Jewish Pens vs. Jewish Swords
The story of the ten plagues and the confrontation with Pharaoh is surely one of the most perplexing recorded in the Torah. What principle was Pharaoh defending? On the face of it, the relative benefit of enslaving the Jewish people must be considered in terms of the advantages it brings to Egypt. In economic terms, common sense dictates that you consider your assets in terms of the returns they bring. In the face of the steadily mounting negative returns from the Jewish asset as the story of the plagues unfolds, Pharaoh's inflexible position seems highly irrational and indefensible.
Nor can we explain his continued intransigence on the basis of the Divinely inspired 'hardening' of his heart. The commentators are united in stating that this 'hardening of the heart' only became Divinely inspired after the fifth plague, and even then it was never a Divine straight jacket to restrain Pharaoh from altering his position. It merely gave him the courage of his convictions; he was able to stick to what he believed was right in the face of the overwhelming force of the plagues. But the precise nature of Pharaoh's convictions is nowhere explained.
THE CONFRONTATION WITH PHARAOH AS IT WOULD APPEAR TODAY
To understand Pharaoh better, let us transpose this ancient confrontation to our current times. An eighty-year-old rabbi, whose only claim to fame is that he is a renowned Talmud scholar, but who cannot even speak a clear English, somehow manages to get in to the office of George W. Bush. He tells him that he represents God and would like to start running the United States in God's Name, with the President's cooperation of course. Not to worry. He isn't interested in money or power -- all he wants is to take the people of California lock stock and barrel into the desert to offer sacrifices to this previously unknown God.
Let's change the details a bit more and confine the situation exclusively to Jews. Instead of going to the American President, the rabbi of our story takes the podium at a meeting of the WJC [World Jewish Congress] and announces that the long awaited second coming of the age of prophecy has finally arrived. He has come to announce the Messiah, and it is time now for all Jews to begin to practice all the arcane rules of the Shulchan Aruch as a first step towards the redemption.
Because there is a lot to learn before anyone can possibly master full observance, all Jews must immediately quit their jobs, purchase tickets to Jerusalem, where they will be individually assigned to Yeshivot to begin a course of intensive study in elementary Torah law. Classes will be conducted by the ultra-orthodox who are already learned in such esoteric matters. The ultra-orthodox are also to abandon their present lives immediately and await their teaching assignments.
How easily would these scenarios go over? And yet the Torah vision of the end of days doesn't differ a great deal from this type of projection.
ANOTHER SLANT ON THE NEED TO FOLLOW MOSES
The same thought can also be expressed in the following terms. In the Torah view of the world, the most important people alive are Torah scholars. In fact, the Book of Genesis tells us that the entire world and all it contains was created expressly for them. Everyone is familiar with the Rashi on the verse "...and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day." Rashi comments: the entire creation is suspended till the sixth day of Sivan: [the date of the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at Mt.Sinai] if the Jews accept the Torah on that date, creation can continue; if not, God sees no point in continuing it and will return it to the void.
But familiarity doesn't automatically imply that people have thought through the implications.
THE TORAH IN THE WORLD IS EMBODIED IN TORAH SCHOLARS
There is no Torah in the world except insofar as the Torah scholars bring it down to earth for us. No one else really knows the Torah well enough to teach it or explain it except those who have invested a considerable portion of their lives immersed in the knowledge it contains. It follows that no one can possibly know how to observe it without following the teachings of these experts. If the world indeed rests on Torah acceptance, it follows that the Torah scholars are the most important people alive and it is only in their merit that we have a world at all.
If we think through the implications to the end, they are staggering. If the world stands only in the merit of the Torah scholar, it means that without this person poring over his ancient tomes there would be no schools or hospitals, no telephones or airplanes, computers or reactors. There would be no cities or countries, no armies, no economies. There would simply be nothing.
In fact, if this proposition is true, and the Messianic vision of the Jewish people claims it not only as true, but predicts its inevitable universal acceptance, it means that the vast majority of mankind has been living wrong all through history, and has totally failed to comprehend reality.
PHARAOH'S POSITION CLARIFIED
The more we reflect on these implications the more we tend to empathize with Pharaoh. This was precisely what Moses was telling him. All the might and technology of Egypt, all its immense advancement [for those times -- even today the pyramids are considered one of the wonders of the world] and knowledge must be regarded as so much junk, and all this immense power has to stand aside and submit to the orders of an eighty-year-old Talmudist who is a member of the slave nation. No wonder he had trouble accepting it! If we search our hearts honestly, we will discover that we all share his problem.
But wait! Let us slow down! Perhaps we have overstated the Torah position. Let us consult Maimonides, generally regarded as the most 'modern' of medieval rabbis.
