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Why Slavery?

This week is Parshat Shemot. It begins the saga of slavery and redemption that we remember each year at the time of Passover, as well as now during the Torah reading cycle. The narrative opens by reminding us of the names (Shemot) of the sons of Jacob - our ancestors. Then we read of how the Israelites multiplied greatly. In fact, the Torah tells us that they "swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (1:7)." This increase in population is the reason given by Pharaoh for his decision to enslave the people.

Many commentators have wondered why it was necessary to give any reason for the people's enslavement. After all, Abraham is told in Bereshit/Genesis 15:13 "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years." If the enslavement is portrayed by the Torah as part of "God's plan" then Pharaoh needs no reason for his persecution of the Israelites. And yet, it would seem that the Torah text and subsequent commentaries provide us with various reasons for our ancestors' slavery.

In her excellent, compelling exploration of Shemot The Particulars of Rapture (which I highly recommend and will be citing often in my commentaries), Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg informs the reader that the concept of the Israelites 'swarming' over the land is viewed in two different lights. The majority of midrashim comment that the increase in the Israelite population represents a victory of life over death and a reminder of the eternality of God and God's promise that the people shall be numerous. Jacob and his sons, including the great Joseph, may be dead (as the opening lines remind us) but the people lives and flourishes. This is all due to God's promise and so serves as a reminder of the Divine presence and promise. Life and God are eternal and the proliferation of the Israelite people is proof of this.

However, Seforno (an Italian rabbinic commentator who lived in the 16th century) is in the minority in that he views this description of Israelite growth as a condemnation. The phrase "and they swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly" is likened to the swarming and increase of insects (actually, the root of the Hebrew verb "to swarm" is also the root of the word for insect). Seforno accuses the Israelites people, that once consisted of individuated and highly evolved persons such as Jacob and Joseph, of deteriorating to the point where they were now a mass of "unindividuated 'insect-like' conformists, whose whole effort is to assimilate to their surrounds." (Zornberg, p. 19). In other words, Seforno believed that the people were being punished for their assimilation, as represented by their 'swarming,' and the punishment was slavery.

As I read this interpretation I rebelled immediately against the idea. It reminded me too much of the those who would readily blame the Shoah on the assimilation of the German-Jewish population or who blame any number of "ills" on the perceived assimilation of Jewish society today and at other times in our history. In seeming to blame the victims it would appear that Seforno is relieving Pharaoh of all responsibility for his actions. And yet, as I stated above, if this was part of God's plan, why does anyone need to be blamed? Why can't we simply take the slavery as a fact and move on?

I believe that if we were to do this we would miss the opportunity to learn anything from this central story of our people's religious myths. In her analysis of Seforno's commentary Aviva Zornberg points out that his interpretation "has constructed a narrative of failure, guilt, punishment, where the biblical text seemed to give us only the facts of suffering." but she continues to remark that Seforno "invites us to reflect on the ways in whish slavery, persecution and alienation . are generated by human beings.and - in the same vein - on the meaning of redemption, exodus, freedom. In doing this, he stands in a tradition of commentators who read the Exodus narrative psychologically, spiritually, from the point of view of the victim who seeks redemption, in the intimate as well as the political sense." (Zornberg, p. 21).

In reading Zornberg's analysis my feelings about Seforno's original commentary were turned around. Rather than viewing his remarks as simply blaming the victim I was instead able to view it as a way of giving the people responsibility for their growth and redemption. For in order to say that we play a role in bringing about our own redemption we must first admit that on a psycho- spiritual level we play a role in our own enslavement. If we interpret Mitzrayim (Egypt) as meitzarim (the narrow/constricted places), as do numerous Hasidic commentaries, then being caught in the snares of slavery in Mitzrayim comes to represent how our own spirits are caught in the snares of narrowness as represented by our own slavery. Using Seforno's commentary, slavery also comes to represent how we constrict ourselves by becoming part of the assimilated masses rather than standing up for who we are and what we believe. I am speaking here not only of the concept of religious and cultural assimilation, but of the assimilation of the individual into the swarm of humanity thereby turning our backs on what it means to be a unique person created in the image of God who is also part of a greater community.

And so if, as Seforno posits, we become part of the swarm by simply merging our individual selves with the communal "self" of society then it is up to us (with the help of the Divine that flows through each of us) to bring about our redemption by separating ourselves from the communal swarm and instead becoming individuals dedicated to caring for our world, our people and ourselves in our own unique ways rather than simply being like 'everyone else.'

This is a message of the story of slavery and redemption that I had never considered in the past, but one which I think speaks to us today in the 21st century - a time when assimilation, acculturation and being 'part of the swarm' seems to be a force that is gaining more and more strength. This commentary is calling us instead to the sense of individuality combined with communal responsibility that was at the heart of the civil rights movement, the anti- Vietnam war movement and the various movements for social change and justice in our recent history, as opposed to the merging with the masses that was at the root of everything in American history from the Salem witch hunts to McCarthyism and beyond. And it is a call that I believe it is important for us to heed at this, and every, time in our history.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah