With the story of the ten plagues of Egypt, Jews begin their long and yet to be completed journey from bondage to freedom
The Torah, in fact the entirety of the Old Testament, the Tanakh, has arguably never been as relevant to our lives as it is today. Much of the political discourse in our postmodern world if not all of it centers on the two questions that are at the center of the Torah: what is a nation and what gives a nation rights of ownership over a piece of Planet Earth, over a certain territory.
The globalist progressive left in the West seems to suggest that there are no nations and if there are any, they have no exclusive rights to the lands in which they have arisen. The United Nations, the mouthpiece of the globalist movement, has just declared that no country may refuse entry to ca-called “climate refugees”. In other words, people whose lands through environmental mismanagement and destruction wrought by none others than themselves or through the vagaries of a constantly changing climate find their lands less attractive than those elsewhere, have the right to simply migrate to those more hospitable lands regardless of what the people currently residing there may feel about it.
This is a far-reaching and deeply immoral decision that undermines civilization as we know it. All civilization is based on land ownership as the rock on which it rests. Whether private or public, without land ownership there can be no economic development and thus no technological progress. Who would strive towards anything if they cannot own a piece of land on which to build their home? Who would want to live in a society, pay taxes to a government, that cannot provide the most fundamental of governmental services, perform its most sacred duty, defend the country against invasion and takeover by other people?
In a brilliant move of logical jujitsu, the progressives have managed to convince the inhabitants of the country that matters most in the world, the United States (and also those of the ex-British colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), that the only people who may actually own land are people who had never developed a civilization, who had never, therefore, had a concept of land ownership, the tribal societies that occupied these lands prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Most Canadians and many Americans fell for this hoax. They truly believe that the lands of the North American continent somehow “belong” to the remnants of native tribes that are still found in a few places on its vast surface. The Torah teaches us the opposite.
The Torah teaches us that there is nothing passive, nothing “indigenous” in being a nation or having the rights to a piece of land. It teaches us that becoming a nation is an action, an activity, an act of metriting and re-meriting, that name: a nation. Being a nation or being a part of a nation, the Torah teaches us, has nothing to do with one’s place of birth or physical appearance. It is an act, a choice, an acceptance of a destiny, a destiny that is common with other people who have made a similar choice.
Looking at America today, we can see that only about a half of its inhabitants are willing to make the choice to be Americans, to belong to the American nation. These are the people who see America as it really is, not land “stolen” from “native” tribes, but a country that was made by the hard work of people who had come to the continent from other places. These are people who believe that America, the American soil, belongs to them and to them only and thus nobody has any right to set foot on it, for any reason whatsoever, without their express permission.
The Torah tells us the story of a creation of a rather unique nation, the Jews. At the center of this story is a dichotomy, a tension, a paradox, all involving the concept of native land and land ownership. Before there were Jews, before there were Israelites, before there were “Children of Israel”, there were Hebrews, “Ivrim”, literally, “people from somewhere else”. These people, having come from somewhere else to a heavily populated land, Canaan, dwelt there apart from the local inhabitants by choice; they refused to assimilate.
So lesson Number 1: being a nation requires the will to never “assimilate”.
The Hebrews, when drought hit Canaan, left it for Egypt were physical survival was easier. Their Canaanite neighbors didn’t. Perhaps with their walled cities and agriculture they were not as exposed to what today would be called “climate change” as the nomadic shepherd Hebrews were. In Egypt, the Hebrews, once again, refused to assimilate.
This week’s Torah reading,Va’eira, tells the story of the ten plagues of Egypt, though it leaves the tenth one for next week. The story is remarkable in that it sets the stage for the constant struggle of the Hebrews, later Israelites, and later yet Jews, against the burden of becoming, and staying, a nation.
Tellingly, the Hebrews, who were supposedly oppressed by the Egyptians, never asked to leave. Exodus was not a grass-roots movement. It was all done from above, an act of Almighty, an experiment in building a truly righteous nation, one that is still going on today, in its fourth millennium. This week’s reading starts with a very explicit description of how the idea of the Exodus from Egypt came to be (Exodus 6:2-8, my translation after Chabad):
God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am the YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as the Almighty God, but with My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelled. I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’ ”
The Lord, as is His wont, does not ask permission. He simply tells Moshe (Moses) what He is going to do and tasks him with bringing the people up to date. There is something a little strange in God’s plan beyond the fact that while the Hebrews kvteched about their working conditions, they have clearly not asked for what God had in store for them. The strange part involves the Egyptians.
God, the Almighty, could have clearly “made” the Egyptians let His people go. Instead, he chooses to do the opposite. As He repeats many times in the next verses, He makes the Egyptians, the Pharaoh, refuse. He “hardens the Pharaoh’s heart”, seemingly with the purpose of punishing him and all of Egypt with an ever escalating scale of plagues. This is a carefully orchestrated theater in which God is the Director, Moshe and the Pharaoh are the unwilling hero and villain, respectively, and both the Egyptians and the Hebrews nothing but extras.
For whose benefit is this production made? What is its purpose? One cannot avoid the conclusion that the only purpose of the Egyptians’ suffering is to give God some street cred. After all, several generations have passed since Jacob and Joseph, since God was ever present in the Hebrews’ lives. During that time, He became rather forgotten by His people, one would imagine. Now He comes back and wishes to enforce the terms of the ancient covenant. The people are justly skeptical. Can He deliver? They may be “enslaved”, but they are not starving, They may be fairly low on the food chain and subject to all kinds of China-like population control regulations, but they have roofs over their heads. Now, some guy comes along and tells them that a deity who has been absent for generations wants to turn them, a band of cubicle-dwelling wage slaves, into a nation of entrepreneurial warriors, into a fierce army of freedom seekers.
They need a demonstration of God’s prowess, and they are going to get it. God knows that if He wants the corner office back, He needs to show that He still has got it. And does he ever!
One could say that what followed from this fateful moment when God decided, rather suddenly, to honor the covenant He had made with Abraham and to this very day is one unbroken chain of a group of people, us, the Jews, trying and almost always failing to live up to His expectations, to merit His faith in us, to provide return on his investment. In one thing however, we have not failed. We have not given up on Him even when, like 75 years ago, He seemed to have given up on us.
We refused to assimilate. But we did more than that. Just as in the story of the ten plagues of Egypt there were the hapless and blameless Egyptians who became collateral damage in God’s demonstration of His prowess to His people, just like later the various Canaanite nation states became collateral damage in God’s holding up his end of the deal and delivering the Promised Land to us, we have not turned our noses at the hard and dirty work of being, of staying a nation.
Lesson Number 2: If you want to be a nation, you’d better believe that you deserve it more than others and if anyone stands in your way, you’d better do what it takes to move them out.
There is a reason why Europeans in America or in Australia or elsewhere had no qualms about removing native peoples. They were following, self-avowedly and openly the path of the Hebrews. They believed themselves to have been more deserving of ownership of the land than whoever was there before and they were right. America belongs to the people that built her, not the people who tread so lightly on her soil as to leave nary a trace. That is the lesson of the Torah, the lesson of the story of the Exodus, a story that began in mid-fourth century BC Egypt and is still very much going on today.