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15th January 2022 / 13th Shevat 5782



HOW ODD / FOR GOD

I like to introduce myself sometimes as a recovered Marxist. That is because, in my younger years, I have been a Marxist. It was part of the package -so to speak - when I was an academic. Then I realised that Marxism is very similar to a religion and a very boring one.


More a cult than a religion indeed. One of these faiths that grants to its followers a sort of superior knowledge, by which they believe they can understand and explain everything. For example, Marxist scholars base their understanding of ancient history on the never-ending conflict between the urban proletariat and small landlords. And Marxist scholars of Jewish history do precisely the same with the Talmud.


I don't know how the sparse biographic notations in the Talmud about this or that Rabbi can provide a basis for determining whether the Rabbi was a member of the urban proletariat (or a small landlord), but what do I know is: I am just a Rabbi.


Obviously, Exodus is the most beloved book by Marxist scholars. Especially its first part and the description of slavery in Egypt. There you have oppressors and oppressed, slaves and slaveowners, and (they think) nothing else.


We are talking of slaves whose living conditions deteriorate over time. We explain that such oppression is sanctified and legitimised through religious belief. We read that the Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go because the ruling class needed slaves; it needed a cheap workforce.


For a Marxist, it's a bonanza. To be clear, I have nothing against this; indeed, I am flattered when other communities find a source of hope and inspiration for their creativity in the Bible, in our Holy Book. But in the stories of the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt and of their liberation, there is much more.


The passage that describes how God heard the cries of the Israelites and then intervened and liberated them through miracles is a source of hope for oppressed communities. But the sad fact is that historically God did not intervene to deliver any other people.


It's not that Judaism tolerates slavery, not at all. The point is that God intervened, through miracles, only to liberate the Jews. Us. Only us.


In other words, the point - and the discomforting problem - is:


How odd

for God

to choose

the Jews.


This apparently simple tongue twister indicates something very profound. Let's have a better look at the story.


One detail escapes the attention of those Biblical scholars who read Exodus only as a history of liberation. And it is in this week's Torah portion, in the part that we have read.


Picture the scene. The Israelites are busy organising the Exodus from Egypt, gathering what they can in a very rushed way. As we remember every year on Pesach, when we eat matzah, the Exodus happened very quickly; the Israelites went away in a hurry, they brought with them whatever they could, even the unleavened dough. Nonetheless, while everyone is rushing and hurrying, Moses takes some time to collect the bones of Joseph. The text informs us - we have seen it - that Moses took the bones of Joseph together with him.


How strange.


While the Israelites are trying to gather all they need for such a long journey, their spiritual guide wastes precious time to gather some old bones?


What's going on?


It's a question that many commentators have tried to answer in detail, and each of them has words of praises for Moses. This is understandable; let's not forget, he's doing a mitzvah.


(By the way, during our morning services, we looked at these explanations when we read the study passage. That's for those who say they cannot wake up and join at 7:30 am. Try to do it some time, you can learn something, Beside that, we are nice people.)


Anyway, the main point is that Moses recognises the importance of Joseph. He cannot imagine the Israelites travelling through the wilderness towards the Promised Land without the bones of Joseph.


Why? The life of Joseph, you see, is peculiar. He has lived in Egypt, a very class-based society (worse than England), first as a slave, then as a prisoner, then as Pharaoh's advisor. Very few other Egyptian natives have experienced so many conditions, one would say: have lived so many lives, in Egypt, in so many different social classes.


Yet, Joseph never forgot that he was a Jew. In this way, Joseph sets a precedent, establishes a model for us in the Diaspora. Regardless of what we do or our social status, we are still Jews. We identify primarily through our ethnic or religious belonging rather than professional or social status. So this is Joseph, who keeps the memory of his Jewish life while in exile. Small wonder that Moses wants him to be with him and the people while they move towards the Land.


But there is more.


Who, specifically, is Moses? Which family does Moses belong to? I know it's a bit of a tricky question, but you have a Rabbi to provide answers to the tough questions, and that is: Moses is a Levite. Moses is a descendant of Levi.


Yes, Levi: the great antagonist of Joseph. The main adversary of Joseph is among his brothers. The Talmud explains that when Joseph told of his dreams to the brothers. Levi was the most loudly to scoff:


"You've dreamed these sheaves bowing down to your sheaf. Do you think that will happen to you! Do you really believe you'll rule over us?"


This, astonishingly, is precisely what did happen when the brothers came to Egypt searching for food in times of famine, and Joseph was a ruler, and they did not recognise him.


By taking care of the bones of Joseph, Moses emends that mistake, that sin if you prefer, committed by his direct ancestor against Joseph.


Moses carries physically what remains of Joseph. And spiritually carries the past of the Jewish people.


Do you remember the other dream of Joseph?


The sun (father), the moon (mother), and eleven stars (brothers) bowed to Joseph himself.


Which is impossible. The moon and the sun never appear in the sky simultaneously! It counters the laws of nature!


But, ladies and gentlemen, this is precisely what is happening now. The Israelites. led by Moses, bow to Joseph, to his remains, by carrying the coffin with them into the wilderness towards the Promised Land.


By carrying Joseph, Moses links the deliverance of now to correcting a grave mistake of the past. And Moses shows that loyalty toward the heritage of Israel and towards the Divine promise is strong, very strong. Stronger, even, than the laws of nature.


As I said before, I consider it an honour that the history of the liberation of the Jewish people is an example, a paradigm, and an inspiration for the freedom of other communities and, God willing, of all humanity. Exodus is a majestic and inspirational Biblical book that genuinely speaks to all humankind and carries a universal message.


But read in proper context, it also has a specific message for us Jews. It encourages loyalty to our heritage. It tells us that no future liberation is complete without connection to the past, nor is it really possible.

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