Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: 'The Works of My Hands are Drowning' Is God Particularist or Universalist?

Similar to cases in our more recent history where Jewish children were turned into soap, several Midrashim describing slavery in Egypt refer to Israelite children being turned into bricks. Yet despite such terrible experiences, we are told not to rejoice in the downfall of our enemies. In fact, the commentators argue that we only say half Hallel on the last days of Pesach (rather than full like on other festivals) because the Egyptians drowned.

Having discussed these ideas, we focused on two 'same same, but different' Midrashim - one in which God expresses sadness for the death of the Egyptians in the sea ('the works of my hands are drowning and you [the angels] sing praises to Me?') and the other in which God cares little for the 'hated enemy' and instead focuses on the Israelites ('my children are in danger at the sea and you [the angels] sing praises to Me?') - questioning which version is a more authentic 'Jewish idea.'

We concluded with a third midrash from Sefer HaAggadah (Book of Legends) that brings a beautiful synthesis of the above points and negates two oft-heard political arguments making their way around the dinner tables of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and London.

The first position claims that because the Jewish people suffered greatly, we deserve freedom / independence, and don't need to be overly bothered by suffering on the other side.

The other position contends that if during a nation's search for freedom it inflicts pain or suffering on another, that nation's cause is inherently morally undermined.

I believe that the Midrash's conclusion - that the pain caused by our search for freedom may have been justified, but that doesn't take away from our need to sympathize with those who sufferred is a very powerful contemporary message.

Click here for
source sheet and audio recording.

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