Friday, January 04, 2008

Va'erah and Pride

A few weeks ago, I was re-reading William Blake's Songs of Innocence. It struck me immediately, as it did back in high school, what a tremendous change the age of the Enlightenment was from Blake's romantic work. For example, Alexander Pope's mock-epic Rape of the Lock is full of overt cynicism and sub-conscious hubris, whereas the Songs exude pastoral equanimity and acceptance of humanity's place in a deity-driven world.

It struck me that this contrast, that of humility set against human haughtiness, is also brought to the fore by the Torah in our portion. Whereas God testifies (Bamidbar 12:3) that Moshe was "more humble than any other," Pharaoh was clearly a haughty fellow: "Who is God that I must obey his commands? I do not know Him, nor shall I set his people free."(Sh'mot 5:2) In the Haftarah (Yechezkel 29:1), this is taken even further, as Pharaoh sees himself as a "great serpent", who claims that he created the very Nile in which he resides! The various midrashim teach that He viewed himself as a God, ruled by no one, ruling over all. Malbim sees haughtiness in Pharaoh's dream to Yosef in פרשת מקץ, when he dreams himself standing "over" the Nile.

This contrast is a gulf. R' Salanter has been quoted as saying that it is easier by far to master the Talmud and its commentaries, than to change one character trait. Pride and haughtiness are symptoms of a deeper inability to accept the mastery of another over oneself. Therefore, Pharaoh was unable and unwilling to entertain the possibility that there exists a God that is in complete control over all that Pharaoh believes himself to command.

Therefore, when Moshe, at God's word, comes before Pharaoh, his first sign is to throw down his staff. It becomes a serpent, threatening the lives of those around it. Rav Hirsch explains a profound symbolism at work here: A staff is an object which a man will rely upon, making himself more steady. A snake, on the other hand, is mankind's first enemy. After enticing Chava to sin, God placed strong revulsion between Man and Snake: "הוא ישופך ראש, ואתה תשופנו עקב." The message of Moshe's sign is clear: that tool which Man trusts can, at God's behest, become his mortal enemy. This was a clear message to the king of Egypt: everything upon which you rely, I can not only destroy, but turn into something that you fear. Yet, Pharaoh did not learn the lesson. His pride dismissed the wondrous sign as inconsequential, and set the stage for the ten plagues.

A person who maintains his natural humility at the sight of the world around him is able to accept God's kingdom upon himself. In fact, his understanding that his actions are simply hishtadlut which God allows to succeed leads to inner-peace; ultimately, he is not responsible for the results of his attempts. He only does his best, and delivers the situation into the domain of the all-powerful God.

In contrast, haughtiness is a trait that demands a person feel in control at all times. The idea that a greater power exists that laughs at a prideful person's plans is an anathema to that person. Pharaoh was such a person. He had to be seen as a God to his subjects, and he went so far as to convince himself of this. And so, Pharaoh could not learn the lesson of the snake-stick, and he held on until his very life was at stake, during the death of the first-born.

In the Moreh, the Rambam makes it clear that miracles are not a suspension of the laws of nature. On the contrary, miracles are woven into the very fabric of creation (think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or, on a larger scale, Chaos Theory). The essence of a miracle is not its occurrence so much as its timing. Science can explain how the Reed Sea split. However, the נס was that it split at the right time to rescue the Jews.

The Ramban, on the other hand, likes to view nature itself as a constant miracle that God validates at every moment. He says (at the end of בא), "from famous wonders, a person admits of the hidden miracles which are the foundation of the entire Torah ... we believe that all occurrences are miracles, nothing is [simply] nature and the way of the world." Rambam, of course, would agree that the purpose of the Egypt-type miracle is to call Man's attention to God. Just as we see God explicitly in His wonders, so can we experience God in the seeming mundanities of everyday life.

Back to Pope and Blake. With the advent of the scientific method, the Enlightenment went through a stage of intense Pharaoh-hubris, and it was evident in their literature. People saw Science as the source of all knowledge, and the epic glory of God was scorned as an ancient cult of the know-nothings. It took time for the rationalist to realize that science may tell us 'how,' but it gives us nothing of 'why'. That is the realm of the spirit, of God.

In modern times, we do not have to be romantics to believe in God and submit our actions to His will. A scientist may explain the sea splitting, or the river turning to blood, but it does not have to take away from the glory of the נס -- its timing or its occurrence. However, we can choose to be obstinate, and see everything as natural occurrences with no divine hand in our lives. It is up to us, much as it was up to Pharaoh.

I cannot close without pointing out an interesting connection between the parasha and the haftarah. God tells Moshe, using the famous four concepts of redemption (Sh'mot 6:6): "I am the Lord. I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and will deliver you from their slavery. I will redeem you with an out-stretched arm, and great punishing judgements. I will take you to me as a nation..." However, the next verse adds another language of גאולה: "And I will bring you to the land," which I swore to give to your forefathers. This speaks of the ultimate goal of the redemption and giving of the Torah, which is to live a life of Torah in Israel, becoming a light unto the nations.

The haftarah begins with the same sentiment. To the broken Jews, suffering in their exile, God commands Yechezkel to say (28:25): "Thus saith the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the people amongst whom they have been scattered, and shown Myself through them [to the world] in my Holiness before the eyes of the nations, they shall dwell in their land which I have given my servant Jacob. They will dwell in it without worry. They will build houses and plant vineyards and live in security; while I execute judgement uppon all those around them who threaten to raid them. They will recognize that I am the Lord, their God."

Only in the context of Jews being willing to uproot their lives (and character traits) and rise up, fulfilling God's will for our destiny, can the redemption from Egypt as well as the deliverance from our present exile culminate in everlasting success and peace.