Tag Archives: Egypt

Kill the Copts… No Kill the Syrians… No Kill the Jews!

;SDLKdnkf;wkng'ksjddg'askdjfThis past month a church in Minya, Egypt was forced to cancel Mass for the first time in 1600 years. While over the past two millennia the Coptic Church has experienced no shortage of anti-Christian sentiment and persecution in Egypt, the lawlessness towards Christians hit a zenith recently. For Copts, distancing themselves from their holy sites – if those edifices still happen to stand – was the only reasonable course of (in)action considering the utter brutality carried out against the Copt’s infrastructure. In fact, in the last two weeks, 37 churches have been destroyed, scores of Christian businesses ransacked and several worshipers have been killed by Muslim Brotherhood members. As the Brotherhood represents the pro-Morsi Islamicist side of Egyptian politics, Copts – as Christians – are (rightfully so) seen as siding with the army and pushing for a strong, secular Egyptian government. While Copts make up about ten percent of the Egypt’s ninety million strong population, this nine million person minority clearly experiences the daily pangs of Islamicist persecution.

While Egypt experiences a taste of civil war, Syrian civilians – especially around Damascus – suffer the real thing daily. With China and Russia obstructing the UN from taking a unified stance against Assad’s regime’s killing of civilians, most Western powers feel chained by the specter of Iraq and the belief that unilateral action is unfavorable, and must be shelved as the preferred method of a true world power.

Allow me to raise the following hypothetical: if Jews still remained in Egypt or Syria, what would be their plight? As we can be certain our imagined Jewish minority would have voted against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak elections last year, would their plight be any different from the Copts? Could we even suppose that this Jewish minority – representing significantly less than the ten percent of the Egyptian population that the Copts claim – would not have been persecuted? Indeed, we could be sure that a mini-Kristallnacht would have been perpetrated against the Jews over the last month. On the Syria front, what if Jews had not trickled out of Syria since 1948? In truth, the world cannot even protect Sunni Muslims from the Shiite and Alawite ruling party of Syria. As Assad kills thousands of innocent civilians, gases cities and brutally tortures traitors to his cause, what would be the plight of the 2013 Syrian Jew had they not fled over the last six decades? Ought we to believe that the world would intervene if these Syrian Jews were genocidally killed during the Syrian revolution? Syrians cannot even protect themselves from their own cruel regime with over 100,000 murdered and counting, and as pointed out above, Russia and China obstruct world efforts to intervene. Would the world, today, intervene to save the Syrian Jew? The Christians of Egypt can claim over a billion Jesus followers worldwide who can do nothing for them but watch in horror. Sunni Muslims also enjoy over a billion adherents, but no one intervenes. So, would someone stand up for our hypothetical Jew? The only reason that a Holocaust does not occur today is because there are no Jews left in all those Arab lands, and those Jews happen to be reasonably safe in Israel already. Let not one of us lie to ourselves and believe that in 2013, our contemporaneous Human Rights Council or the world’s sense of morality and ethics would prevent a Holocaust against Middle Eastern Jewry in Arab lands if not for the safe haven that is State of Israel. Only through Israel is there life for these Jews!

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Would Rambam Say the Ten Plagues Are Miracles?

Equipped with my very own Little Midrash Says as a child, I did not question that the ten plagues were extraordinarily miraculous. In fact, after existence itself, I think they might just be as miraculous as it gets. Don’t you?

We often like to point out little miracles all the time, because if God gives us a miracle, then He must love us. Rambam, however, insists that nature is a constant state of affairs1, and this is an important backbone for his worldview.

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He therefore minimizes how often we say something is a miracle- which we might define as God’s disruptions to the natural order of things- and tells us that all miracles were actually planned and prepared to occur before there any laws of nature, that is, before creation. God sets a timer, the miracles occur and disrupt the natural order of things, and then everything goes back to normal2.

In fact, not only does he limit miracles to things that have been prepared since the Big Bang, but he seems intent on taking away as many of our miracles as possible!

