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The Three Great Lies of the Exodus
Video 3 of 6
Let's start with the staff and the snake, G-d tells Moses to take his staff, cast it down to the ground and then miraculously it changes, it turns into a snake when it hits the ground. Moses recoils, he doesn't want to touch it, but G-d says, no, no, no, you should touch it, grab hold of it, and when he does it turns back into a staff. Strange stuff but does it remind you of anything at the very beginning of the process of enslavement? Might it remind us of Pharaoh's first great lie, the lie that made everything else after that possible? Let's look at the verses. Our story begins right before the advent of slavery, the words that describe a kind of population explosion, the story of the multiplying of the children of Israel seems to be told by the Bible from the Egyptian perspective.
U'benei yisrael paru - and the children of Israel were fruitful; Vayishretzu - they swarmed; Vayirbu - and they were great; Vaya'atzmu - and they were mighty; Bime'od, me'od - very, very much; Vatimolei ha'aretz otom - and the earth was filled with them. Those words describe a population explosion but not all of those words are such nice words, particularly the Vayishretzu one. It's a word used for insects in the Torah. Sheretz are these creepy-crawly things. The Torah seems to be saying, they multiplied like creepy-crawly things. But now that characterization gets compounded with something else. Vaya'atzmu - they were mighty. Now that's a word with dangerous overtones, a mighty people on the one hand that has the sense of creepy-crawly on the other hand. You see where we're going here? This, as later verses will show, is exactly how Egyptians interpreted these events.
The King of Egypt gathers his people and speaks to them using these verbs that the Torah has just talked about. Hinei am benei yisrael - he says, these people the children of Israel; Rav v'atzum mimenu. The Rav V'atzum is playing off of Vayirbu, Vaya'atzmu - the king looked at this and says, folks we got a national security problem here. They are great and they are mighty, they are mightier than us. These people are strong, they pose a threat; Hava nitchakma lo - let's deal wisely with them; Pen yirbeh - lest they increase even more. They might be benevolent now, but look what might happen. Vehaya ki tikrenah milchama - and when war comes in the future; Venosaf gam hu al soneinu - maybe they will gather themselves and add themselves to our enemies. Venilcham banu - and fight against us; V'olah min ha'aretz - and emigrate from the land.
Now if you pay close attention here you'll notice something. Yes, there was a population explosion, yes, the children of Israel were very great, but where did the sense of threat come from? There was nothing about them that was threatening, that was manufactured. Look what might happen, they'll join our enemies, they'll war against us. This is the stuff of his imagination. So the Egyptians began to oppress the Israelites, it started with; Vayasimu alav sarei missim - officers that would collect taxes. But then it slowly progressed; Vayiven orei miskenot l'Pharaoh - the Israelites were pressed into service building storehouses of grain for Pharaoh. But as they oppressed them; Ken yirbeh - so the Israelites multiplied. It seems like the early attempt at slavery was really an attempt to somehow staunch the population explosion but didn't work. Vayokutzu mipnei benei yisrael - and the Egyptians recoiled in horror from the children of Israel. Vayokutzu in Hebrew has a connotation of disgust. How are the Egyptians really treating the Israelites? Oh they're swarming, they're like these crawling things, they're like snakes.
The King of Egypt has expertly laid the propaganda groundwork for the genocide that is soon to follow. Because it's not easy to get a nation to engage in genocide. It's not easy to get a people to turn willy-nilly on their own countrymen. After all, these Egyptians they're human beings here we're talking about, people don't like to kill. How do you convince them to start? Egypt provides the great case study.
The first thing your populous must come to believe is that the people that you are targeting are a threat to them and if they're not a threat to them yet, they have to become convinced that they could be a threat. That's what Pharaoh is talking about when he says, and in the future these people can make war against us, they can join our enemies, become a fifth column.
But that alone is not enough to allow your rank and file population to commit atrocities against their neighbors. They need to believe something more too. They need to believe that this people who supposedly is a threat to them, that those people are also smarter than they are. The reason why you have to believe that they're smarter, more cunning than you, is because the business of killing is difficult, and when you take a defenseless people and you oppress them and you're harsh to them and you're cruel to them, and you commit atrocities against them, and you rationalize to yourself that you're doing it all in the name of national security, you still have to contend with something. They're going to cry out to you their countrymen for help, for mercy, for compassion. How do you inoculate your populous against that? How do you get them not to respond to the cries for help? You have to convince them that the victims are actually smarter than they are and therefore a cry for help could always be a trick. It could be a ruse, you can't trust them, they're too cunning and therefore they're too dangerous.