THE EXPRESSION OF THIS THOUGHT BY MAIMONIDES
In his introduction to the Mishna, Maimonides quotes a passage of Talmud which perfectly illustrates this very point. Ben Zoma [one of the early Tanaim -- the authors of the Mishna] was standing on the Temple Mount during one of the three Jewish Festivals, observing the multitudes of Jews streaming toward the Temple in fulfillment of their triennial pilgrimage obligation and he remarked: Blessed is God who created all these people to serve me (Yerushalmi, Brachot 9:1);
Maimonides explains Ben Zoma's blessing as follows: If the world was created for the sake of the Talmud scholar who immerses himself full time in Torah study, what is the purpose of the multitude of humanity that inhabits the earth? He offers Ben Zoma's blessing in answer -- were it not for the fact that civilization supplies the needs of the scholar, no one would be able to engage in Torah study; it would take a person more years than Methuselah lived just to master all the skills necessary to provide the basic needs of normal living --carpentry, weaving, agriculture etc. Thus in order to enable the scholar to engage in Torah study, there has to be an entire civilized world out there. Besides, people, and even Torah scholars are people, cannot endure loneliness -- they need the stimulation and companionship provided by other human beings.
In other words, the entire mass of humanity is there to provide the infrastructure that makes the Torah scholar's life possible. How can we possibly relate to this? Doesn't this entire proposition sound very supercilious and patronizing if not downright racist? The answer to this objection is that we mustn't confuse purpose with importance.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN IMPORTANCE AND PURPOSE
When the Jews sang their song following the miracle of the splitting of the sea (Exodus 15), the angels wanted to join them in song. God protested to them, "My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to break out in song?" (Yalkut, 2 Divrei Hayomim2,1085) Israel was duty bound to sing to express its thanksgiving for being rescued, but the angels were never under threat. Their song would have been a song of unalloyed joy over the Egyptian destruction. God saw no occasion for joy in the drowning of the very same Egyptians who were attempting to destroy His own chosen people. God only perceived the tragedy and the waste. All human life is precious in God's eyes.
THE TORAH PERSPECTIVE ON THE ROLE OF THE SCHOLAR
We can place the role of the Torah scholar in its proper perspective through the words of Rabbi Chaim of V'lozhin on the Mishna: the world stands on the tripod of Torah, divine service, and good works.(Avoth 1,3) Reb Chaim asks how can the great Torah scholar, a person who spends all his waking moments immersed in study throughout his life carry out his obligation to perform good works?
He explains with the aid of a story recounted in the Talmud (Ta'anit, 25a) about Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. This great sage was poverty stricken all his life. At one point, his wife grew impatient with the endless drudgery of this grinding poverty and she asked Rabbi Chanina to pray to God for some relief. He duly went out to the fields to pray and sure enough, a hand came down from heaven and presented him with a large chunk of solid gold shaped in the form of a table leg. Yet, when he brought it home to his wife she told him to take it back. At the same time as he was given the gold, Rabbi Chanina was also sent a dream about the condition of his family in the world to come. He saw in this dream that in the world to come all his neighbors were sitting at tables with three legs while his own family was seated at a table with only two legs.
THE GOOD WORKS OF THE TORAH SCHOLAR
Explains Reb Chaim: the golden leg handed to Rabbi Chanina represents the leg of the tripod referred to by the Mishna related to good works. It is God's desire that all people enjoy good, prosperous lives but He has a problem in actualizing His desire. People's deeds are not meritorious enough for good fortune to flood the world, and as a result the inputs necessary for physical well-being are in short supply. In order to compensate, God takes the well-being generated by the merit of the sages such as Rabbi Chanina and spreads the largess over all of mankind, leaving the sages themselves who generated it poverty stricken.
After all, the Torah sage should be interested primarily in the next world whereas other people are more interested in this one; so God arranges a swap. The sage gives up the benefits that ought to fall to his lot in this world to other people and acquires their share in the world to come in return. This willingness to surrender the benefits generated by one's learning is the ultimate in 'good works' and no one other than the Torah scholar has the resources that can provide it. The Talmud states that each day a heavenly voice declares, "the entire world is fed in the merit of my son Chanina, while he is content with a measure of St. John's bread from Shabbat to Shabbat. (Ta'anit, 24b)
THE SAME IDEA HAS A PARALLEL IN THE SECULAR WORLD
This idea shouldn't be difficult to relate to because it has a clear secular counterpart. We owe the modern conveniences we enjoy and take for granted to a few learned men that most people haven't even heard of. How many people have heard of Farraday or Maxwell who uncovered the mysteries of electricity without which our world would be totally unimaginable? Who knows that Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics and preserved us all from the threat of dying prematurely of pneumonia and other bacterial diseases? How many people have heard of Louis Pasteur who uncovered the relationship between germs and disease and how many people remember the Curies who gave us the gift of X-rays? Just as talmudists are only known to other talmudists, scientists are only appreciated by other scientists. Yet all of us benefit constantly from the good works of these great men. It would therefore seem that recognition and importance are just as unrelated in other areas of life as they are in Torah scholarship.
