From Pharaoh to Fuehrer

David Hartman
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David Hartman

If we characterize Israel's historical situation in terms of interdependency rather than self-sufficiency - in terms of trust vis-a-vis the world rather than cynicism, in terms of visibility rather than concealment - then the questions I pose are: How can we understand our will to become a visible people in spite of the lessons of modern European history? How can we energize our determination to build a Jewish future despite the upsurge of anti-Semitism throughout the world and the uncertainties of the political conditions in the Middle East? What makes these questions so acute and relevant today is the difference between our survival as a galut, exilic community and the nature of our existence in modern Israel.

For Jews, survival in history was rarely based on the efficacy of moral arguments to alleviate our social, economic and political conditions. You survived by knowing how to manipulate, how to "work" the social, political and economic frameworks in which you lived. In sharp contrast to this fear-driven caution and secrecy, which characterized Jewish life in Europe, the reestablishment of the State of Israel expressed a bold decision to make visibility a permanent feature of Jewish life. Rather than minimize contact with the non-Jewish world, Jews entered the arena of international relations where interdependency is a necessary condition for survival.

The cleverness and ingenuity that kept us alive as a stateless minority were products of a reality in which skepticism and suspicion of others were life-sustaining instincts. Today, however, because of statehood, we are more dependent than ever on the goodwill of individuals and countries of the world. Absolute self-sufficiency is a dangerous illusion for any country, especially in the light of the globalization of national economies, as well as of cultures and social forms of life.

In this essay I shall reflect upon some key biblical narratives of the kind that can affect how we respond to the unpredictable vicissitudes of history without appeals to providential explanations. In the past these narrative themes served as foundational memories that shaped our people's historical consciousness. These narratives can continue to be understood in ways that can sustain our will to freedom and national independence in the face of the contingency and vulnerability of contemporary Jewish history. Let us begin by examining the Exodus narrative.

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One often overlooks the sharp contrast between Pharaoh's welcoming of Jacob and his children in Egypt and the xenophobic response of the new Pharaoh who ruled after the death of Joseph. The original descent into Egypt was described at the end of the book of Genesis as Jacob and his family's flight from a famine that afflicted Canaan. Jacob's son, Joseph, was a celebrated hero in Egyptian society because he forewarned and organized Egyptian society to withstand seven years of famine. Because Joseph was so widely revered in Egypt, Jacob was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Egyptian ruler.

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "As regards your father and your brothers who have come to you, the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen" (Gen. 47:5-6).

Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly (ibid. 47:27).

In gratitude and appreciation for Joseph's contribution to Egyptian society, the children of Israel became firmly ensconced in Egypt, where they prospered and flourished. But then at the beginning of the Book of Exodus the narrative abruptly states, "A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people: `Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground'" (Exod. 1:7-8).

The rabbis in the Midrash (Sotah 11a) were bothered that such a cryptic statement - "a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph" - was used to introduce the radical change of fortune that befell the children of Israel. After relating the details of Israel's successful relocation to Egypt, the biblical narrative seems to offer the new Pharaoh's ignorance of what occurred during his predecessor's reign as the reason for Israel's sharp transition from well-being, security and prosperity to alienation and enslavement.

"What do you mean, `did not know Joseph,'" asks one of the rabbis in the Midrash incredulously. How could the Pharaoh or, for that matter, any ordinary Egyptian not have known about Joseph's role in rescuing Egyptian society from economic catastrophe? Or, to use a more contemporary formulation: How could Germans not have been aware of significant Jewish contributions to German culture and civilization? The Midrash answers its own rhetorical question by rephrasing the biblical text to indicate the presence of dark motives behind the show of ignorance: The new Pharaoh acted as if he did not know Joseph.

The tragic but all-too-familiar conclusion to be drawn from this brief passage is that unanticipated political changes ("A new king arose over Egypt") that produce insecurity and instability for the ruling powers can totally overturn the conditions and fate of human societies. The charge leveled by the ruling classes against the minority in Egypt was that they were different, numerous and, therefore, dangerous. Xenophobic fear of the stranger grows under conditions of uncertainty where "the other" is identified and demonized as potentially subversive. Political insecurity engenders fear of the stranger - in this case, fear that the Jewish people's growth and prosperity makes them a formidable enemy. Jews cannot be trusted. They are suspect because they are numerous and different.

The explanation of the bitter enslavement with which Jewish nationhood begins leaves several troubling issues unresolved. What justifies a people's suffering for hundreds of years? What justifies their being enslaved, dehumanized, exploited and humiliated? Given the theological context of the Bible, where suffering is linked to sinful behavior, the condition of slavery needs explanation and justification. If no plausible explanation is forthcoming, we shall then pose a further question: what is the significance of beginning this foundational Jewish memory with an account of undeserved suffering?

The political and psychological dynamics described at the beginning of the book of Exodus highlight the tragic insecurity that results from the contingency and arbitrariness of human behavior. In contrast to this description of the political background of the enslavement in Egypt, the biblical prophetic tradition in general and God's covenant with Abraham regarding Israel's future enslavement in particular (Gen. 15:13) are rooted in the idea that nothing in history occurs arbitrarily. The prophets and the midrashic tradition constantly point an accusing finger at social neglect and exploitation of the weak, at corruption and social injustice, to explain the fate of the Jewish people.

Disobedience to the Torah, the failure to live up to God's laws, is ultimately the cause of exile and suffering. The story of the enslavement in Egypt, however, does not fit this explanatory model. In spite of Nachmanides' explanation of the exile in Egypt in terms of Abraham's sinful behavior, there does not seem to be any credible moral justification for the sudden turn of events that led to slavery and exploitation (see Nachmanides commentary, Gen. 12:10).