But then there's one final thing that you need to get your populous to believe if they're to be involved in the business of genocide. Because at the end of the day it's not just enough to believe that your target population is a threat, not even just enough to believe that they're smarter than you are, you also have to believe that they're not really human the same way that you are. They walk, they talk just like you, they may have two cars in the driveway, they may go to their jobs, but in some deep, essential, hidden way, they're not really human like you are. Hence, the language that we find here used to describe the multiplying of the people, it's not human language, it's creepy-crawly language. Vayishretzu - they swarmed; Vayokutzu mipnei benei yisrael - the people in Egypt recoiled in horror, or in shock, in disgust, from the children of Israel, the way people instinctively recoil from creepy-crawly things.
Speaking of creepy-crawly things, what is the king of the creepy-crawly things? If you ask the Bible itself that question, the answer would be the snake. The hatred between people and snakes goes back a long time, to Eden. Look what happens to the snake after the temptation at the Garden, what was the snake's punishment? The snake had been a very human-like creature, it was a talking snake, it was cunning - V'hanachash haya arom. It was apparently a walking snake also, because the punishment of the snake was that it needs to crawl on its belly through the dust of the earth as if beforehand it didn't do that. Sure seems a lot like a human doesn't it? But it wasn't really a human, in some essential way it was still an animal. It was an impostor human and that perhaps accounts for the abiding hatred that reigns between humankind and the snake forever more.
Who do we hate most? The ones who look most like us on the outside but we're convinced on the inside are so different from us, those are the ones who really get us nervous. Who do the Muslims hate most? The Shiites hate the Sunnis. Why? If a Christian or a Jew looks at the situation they can't tell the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, they can't figure out what the whole Tzimmes is about. Ah, it was the son-in-law who was the better follower of Mohammed or it was the cousin, what are they arguing about already? But if you're a Sunni or a Shiite, I mean this is big potatoes.
You only look like me on the outside, really you're just an impostor. The fact that you look like me makes it worse. The Protestants and the Catholics, looks pretty much the same to Jews and Muslims, but not on the inside, not if you are Protestant, not if you are Catholic. Yeshiva University and Open Orthodoxy, nah, looks pretty much the same if you're a Muslim or a Christian, but not on the inside. You wear the same Kippah as I wear, your beard is as long as my beard, your skirt is as long as my skirt. But on the inside I think you're an impostor. You may look like me, you may talk like me, but that only makes it worse. Everybody thinks you're me, but you're not.
Impostor hatred goes back a long time in human history. It goes back to the snake. The snake in the Torah, I think, becomes a symbol for that. The thing that looks just like you, the thing that looks human but really isn't, the thing we can't stand because it's an animal masquerading as one of us. So how were the Egyptians treating the Israelites in their midst? They were treating them as snakes. But as I mentioned before, it's not just that they were treating them as snakes, in their minds they transformed them into snakes, it's a lie that made killing possible. It was the last thing you needed to do to facilitate genocide.
Now let's revisit the signs, let's go to the very first sign, the sign that describes the beginning of it all, the staff and the snake. Oh the snake. G-d tells Moses, what's in your hand? It's a staff but in Hebrew the word for staff is Mateh. Mateh means one other thing besides staff throughout the Torah, it means tribe. It's as if you're holding the tribes in your hand. Tribes? The Tribes of Israel, that's what this Book is about.
Now take that Mateh, the Tribes, in your hand and now do what? Cast it down to the ground. That's what the Egyptians did. They took tribes and they cast them down to the ground. When it hits the ground it will turn into a snake because that's what they did. They cast you to the ground and in so doing they transformed you into something other than them. They transformed you into snakes in their minds. It was all fake of course, it was all sleight of hand, but so is this. I mean if you grab hold of the end of the snake guess what it's going to be? It's going to be a staff again, because it was never really a snake, it's all fake. But oh yes, well it looks like a snake, what do you do? You recoil aghast, because oh my gosh, it's a snake. That's what Moshe did; Vayonos mipanav - he ran away from the snake. That's what they did too, right? Vayokutzu mipnei benei yisrael - they recoiled aghast looking at you.
What's happening here with the sign? Its G-d's way of saying, I know they make you into snakes. These signs they show you that I understand, I get it, I understand the lie. Yes, the lies culminate with the shimmering waters of the Nile covering up the great sin of the bodies that they hide. But it didn't start there, the beginnings of the lies were with the snakes. The first great lie was that you're not really human, you're a snake.
So the signs begin to tell a story, a story of dehumanization culminating in genocide. The third sign tells the end of the story, the first sign tells the beginning of the story. But there's a second sign too. When we come back in the next video we'll try to discover the story that that sign tells.
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