This can be seen from his statement in the Treatise of Resurrection:

“Only in those cases when we are taught explicitly that a particular event is a miracle and there is absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it, only then do we feel forced to admit that it is a miracle.”3

So two things need to happen for us to call something a miracle: We have to be taught clearly that it’s miraculous, and it needs to be impossible to explain it in a natural way. Otherwise, it’s just not a miracle.

So what does this mean for the plagues in particular?

Were we taught they were miracles? Yes. Is there “absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it”?

Well, maybe.

If you take Nahum Sarna seriously- and I hasten to remind you that even Haym Soloveitchik respects him– then perhaps the plagues may be explained in a natural manner. In his “Exploring Exodus”4, which is well written and generally awesome, he gives natural explanations for the first nine plagues, which in his words “can all be explained within the context of the familiar vicissitudes of nature that imperil the Nile Valley…”.

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He then begins to detail not only how the first nine plagues are natural occurrences, but how they each naturally caused the following plague! Now cause and affect, science fans, is nature at its very best5.

We will not go into detail here in regards to the natural explanation to each plague, but Dr. Sarna references a paper which explains the theory, and we are forced to ask if this qualifies as a “possibility” of a natural explanation. “Possible” is a pretty broad word, so my guess is yes, but you may know better than I.

At any rate, we then have nine non-miraculous occurrences, wondrous and providential as they were6. The tenth however, remains impossible to explain, and may be viewed as a miraculous plague against the Egyptians that was prepared before time.

To me this raises the question of free will versus God’s ability to see the future, but we’re not going to get into that here. At any rate, this isn’t so much a Dvar Torah, but a way to annoy your friends and family, I guess.

Do so at your own peril, and if you’re looking for a lesson, then perhaps end with “and therefore the natural order of things is truly important to Jewish theology!”

This lesson is always a winner at big meals.

Shabbat Shalom!

1“The world goes according to its custom” – BT Avoda Zara 54B

2Fox, in his superb Interpreting Maimonides (page 274) writes that “This view holds an obvious attraction for Maimonides. It preserves the order of nature, and for him this is of the highest intellectual and practical importance…Even the attested miracles are held by some sages to have been built into the order of the world at creation, and this too serves to reduce the effect of the breaks in the natural order resulting from active divine intervention.” This is based on the Guide 2:29.

3Treatise on Ressurrection. Cited and Translated by Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides, p..34. See also Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25., Eight Chapters, section 8.

4 p. 63-81

5 He even goes so far as to explain how they naturally would not have affected Goshen, in case anyone out there remembers to ask.

6Though of course providence is quite a complicated topic in Maimonidean thought.

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Do Your Dreams Really Matter? Joseph’s Did…..Kind of

The only two examples of Jews interpreting dreams in Tanakh are of Yoseif and Daniel: both in the courts of non-Jewish kings. To me, this is all one needs to know about Judaism’s stance on dreams; but, this is not to say that Judaism does not recognize the importance of dreams. Both Avraham and Yaakov anticipated and dreamed of the day when their progeny would become a nation and worship the one God. Yoseif, on the other hand, dreamed of the day when he would rule his family. Either this dream is the product of an egotistical youth not yet weathered by the vicissitudes of life, or the Torah is submitting to us a crystal clear window into Yoseif’s heart and vision.

