September 8, 2010
Letting go of the big lie
Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)
One of the talents of our sages was their ability to simultaneously hold the text of the entire Torah in their minds. When they saw an unusual word or phrase in one week’s parasha, other appearances of that word or phrase, from elsewhere in the Torah, popped into their minds instantly. And the resultant swirl of contexts and usages ignited the great creative interpretive endeavor.
In our parasha, God commands Moshe to ascend Mount Nevo, to see the Promised Land, and then to die. In a striking departure from ordinary biblical usage, the command is not prefaced with the familiar “And God spoke to Moshe saying ...”; rather, “And God spoke to Moshe in the midst of that day, saying ... .” What does that unusual phrase connote?
The sages of the midrash point out to us that the phrase appears in exactly two other places in the Torah. In Genesis, Noah enters his ark “in the midst of that day,” and in the book of Exodus, the children of Israel leave Egypt “in the midst of that day.” What links these three events, the sages suggest, is that each one provoked great opposition and threats of the use of force, and for the safety of the actors involved it might have been safest for the actions to take place under the cover of darkness. But in each case, daring the opposition to carry out their threats, God acts “in the midst of the day,” and invariably God’s intention is fulfilled. For the sages, the unusual phrase connotes a purposeful demonstration of the power of the Divine will.
But we’d be cheating ourselves if we simply left the midrash here. There’s a premise the midrash lays down that is worthy of scrutiny. The midrash simply presumes that Noah’s neighbors would have been making noises about blocking his entry into the ark. And that the Egyptians would have been preparing themselves to obstruct the actual exodus. And that the Israelites would have been plotting among themselves to physically prevent Moshe from ascending the mountain. (You can see the fleshed-out descriptions of these presumptions in Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 32:48.) But these presumptions can each be prima-facie challenged. Might not have Noah’s neighbors simply dismissed him as a nut? Why would they distract themselves from their pursuit of ill-gotten gain to stand between Noah and his landlocked boat? And hadn’t the Egyptians had enough by this point? Would they really have proceeded directly from burying their firstborns to attempt to once again block the people from leaving? And would the children of Israel have believed that they could exert any power against God’s determined decision to end Moshe’s career right here and now? Why do the sages ask us to presume these things?
But it is in uncovering the basis of their assumptions that we come to recognize the sages’ profound teaching here. What they are ultimately hoping we will take away from their homily is the primal difficulty that we and all people have in relinquishing a “big lie.” Big lies are the assertions that are widely held and that no one dares challenge, lest the very basis of the way we have chosen to live be undermined. The big lie that held sway in the generation of Noah was that the survival of the fittest was an acceptable organizational principle for a society. There was no collective social responsibility to protect the weak or to ensure their lives and property. Might was as good a principle as any. Only crazy Noah said differently. Which is the reason they would have been scheming to stop him from entering that crazy ark.
Egyptian might had literally been built upon the cultural assumption that some peoples have the God-given right to subjugate and enslave other peoples. The departure of the Israelites at God’s hand was not merely about the loss of labor. It was about the end of a mythology. Beaten and bruised as they were, they could have very well have been planning to make one last stand to preserve the big lie.
And the Israelites in the desert? What was the big lie that they were holding onto? The belief that there would always be Moshe. That they would never themselves need to actually enter a direct relationship with God. Throughout the journey in the desert they held on tightly to the presumption that there would always be someone to intercede on their behalf, to secure Divine favor and deflect Divine anger. They convinced themselves that they would never have to undertake the awesome responsibility of interpreting and applying God’s law. The big lie in the desert was that Moshe would always save them from direct, personal accountability to God. And who knows what they were contemplating doing to hold Moshe back?
In each of these three cases, God reinforced His will with a show of power, carrying out the dreaded activity “in the midst of that day.” Because history had to record and Israel needed to know that societies must protect the weak, that no people has the right to subjugate another, and that we stand collectively and individually directly before God.
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