In contrast to the main thrust of providential theories of history, I view the story of the inception of the Jewish people as predicated on a description of the precariousness and unpredictability of history. The prologue to Egyptian enslavement can be summarized as follows: The social, economic and political status of the Jews in Egypt, where they enjoyed security, prosperity and social recognition, is unexpectedly and completely overturned by an insecure monarch who succeeds in isolating and demonizing the Jewish people. Political change and unrest in the Egyptian ruling class lead to disaster for the Jews. As portrayed in the biblical text of Exodus (1:8-13), the chain of events leading to isolation, disenfranchisement and enslavement appears arbitrary and unjustified.

Biblical scholars sometimes cite the text in Genesis that refers to the 400 years of servitude as an explanation for Israel's extended enslavement in Egypt. "And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." (Gen. 15:13-16)

The prolonged duration of the oppression for 400 years is linked to the time needed for the indigenous population of the land of Canaan, the Amorites, to deserve fully the punishment of expulsion. This indirect explanation for delaying Israel's conquest of the land has little bearing on the need for suffering and slavery in Egypt. The people who were persecuted in Egypt could just as well have passed the time enjoying Egyptian hospitality.

This passage in Genesis, therefore, hardly changes the jarring impact of the introductory verses of the book of Exodus. The lack of a plausible moral explanation for the appearance of a xenophobic tyrant who brings disaster on the Jewish people makes the themes of historical contingency and undeserved suffering integral motifs of this historical memory of the Jewish people.

Our founding national narrative is not only about freedom and liberation, but also about uncertainty, arbitrary evil and the unpredictable contingencies of human history. There can be no permanent security in history because the appearance of a new king "who did not know Joseph" is an ever-present possibility.

The contingency affecting nations in history is not essentially different from the tragic unpredictability individuals encounter in their everyday lives. We are often shaken by such tragic events as a young couple on their way to their honeymoon being killed suddenly in an accident or a father and daughter having coffee before her wedding being murdered by a suicide bomber. Human life is fraught with uncertainty, yet we live, have children and plan for the future. In spite of the futile effort to discover morally satisfying explanations for human suffering (the failed attempts by Job's friends to justify Job's suffering), the human impulse to continue living and building towards a new future can withstand and overcome existential despair (Job continues having children after the tragic loss of his family). Similarly, our people's strength to build the State of Israel after Auschwitz demonstrates the power and vitality of the human impulse to celebrate life in spite of its precarious nature.

Our traditional proclamation at the end of the Passover Seder: "Next year in Jerusalem" can be understood as expressing our people's courage to affirm life (return to Jerusalem) in spite of the vulnerable conditions of history. The dialectical message of our story of redemption is: Never abandon belief in the possibilities of a new future in spite of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the human condition.

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Our reading of the Exodus story includes the accidental and arbitrary within the celebration of our liberation from slavery. Faith in the God of the Exodus does not necessarily lead to the belief that history is moving inevitably toward messianic redemption and the final resolution of human evil and suffering. Throughout the Passover Seder we are told that tragic regressions recur repeatedly in human history. There can be no assurance that the power to do evil will be permanently eliminated from history.

The memory of the exodus from Egypt need not foster a belief in an inevitable progressive movement toward messianism. The books of Joshua and Judges, which describe our political conditions after entering the land, are far from being descriptions of messianic fulfillment. The story of the liberation from Egypt is followed by the account of the Sinai covenant, where a people accept the divine challenge of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Our suffering did not nurture eternal self-pity, but instead inspired us to pursue higher moral standards of behavior. A slave is a prisoner of the present moment. He has no history, no memory and no aspirations. Rather than becoming fixated on our memory of suffering in Egypt, Moses turned the memory of slavery in Egypt into a catalyst urging us not to oppress the stranger but to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Lev. 19:33-34, Deut. 10:19). The community of liberated slaves was charged with the task of embodying holiness in their lives.

Before leaving Egypt, Moses informed the Jewish people that their God was named ehyeh asher ehyeh, "I will be who I will be." I interpret this to mean that the God of Israel is mediated by the new possibilities of the future. God is not to be understood by the static, unchanging events of the past but by the open-ended possibilities of the future. In this sense God is the God of becoming rather than the God of being.

The orientation of the divine name was embodied in our becoming a covenantal nation at Sinai. Instead of reinforcing the tendency of persecuted communities to define themselves by their past, i.e., as eternal victims, Sinai infused our consciousness with a vision of new possibilities for moral development. Traditional Judaism has taught us not to define our identity by our bitter memories of suffering, but by the moral spiritual quality of our daily lives.

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The destruction of European Jewry is a vivid reminder of the radical contingency of history. German Jewry had difficulty believing that a "new pharaoh" could emerge "who did not know Joseph" and his contribution to German history. The xenophobic madness of Hitler's Germany was incomprehensible given the community's pride in being members of such a cultured society. They could not imagine how the homeland of Bach, Goethe, Herder and Kant would become the homeland of Hitler, Himmler and Eichmann - how their beloved country would become obsessed with a demonic hatred for Jews.

Nevertheless, and in spite of our bitter memories of suffering, as a covenantal people we are forever committed never to abandon hope in the possibilities for human development. As a select people, we were charged with the task of carrying the burden of God's concern for history. Our hope is not born of naivete. We can never forget the possibility of the unexpected emergence of a xenophobic "new Pharaoh." Moses taught us to aspire to become a covenantal people with the full awareness that undeserved suffering may never be totally eliminated from history.

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman is the founder and co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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