Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Parashat VaEra: Separation

A Message for Parashat VaEra 2017
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Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. (William Blake)[1] 

Sefer Shemot began with a list of the names of the literal “sons of Israel,” and swiftly recorded their transition into the “Bnei Yisrael. nation” Pharaoh was the first to recognize this reality. He told his people, “Look the Bnei Yisrael nation are much too numerous for us” (1:9), and then set forth a plan to stifle their future growth as a nation. Though the planned murder of all Israelite sons would stall the progress of his building projects, it was a necessary concession for Bnei Yisrael’s national assimilation. God’s promise that “I will take you to be My nation” (6:7) was thus the climax of our freedom from Pharaoh.

One of the numerous roles played by the plagues in Egypt was the separation of Am Yisrael. It was apparent when God struck with lice: “The cattle of Egypt died; but of the cattle of Bnei Yisrael died not one” (9:6). It continued when the hail fell upon the Egyptians, and “Only in the land of Goshen, where Bnei Yisrael were, there was no hail” (9:26). And though the three days of darkness paralyzed Egypt, “all Bnei Yisrael had light in their dwellings” (10:23). Predicting the final plague of makkat bekhorot, God stated it clearly: “But not a dog shall snarl at any of Bnei Yisrael – at man or beast – in order that you may know that Hashem makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (6:7).

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that the material world exists by means of the “unity of opposites.” He explained that the world was built and sustained upon the foundations of friction and balance of coexisting opposites. R. Yonatan Grossman posited that the consistent “separations” of opposites that make up the Torah’s story of creation paint a similar picture. Consider God’s first several actions: Light is separated from darkness (1:3-4), the “waters” are separated from each other (6-7), land and water are separated (9-10), and the heavenly bodies are purposed to separate between day and night (14-18).[2] Political philosopher Leo Strauss similarly counted five explicit and ten implicit mentions of separation in the first chapter of Bereshit, thus concluding: “Creation is the making of separated things.”[3]

It appears that just as the world’s creation came forth from acts of separation, so too did that of Am Yisrael. Aaron Wildavsky in fact suggested that the severe judgment against mankind’s mixing of cultural categories during the Tower of Bavel episode prepared the way for the separation and selection of Am Yisrael. The corruption of “the whole earth was of one language and of one speech” (Bereshit 11:1) necessitated God’s dispersal and separation, and Pharaoh’s aim to disperse Bnei Yisrael brought forth His separation and removal of them.[4]

A nation built upon the foundations of separation must envision its continued existence through the prism of eternal separation.

[1] The Marriage of Heaven and  Hell (London, EN, 1975), pg. 3.
[2] See Yonatan Grossman, Ba’ah Shabbat Ba’ah Menuhah.
[3] Leo Strauss, On the Interpretation of Genesis, published in L’Homme 1981 (21:1), pg. 9.
[4] Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader (Israel, 2005), 90-1.