Pharaoh: the first populist?

The Book of Exodus is always too contemporary for comfort. There has always been slavery in the world, tragically; and there are always Pharaohs.

The ‘new Pharaoh’ who arises to rule Egypt at the beginning of the book may be the world’s first famous populist. We’re told that he ‘doesn’t know Joseph’; he’s not interested in the facts of his own country’s history. Alternatively, as the Talmud suggests, he pretends not to know. It doesn’t suit his interests to acknowledge that he may be in any manner indebted to that ‘Hebrew lad’ whom his predecessor brought out of prison to save the land from famine. He’s the prototype of the ruler who denies the contributions of ‘outsiders’, all too often a first step in denying them rights, first to equality, then to residency and, at worst, to life itself.

This new Pharaoh’s first public pronouncement is that there are too many of Joseph’s people over here: ‘You have to understand’, he tells his own people, ‘that these Children of Israel are now a nation: there are lots of them and they’re more powerful than us.’ This might be thought of as Pharaoh’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

But it’s how he continues which is most interesting. ‘Havah nitchakmah lo’, he says; this is generally translated as ‘Come, let us deal wisely with them.’ But this fails to convey the full seductive power of his invitation: ‘you and I together, we’re smarter and savvier than them. We know how to deal with those people.’ It’s the way populists in every generation know how to draw out the worst in us all; the appeal to our insecurities in order to create an ‘us’ against ‘them’. It’s the manipulative allure of being considered one of the ‘clever’, not one of the losers who doesn’t get how dangerous ‘those people’ are. It’s the co-option of the little racist voice which, if we’re honest, whispers its innuendos in somewhere nervous and nasty inside most of us, into the big racist project of the leader who is the right man at the right time, who’s truly one of the people, one of us.

Nachmanides, the great thirteenth century Catalonian rabbi who was eventually forced to flee Spain to save his life, well understood what can happen when a leader legitimises the worst in human nature. He notes how Pharaoh doesn’t use his police or army to drown the Hebrew boy babies. He can rely on ordinary people to do that. They’ll stop at nothing, once the restraint of the law is removed. They’ll listen out for the sound of crying; they’ll go into the houses of their Hebrew neighbours and search; they’ll take the babies from their cots. Should any parent object, should anyone say ‘He just stole my child’, Pharaoh’s officers will say, ‘Of course it’s against the law. Just bring witnesses and we’ll settle your case.’ But no one will have seen, no one will ever have heard anything.

Pharaoh saw himself as the saviour of his country. Instead, he brings only disaster. It may take time, but gross injustice ultimately has gross consequences. ‘Are you still unable to grasp the fact that Egypt is utterly ruined’, Pharaoh’s own advisers tell him, finally voicing their frustration after the seventh of the ten plagues. In the end it is always the land itself which suffers under evil misrule, the poor, the cattle, the crops, the water, the entire ecology.

Samson Raphael Hirsch fought for equal rights for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before being called to Frankfurt, where he was rabbi of the orthodox community and lived through the unification of Germany under Bismark. Beware, he wrote in his commentary to the Torah, lest you make a person’s rights contingent on anything other than the basic fact of his or her humanity. Once you do that, you open the floodgates to all the horrors of Ancient Egypt.

In every generation we need to be wary not only of our Pharaohs, but, as the first Hasidic leader, the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught, of the little bit of Pharaoh in us all which says yes, thank you for dealing wisely.

 

Memories of my father

Vayechi means ‘And he lived’, although it opens the portion of the Torah in which Jacob dies.

My father, if he were still living, would have his 99th birthday today.

I met a man this week who, as a child, survived the Nazis in rural France. He described to me how he and his father had to flee to the forest and hide in a low, moss-covered cave. He’d thought little of his father then, he confessed. To the boy he then was, his father had seemed a broken man, unable to work or support the family. Only now, he told me with surprise, only now late in his life, was he hearing again in his head all the stories, all the poetry his father had shared with him during those long, lonely, frightening days.

I don’t know if the dead ever address us from some other outer world. But I do know that our dead speak to us from some deep inner reality, sometimes with a clarity we missed while they were living. Maybe it’s because the winnowing of time has removed the everyday husks, leaving only the kernels of their wisdom and love. Or perhaps some process within us, reflection, remorse, has helped us to hear more clearly their true voice.

