. In this vain, one commentator understands the verse relating to rejoicing about the destruction of the Jewish people as being a message that one should not  “think that God will be harmed, or will mourn” if he must punish us[10]. This is linked to the verse “If you are righteous, what do you give Him? Or what does He take from your hand?[11]
Other sources suggest that God does care about the suffering of the wicked. In introducing the story of the splitting of the red sea[12], in which the Israelites were saved while the Egyptians perished, the word Vayehi  וַיְהִי (literally “and it was”, but linked to vai, or oy vay) is used which traditionally is used in situations of pain and sadness. This is attributed at least in part to the death of the Egyptians[13]. We are told that the angels wanted to sing praises to God for the miracles at the red sea. God exclaims, “the work of my hands are drowning in the sea and you will sing praises?![14] Even, this is not simple, in another version of the same story God objects because he wants  the angels to wait until after the Israelites sing of their own salvation before the angels get their turn[15], but does not object to the singing itself at a time of great human suffering.  Yet, the view is better known among Jews is not the one in which God is concerned with the sequence of the praises, but his rejection of the content of the angels praise because of his care about the destruction of the wicked. This view is also reflected in at least one meaning behind the ritual of pouring out drops of wine at the Passover Seder in sympathy for the suffering of the Egyptians[16].

Other less pleasant approaches – all out war and legalism
It might make sense to stop while I am ahead, yet I think it would not be completely honest. Jewish responses to enemies also include less attractive options such as fighting them directly, and acting cleverly or even legalistically. I have little I can say about the take-no prisoners-wars against Amalek[17] and Canaan except that they challenge me.

Another approach is also difficult. The “clever”/legalistic option which is seen in the Jews either borrowing (or asking[18]) their Egyptian neighbours for silver and gold objects and garments[19]”, just before they left Egypt and never returned. There is a strong attempt to make this technically Kosher. After the Jews left Egypt, Moses having told Pharaoh that they were going to the desert for three days[20], the Jews suddenly turn back toward Egypt[21] . This was because God “did not want the Jews to be liars, as you had said we will go for three days and will return and borrowed vessels…therefore you should turn around to stand on your faithfulness…” Perhaps conveniently, Pharaoh goes out to war against them and does not allow them to return so it will be his fault that they cannot go back or return what they borrowed [22]. Oh well.

Yet, there is a broader context here. In the Talmud, this act is justified as constituting a round about way of receiving the unpaid wages for the Jewish slaves[23]. There is surely a difference between being legalistic when one is in the right or when is in the wrong. The message for me in this is that there are times when things get messy, where broadly speaking one is morally entitled to fight, even in those situations it is important to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. I don’t think it is about legitimising legal fictions and legalistic arguments in cases where the broad moral balance is against the action one is taking.    

There is more to the sources than first meets the eye. While playing games with people is generally wrong, when God does it to a tyrant there could be a message of hope in it. Despite Judaism’s ultimate aspiration for universal peace, it is has a range of ideas about managing conflict until that time. One of these is the deep sadness of the loss of every human life, even if he is a soldier in the army of a wicked oppressor. Of course, using legalistic arguments to defend the indefensible is inexcusable, yet legalistic considerations have their place in the pursuit of justice, even the case of an unforgivable crime such as the slavery in Egypt. The letter of the law must be considered, even if one is in the clear according to its spirit. Some of this is uncomfortable for me, other aspects are inspiring, but this is what I have been able to find for now.  

[1] Rashi, Ramban, Chizkuni, translate הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי as meaning either played with or mockery, relating to a similar word to in Isaiah 3:4, the same understanding of the word is supported by MaHari Kra, Metzudat Tzion, and Metzudat David
[2] Exodus 10:2
[3] Targum Unkelus, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel. Another alternative relating to pruning a vineyard is found in a manuscript of Lekach Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima parshat Bo, p3-4
[4] Deuteronomy 28:63
[5] Talmud Sanhedrin 39b, the spelling of the word relating to rejoice over the destruction  is spelled  יָשִׂישׂ  which means will cause others to rejoice, if it mean that God Himself would rejoice the spelling would have been with ו a instead of a י
[6] ibid
[7] Psalms 2:4
[8] Meiri commentary on the Psalms
[9] Tana Dbei Eliyahu
[10] Ibn Ezra commentary on Deuteronomy 28:63, this is so out of step with the Talmud Sanhedrin that Avi Ezer states that Ibn Ezra must have overlooked it
[11] Job 35:7
[12] Exodus 13:17
[13] Ohr Hachayim
[14] Talmud Megila 10b, and Sanhedrin 39b
[15] Shemot Rabba 23:8
[16] Rabbi Yitzchok Abarbanel in his Passover commentary Zevach Pesach, cited on,2202336/Why-do-we-pour-wine-out-of-the-cup-at-the-Seder.html
[17] Exodus 17, is where it first appears 
[18] The Hebrew word is וְשָׁאֲלָה which although it can mean borrow, it can also mean ask for an outright gift which is how it is understood by Rabbenu Bachaya and Rashbam, cited in Leibovitz, N, (1996) New Studies in Shemot, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, p.188
[19] Exodus
[20] Exodus 3:18
[21] Exodus 14:2-4
[22] Bchor Shor, Mosad Rav Kook edition, 2000, Jerusalem p.120
[23] Talmud Sanhedrin 91a

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