January 3, 2002
Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
Surfing the TV one night, two powerful images caught my eye: On one station were Afghan women draped from head to toe in the traditional black burka. On another, Britney Spears, very much undraped, projected live across the world in a televised concert.
The opposing extremes of 21st century culture meet here, on the battlefield of the female body. The one, a culture so frightened of the power of female sexuality that it must suppress and conceal all that is feminine, lest its severe culture of masculine virility become polluted and corrupted. The other, perhaps equally threatened, transforms women into playthings and leers wickedly, entranced by the naughty image of the teasing sex kitten.
The television news reporter interviews a mother taking her 9-year-old into the Britney concert. Gazing at her daughter, who is dressed in the revealing Britney manner, the mother remarks, "I know it's probably not good for her to see this show, but she really loves Britney!"
For all their differences, the two cultures, the two images, meet at this point: Whether object of fear or object of desire, woman remains object. She has no inner life, no soul. She is created, not in the image of God, but in the image of Astarte, the ancient feminine goddess replete with swelling breasts and bejeweled belly.
What does the 9-year-old learn from Britney? That her power and worth derive not from mind and heart and imagination but from shapely curves and smooth skin. Not from her ability to create, to care and to love but from her wiles to entice and seduce. Is life under the burka really more primitive and repressive?
There are places in the world where people fear the taking of photographs. They believe that the camera steals the soul when it snaps the picture. I no longer scoff at this.
The technology of media indeed possesses the power to steal the soul. Since the first cave people drew images on cave walls, humankind has lived with media. But no culture has lived with the kind of media we do. No culture has dealt with the intensity and ubiquity of the media image and its power to shape life, morals, dreams and values.
Television, radio, movies, videos, Internet, video games, CD music, magazines, newspapers, billboards, print and broadcast advertisement, we live in a sea of images -- a logo-opolis. Infants today learn to recognize corporate logos --Target, Nike, McDonald's -- at the same time they recognize the faces of parents and loved ones. Happiness is a Happy Meal!
We read this week of Egyptian slavery -- of whips and shackles and taskmasters. But there are other, more powerful forms of slavery. There are forms subtle, insidious and almost invisible; a slavery that shackles the mind and chains the soul. Perhaps we are still slaves, and the worst part of our enslavement is that we don't know it.
Just before Moses is called to his mission, we read these strange verses: "A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob." (Exodus 2:23)
By this time, the Israelites were slaves for hundreds of years. Did God not notice? Were their cries and groans not heard? But the Torah understands true slavery. Up to now, Israel had not cried out. They did not know they were slaves. They had not recognized slavery when it came. And eventually, they could imagine no alternative.
Slavery defined their identity. They came to expect nothing else. Slavery became normal -- the ordinary daily round of life.
Moses opened their eyes. He gave back to each one the image of God that resides within. He restored expectation, hope and a vision of possibilities. This is always the first and most powerful act of liberation.