This does not amount to any real recompense for our loss, for the absence of someone we love and with whom, day by day and week by week, we shared the wonder of the ordinary: a flower, a shopping list, a joke, a much-loved book. But it is some measure of consolation, given to us often only after time, when the years have enabled our dead to journey from our day, our kitchen, the message on the phone, into our heart.

I hear my father now in ways I wish I’d listened to more carefully before. Perhaps it’s because I think of his life not as ‘shall we repair this shelf?’ (he was brilliant with his hands) or ‘when shall I get home from hospital?’ (his last years were not easy), but as a whole. In Jerusalem it’s the custom to inscribe on every gravestone the places where each person was born and lived before his or her days ended in the holy city. I wish we’d put those destinations on my father’s stone: Breslau, Jerusalem, Glasgow, London, the journey of his life.

This past frightening week, when I spoke twice late at night to refugees from Iran terrified for their families still there, has made me think of what my father lived through. There are entire stories between the words ‘Breslau’ and ‘Jerusalem’: flight, hunger in the siege of Jerusalem (‘people were eating grass’). Between ‘Glasgow’ and ‘London’ is the death at just 44 of his first wife. It was only after he was gone that my cousin said to me in a café in Israel, ‘Your father was our hero.’

Most of all, I hear my father come upstairs to my brother’s room where, when I was five, I too was allowed to sleep, and say ‘If you’re good, I’ll teach you another line of the Shema again tomorrow.’ This, in my memory, is juxtaposed to how, when I was sixteen or seventeen, he questioned me: ‘Are you still saying the Shema before you sleep?’ Since then, I have never once consciously omitted to do so.

And, as Australia burns, and people and nature suffer appallingly, I hear my father ask somewhat sharply, as he did when we watched a moving documentary on the work of Medecin sans Frontieres, ‘And you, what are you going to contribute with your life?’

Abba, please don’t stop challenging my conscience. And, since I remember most especially your blessing before every Yom Kippur, please don’t let that blessing cease.

May the blessings of all who loved us never cease inside our hearts.

 

 

On nuthatches, nature and God

What’s in my soul to write about has nothing to do with this week’s Torah portion, except for just one phrase and then only if I take it out of context.

I want to write about the trees, the oaks, beeches and hollies in the steep hills of the Wye valley, ‘Thou wanderer through the woods’, as Wordsworth called this beautiful river 200 years ago in his wonderful Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.

I want to write about the birds which came each day to the feeder where our family stayed. ‘Have you seen the nuthatches?’ Yes, we watched them, these shy birds who feed upside down like woodpeckers, only smaller, blue-grey backed and orange-breasted, which came so near and privileged us so closely to witness the life of the forest.

At night and before dawn the owls called, their cries like their flight, floating out of the darkness suddenly, gliding still-winged, then with two or three beats rising back into the blackness of the branches, from where, impossible to see, they with their huge eyes see all.

Later, out walking with the family or running in the early light, the mist concealed the river and turned the trees into harbingers of the forest’s mystery, with its falling streams and the pale glimmering from the edges of wet fallen leaves.

‘Wilderness is a curse word to me’, said Ernestine, a native Tlingit living in the islands off Alaska, to the ecologist-researcher Lauren Oakes. Lauren is shocked that these vast areas she had helped struggle to protect, ‘where earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain,’ should be considered a ‘curse’. Then she understands: the world can’t be divided into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, wilderness and civilisation, exploitable and untouchable. Nature and humanity are not separate: what we need is relationship, but on terms enduring and endurable for all life. This is something Ernestine’s family have understood for generations: when to take and when to refrain from taking, so that millennia hence the forests will still be there. (see Lauren Oakes: In Search of the Canary Tree)

That’s the phrase from the Torah which returns to me again and again, ever since it caught my attention because of the haunting way it was sung in a Hasidic stiebl in Shaarei Hesed in Jerusalem: nafsho keshurah benafsho, his life is bound to his life; his soul is bound to his soul.

In context the words have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. Judah speaks them to describe the bond between his youngest brother Benjamin and his aging father Jacob: without the beloved son from whom he was so deeply reluctant to part, from whom only the unrelenting desperation of famine could divide him, the elderly parent will die.

But the words transcend that context. They do speak, indeed, of a bond of spirit between us and the people we love. But they also describe, with inimitable brevity, the vital connection between us and nature, between our life and all life, between our tiny fragment of spirit and the spirit of all being, between us and what we may perhaps mean by God.

This bond is the greatest of things, and the smallest, revealed in a water-drop condensed on a leaf, in the alighting of a tiny bird.

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