Thursday, January 19, 2017

Refugee or Fugitive - Torah portion Shemot

In his zeal to counter the perceived threat from the Hebrews, Pharaoh issues a decree to kill the newborn boys:
"And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying: Every newborn boy you must throw into the Nile, and every girl keep alive." (Ex 1:22)
He commands "all" his people, and doesn't specify "Hebrew" boys. The Talmud (T.B. Sotah 12a) picks up on this and suggests that Pharaoh's astrologers told him that the savior of the Hebrews was just born, but they didn't know if he was an Egyptian or a Hebrew. So Pharaoh imposed his decree to drown every boy on Egyptians and Hebrews alike.

In this interpretation, Pharaoh is so determined to stop the Hebrews that he's willing to kill his own people if that's what it takes.

The plain meaning however is that "Hebrew boys" is implied by the context. The phrase "all his people" then means that all Egyptians were commanded to carry out the decree against the Hebrews. Which is pretty terrifying when you think about it.

Just imagine for a moment... You're a Hebrew woman, and you're pregnant. No ultrasound in ancient Egypt, so you don't know the sex of your baby. You hope upon hope that it's a girl, because the terror of what will happen otherwise is too horrific to consider. You carry the baby to term and give birth. The baby emerges a boy. Your heart sinks. What should be a joy is now a living nightmare. The Egyptians have been notified of the birth, enter your house on Pharaoh's orders, wrench your newborn baby out of your arms, and then take him away to be murdered, discarded in the Nile. And you're not alone. Countless families are likewise bereft. The Hebrew community is beside itself with trauma and grief.

One mother however manages to avert the decree:
"... she saw that he was good, and she hid him three months. And she could no longer hide him, and she took for him a basket of bulrushes..." (Ex 2:2-3)
She hides him because she sees "that he was good." But this is a bit odd. Doesn't every mother see their child as "good"? Wouldn't they all try to hide their babies if they could? How does Moses' mother manage to hide him? This gives slightly different picture than the one I painted above, where the Hebrews are presumably resigned to the decree and painfully but obediently give up their babies to the Egyptians. Moses' mother is the exception, who sees something so special in her child that she rebels and does not consent. Instead, she hides him.

Let's skip ahead now. Moses grows up in Pharaoh's house. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of the Hebrew slaves, and Moses kills him. And he's forced on the run:
"And Pharaoh heard of this matter, and he sought to kill Moses, and Moses fled..." (Ex 2:15)
Interesting that Pharaoh, who would have been a grandfather to Moses, nonetheless sought to kill him, his own daughter's son. It might be surprising, except that this is the same Pharaoh after all who issued the initial decrees to kill the Hebrew boys. So Moses being a Hebrew might have always at the forefront of Pharaoh's mind. Perhaps he agreed to the initial adoption only as a very reluctant concession to his daughter. Or maybe he'd hoped that Moses' would cease to identify as a Hebrew and become fully Egyptian, which this incident clearly proved wrong.

In any case, note the textual proximity of these two events, Moses being hidden and Moses fleeing. They exemplify two different types of hiding:
1. Hiding because of who you are.
2. Hiding because of what you've done.
It's something like the difference between being a refugee, and being a fugitive. (Both words incidentally come from the Latin fugere - to flee.)

Clearly, we have sympathy for people who are being chased, hounded, hunted, for no good reason other than bigotry and baseless hate. We have less sympathy for those being chased and forced into hiding because of wrongdoings they've committed. The refugee is a victim. The fugitive has it coming to them.

One would think that this distinction should be pretty clear. The problem however is that those who force others into hiding because of who they are, often times also claim that these people have done something wrong, if not individually then collectively. To the oppressors and victimizers, the people they're hunting are looked at as fugitives, not refugees.

Yes, the Torah talks about the Egyptians terrorizing, murdering and enslaving the Hebrews, but the complicit Egyptians would no doubt have justified it by the notion that the Hebrews posed a threat to their society. And it is the same throughout history. Societies with an ideology and/or a policy to harm or oppress whole groups of people, invariably rationalize their righteousness and innocence based on the "good" they convince themselves they are ultimately promoting.

And yet there are instances where a problem, a real threat, does localize within a particular group. So how do we work out whether we're actually on the right side, responsibly addressing a bona fide threat, or whether we're simply deluding ourselves with rationalizations? I'll offer one suggestion:

If we lose sight of the individual, it's time to reassess.

Groups can have characteristics. You can make generalizations about groups. You can come up with statistics about groups. And those can be 100% true. But at the same time, many of the individuals within that group (and in some cases even the vast majority of that group) lack those characteristics, defy those generalizations.

Every individual therefore deserves to be judged, evaluated, for who they are - and not based on generalizations about their group. A focus on the individual human being has to be the overriding goal.

It sounds so obvious, but we are constantly judging people based on "categorical" assessments. We talk about whole groups of people as if they were a single entity. That is a blatant falsehood. Yes, erasing the individual makes it "easy" then to justify taking X, Y or Z actions against them. Erase the individual, and we erase our own guilt.

So in very practical terms, we need to start being more aware of the language we use to describe people. Notice when we refer to groups, and what that means to us about individuals within that group. Listen to how people talk. Pay attention. And don't let ourselves - or others - fall into the trap.

Start to do more of that, and we'll be living in a vastly improved world.

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