In truth, even if one puts aside his dreams, from his youth, Yoseif was a leader. This can be seen from the fact that the Torah states that Yoseif brought negative reports regarding his brothers to their father Yaakov. While one can slander Yoseif and call him a tattle-tale (even according to the Midrashim that claim the brothers only seemed to be sinning), in truth he was acting as his father instructed. Yaakov commanded Yoseif to bring these reports: “And Israel said to Yoseif: ‘Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, are they not?’ Come, I will send you to them.… Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word” (37:13-4). True, the Torah calls the reports bad. But, that is just describing the nature of the reports: the brothers were acting improperly, hence they were bad. In fact, the three biblical stories regarding the brothers, independent of Yoseif, taken literally are: 1: Shimon and Levi executing all the males of Shechem, 2: Reuvein sleeping with his step-mother, and 3: Yehudah marrying a Cnaanite and frequenting prostitutes. Not exactly stories that evince righteousness. Yoseif’s reports could not have been much worse than the Torah’s reports! Also, Yoseif did not go out to the pasture with his fellow shepherd brothers. Instead, he remained with his father. It must be that he stayed behind because he was part of the managerial staff. In fact, some commentators explain that the ketonet passim (the garment that Yaakov bestowed upon Yoseif that enraged his brothers) was a garment that indicated his choice status among his brothers. Also, his father sent him to check on their well-being and that of the flock. He was a leader even in his youth.

Throughout Yoseif’s life, everything he did was blessed. But, as opposed to the forefathers who have direct interactions with God, and the occasional miraculous intervention, like Esther HaMalka, God is never found openly in Yoseif’s life. In fact, the only time God is even mentioned is when Yoseif unilaterally attributes interpretations of dreams to Him. While God may be the source of blessing, the nature of God’s interaction in the world from the Yoseif perspective is indirect. In fact, not only is Yoseif the dreamer, but he is also the realizer of the dreams. In the following, I will argue that Yoseif is a highly skilled and intelligent socio-economic political leader who always ensures that he fills leadership vacuums, all the way from the top of his life until he dies at the age of 110. The dreams come true because he ensures as much.

The most important catalyst in Yoseif’s life, the cause of much family strife and personal promotion was his dreams. While it is not hard to understand the root of Yoseif’s youthful dreams, how are we to understand Yoseif’s ability to interpret the dreams of the baker, of the butler and of Pharaoh? How did he know how to interpret dreams in the first place? Does God ensure that Yoseif’s interpretation comes to pass or is his prowess a level of prophecy? Really, one needn’t appeal to either of these options to understand Yoseif’s supernatural ability. Let us start with Yoseif’s first successful dream interpretation as his personal dreams were solely interpreted (mostly correctly) by his father and brothers, without him ever uttering a word either way regarding their meaning. While in jail for allegedly raping Potifar’s wife, Yoseif interpreted two separate dreams: one indicating that the offender would be vindicated and returned to his previous post in three days time, and the other sentenced to death also in three days. While Yoseif’s degree of precision and accuracy in his interpretations seem to prove he was blessed with a unique gift, there is actually more taking place behind the scenes than simple dream interpretation. For example, Pharaoh’s birthday – the only birthday mentioned in Tanakh – was well known to be the annual ‘Day of Judgment’ for those incarcerated in Egyptian jails. In other words, independent of the two dreams, Yoseif already knew that the two would be judged in three days time. Furthermore, Yoseif was the head foreman of the jail for many years, possibly as many as twelve. It would be silly to misjudge Yoseif and claim that he did not know, at least, the basic rules of Egyptian jurisprudence. Before the two stood before Pharaoh for judgment, Yoseif already knew their future. It is quite possible that the two also already knew their own fates as well, but as many incarcerated individuals remain optimistic, and hope that the standard punishment need not apply to him, for some reason or another, they were unable to see their fates for what they truly were: sealed. Here, Yoseif is not a prophet, not a mystical dream interpreter, but simply a man who can ‘ro’e et hanolad,’ foresee the obvious consequences, when others are blinded by subjectivity.

When we analyze Yoseif’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, we find many suspicious elements ingrained in Yoseif’s interpretation. First, before Pharaoh even has a chance to comment on its validity or worth, Yoseif continues, apparently as though it were part of the interpretation: “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt…. so that the land will not perish in the famine” (41:33-6). Part of the interpretation was the establishment of a new economic vizier who would be the savior of the country and region. Now, is there any reason that this new appointment should be an element of the interpretation? No one asked Yoseif for advice! In truth, Yoseif was establishing a leadership role for himself through the interpretation. And Pharaoh and his servants fell right into his hands.