But how can this be so? How is it possible for anyone to state that the whole world is living wrong unless he is totally demented?
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR THE WHOLE WORLD TO BE WRONG
What can you do? Read your Bible. Never mind the arcane rabbinic commentaries which you may not be ready to accept! Just read the plain text. It clearly states that the reason for the Egyptian persecution is the Jewish refusal to assimilate to the Egyptian good life. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Joseph. He said to his people, "Behold! The people, [still recognizable as a distinct entity because of their refusal to assimilate] the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we. Come, let us outsmart it lest it become numerous and it may be that if war will occur, it, too, may join our enemies, and wage war against us and go up from the land." (Exodus 1:8-10)
The people of Israel were still recognizable as a foreign element after an Egyptian sojourn of 210 years. They didn't assimilate because they were waiting for something. What were they waiting for?
Moses replied to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?" And He said, "For I shall be with you - and this is your sign that I have sent you; When You take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain." (Ibid 3:11-12)
The Jewish refusal to assimilate, and God's reason for choosing the Jewish people over the Egyptians are one and the same. God chose us over the sophisticated 'modern' Egyptians because we were the ones who were willing to serve Him on His Mountain by accepting His Torah. In anticipation of developing this special relationship, we refused to assimilate to the good life offered by Egypt and preferred to bring the Egyptian persecution down on our heads.
CAN THERE BE JEWS WITHOUT TORAH SCHOLARS?
We cannot possibly carry out this national purpose without placing the Torah scholar on the special pedestal earlier described. Accepting the Torah on Mount Sinai doesn't guarantee its presence among us today. The Torah is just a book that lies forlorn on its shelf unless the scholar is willing to devote his life to deciphering its message and teaching it to the rest of us.
THE SOURCE OF HUMAN VALUES
No one acquires his or her values in a vacuum. Our values are formed by our culture. The schools we attend, the books we read, the atmosphere of our social surroundings provide the background against which we shape our characters and think our thoughts. If all of the above are virtually empty of Torah knowledge it should hardly surprise us that our focus and direction will be different than the focus the Torah advocates. If we accept the Torah focus as the right one, it can indeed easily be the case that most of the world through most of its history was and is living wrong.
THE PARALLELS BETWEEN THE EGYPTIAN EXILE AND CURRENT JUDAISM
Divine Providence has seen fit to put us back into Egypt. The turmoil of the last century, the two World Wars and the Holocaust that was a part of the latter put us in a situation where once again the vast majority of the Jewish people are ignorant of their Torah heritage.
At the beginning of the current historic era which began after the Second World War, the percentage of the surviving Jewish nation that had enjoyed serious exposure to Torah knowledge was miniscule. Observant Jews comprised under five percent of the Jewish people while serious Torah scholars barely numbered in the hundreds.
It is fair to say that for the first time in Jewish history since the encounter of Sinai, we, the Jewish people are once again in the pre-Torah stage existentially, just as we were before the Exodus. Not having received the Torah or being virtually ignorant of what it contains are identical states from a practical point of view.
The secret of our continued survival is once again dependant on our refusal to assimilate to the Egyptian good life in anticipation of being able to renew our old relationship with God.
In the meantime, we are being tested. God is waiting while we sort ourselves out into those who have a powerful inner vision that there is more to life than the modern world has to offer and those who elect to join. No one can be reasonably expected to drop his or her current attitudes instantaneously. But all Jews can be expected to be willing to hear some Jewish input.
Observance and the powerful relationship with God that is associated with making the fulfillment of Torah the focus of one's life is a ladder that has many rungs. Each step in the climb to the top is precious and worthwhile. We are not necessarily obligated to reach the top, but we are all obligated to climb. No step up is possible without some Torah input.
God is always reasonable. He does not expect strict observance from the modern Jew who is ignorant of his own traditions and whose values and outlooks have been shaped by a culture that is dedicated to living wrong. But He does have the reasonable expectation that even the modern Jew becomes familiar with the book we have suffered so much to defend through our long bloody history. Whoever opens it will find that his appreciation for the Torah scholar and his respect for the Torah's vision of the world will grow by leaps and bounds.