If it is true as we have hypothesized so far, that Yoseif’s gift to interpret dreams is more a consequent of his intellectual abilities than his spiritual capabilities, then how do we account for the famine? How did Yoseif know that there would be one? First we should note that Yoseif announced that there would be seven years of abundance and seven of famine. But did that ever happen? Rashi explains that only two years of famine ravished the land. Once Yaakov arrived in Egypt, the famine instantly ended. There is no textual reason to deny this claim. So, while there were seven years of abundance, the seven years of famine never materialized.  Nonetheless, everything else went so well up to then, there was no reason to hold Yoseif accountable for this failing. In fact, we could be sure that Pharaoh and the Egyptians were quite happy that there was a sudden cessation to the famine. Also, the verse states: “The earth produced during the seven years of abundance by the handfuls” (41:47), there are two ways to read this: 1. A tremendous amount was collected. But, when the Torah wants to say ‘a lot,’ it usually uses a word or a phrase like ‘uncountable’ or ‘without number.’ 2. Accordingly, the fact that it says “handfuls” seems to imply that the human element is what made the amount so much. The Egyptians made sure to gather every grain, every drop, during those years of abundance, and that is what made it into years of abundance.

But, how could Yoseif ensure that there would be years of famine following these years of abundance. The Torah commands that the Israelites leave their land fallow every seventh year, to uphold the Shmittah year. As the Torah commands not only for the perfection of the individual/society, but also for the benefit of surroundings, the Torah must be telling us that working a land for seven straight years will damage the land. As Egypt controlled the Levant during Yoseif’s reign, the Egyptians were able to overwork the land for seven years, ensuring that all the Egyptian and surrounding lands would be depleted of the soil nutrients for a normal crop in the eighth year and not produce a harvest, thereby guaranteeing a year, or more, of famine. This explains why Yaakov can command his sons to take of “the land’s glory,” including “balsam, honey, wax, lotus, pistachios and almonds,” (43:11) as these items would be unaffected by overworking the land.

If it is Yoseif that implemented a plan that would lead to himself lording over others, why was it necessary for him to torture his brothers? Some commentators like pointing out that Yoseif actively attempted to make sure that every aspect of his dreams come true. This is intellectually repulsive. Why would he care? He was already on top of the food chain, he did not need to rub their noses in it. Furthermore, as Rashi points out, Yoseif’s mother was dead so it was unlikely that Rachel would be prostrating before him any time soon. In order to understand why Yoseif mentally tortured his brothers, we must look at the formation of Bnei Yisrael. As is made clear in several places, a nation, in the Torah is started by twelve men, so when Yaakov fathered twelve sons, clearly that was meant to be the beginning of the nation. This is in stark contrast to Avraham and Yitzchak who both fathered two main sons, one of which would officially pass on the tradition, and the other lost to the nation. But, were the twelve sons meant to be the nation or were the grandchildren of Rachel meant to be the Israelites? Let us remember that Yoseif had two sons and Benjamin had ten: twelve in total. Clearly, the Torah is telling us that Yoseif and Binyamin might have just been another rung in the family tree before the nation was formed, like Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov was. Obviously, had this situation materialized, the other ten tribes would have been thrown into the group of potentially important, but in the end failed offspring of forefathers, like Yishmael and Eisav. Also, the Midrash points out that Yoseif should have had ten more sons, but lost them when he desired Potifar’s wife. This Midrash also means to convey the idea that, as opposed to Rachel’s offspring of both Yoseif and Binyamin representing the start of the nation, Yoseif could have been one of the four forefathers, and the Israelites would have been his twelve sons.

Yoseif was testing his brothers to see whether they were so far gone that they had to be excluded from Klal Yisrael or was there still hope for them. When Yehuda took responsibility for his brother, and openly displayed his penitent heart, it was made clear once and for all, that it was unnecessary to jettison the other ten brothers from Klal Yisrael. Had Yoseif not tortured the brothers, they would not have had the chance to prove themselves and become re-included in Klal Yisrael.

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