By Amanda Hoffman
I love people. This love may contribute to the daily affront I feel, as I try to keep my eyes and awareness open to the teeming throngs, that I might access individuality among the effluvium. When this effort is thwarted, I suffocate in the muteness of averted eye-contact and cannot claw out of the clear film sucked to my skin that separates me utterly from others, hand heart and breath. I take another leap at connection, and do find a groove of air that supports me and, somehow, another. Connection occurs when I speak bravely, when I trust my voice and thoughts to make meaning, to invite care, and carry each other.
A few months ago I was testing this confidence by agreeing to deliver a D’var Torah, a commentary on the week’s Torah portion, to my family’s congregation. I spoke on Parshat Bo (translation: Come!) and explored the idea of self-definition – the boundaries of an individual. I offer the results to you below:
In day to day dealings, we take for granted our bodily individuality and distinctiveness, regarding each human as separate units. We also experience ourselves beyond the boundary of skin. These boundaries may be defended, or extended. They may include a loved one, exclude an enemy, embrace or try to control one’s environmental or social circumstances.
Sometimes we close ourselves off to forces outside of us, to the possibility of being changed. In Parshat Bo, the second portion of the second book of the Torah, Egypt’s Pharaoh resists pleas to free the Israelites through, we are told, his hard-heartedness – not soft, or malleable to surrounding forces or people, such Moses, but a heart determined to carry forth one plan, achieve one outcome. We are told that it is God who “strengthens” Pharaoh’s heart. Facing this act of God, I question the culpability of a Pharaoh who’s heart was hardened out of his control. However, we can recall that God, in the words of the burning bush, made “the deaf, the dumb, the blind,” and, incidentally, Pharaoh’s heart. So, indirectly, any turn Pharaoh’s heart takes, down to its very existence, can be attributed to this God. Pharaoh may deny his vulnerability to his circumstances, outside forces, Israelites in robes demanding liberation. But these circumstances, forces outside of himself, are the very basis for his life and power. Whether we consider life as emanating from a supernatural God, or a sublime force and tradition of life, the source of ourselves and our actions are always rooted in the web of life and Earth which produces and nurtures us.
Pharaoh and Egypt sought to protect themselves, to be unaffected by Moses, by God, by the plagues. But to live is to change. In this season of the Israelite’s freedom, the spring does not signal life by perpetuating the past; it arrives and is manifest as a change. Life, which includes death, and nature are change. In the Parsha, when the plague of locusts ascend upon the Earth, the locusts do not destroy the crops, but “consume” the crops – the crops die, yes, and their existence ripples, as they are reintegrated back into the life cycle through well-fed locusts that will become fodder for larger animals, or their carcasses for the soil.
The locusts are finally chased away by a West Wind – not with an instantaneous impossible disappearance, a vanishing, a magical removal. Through these events, the Israelites are not protected or isolated from the patterns of impassive nature. Their lives and independence are predicated upon them, though destructive these forces may be.
The Israelites in Egyptian society, are slaves – they are the bottom rung of the social body, the hierarchy which defines Egyptian society. Being at the bottom, their existence is not dependent upon the exploitation of those below them: they have nowhere to stand on but solid ground. They cannot avoid their humanness, their vulnerability, in a way that Pharaoh, with guards and servants and a palace and an army, can.
Without protection of elevated social standing, each enslaved Israelite experiences life raw to the joy and pain of their body. The individual flesh-and-blood reality of each Israelite is further highlighted when Moses and Aaron request of Pharaoh that they leave Egypt, referring to their “youngsters and elders, daughters and sons, flocks and cattle.” These opposite identities of different Israelites are listed, such that no essential, or quintessential Jew emerges. There is no formula, just every Jew’s experience, every Jew’s perspective. To understand what it means to be a Jew is to take every Jewish life, indefinable and unfinished, into account.
The Israelites were liberated in the springtime – and so God specifies, the spring shall “for you” be the first months of the year. Here, God instates a beginning that coincides with a physically and emotionally impactful beginning-again, the spring and the liberation in the lives of these individuals. Time and timelines are understood and measured in relation to individual embodied experiences.
Life is structured by the individual’s experience of life – but often, we unquestioningly and uncritically inherit institutions into we which strive to categorize and understand our personal experiences. Transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson asks in his essay “Nature,” “Shall we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” The servants, and even pharaoh, and the maidservant, are not enjoying such a relationship, but follow in a traditional hierarchy and live lives prescribed to their positions.
We build defenses to be protected from the circumstances around us – you don armor, or build a house to hide in, or an empire to reside in. Yet these boundaries may serve to extend and augment the vulnerability we are trying to defend – the plague of locusts sent by God is said to have “rested in the entire border of Egypt.” Fighting the vulnerability, by building around it, extends its reach.
The Israelites escape the dehumanization and depersonalization of slavery, but depend upon their continued vulnerability to survive. The Jews are beckoned to seize their freedom for the generations ahead. I am reminded of the inclusive nature of loving, whereby one cares for another as themselves, juxtaposed with instances where I find it easier to fight for others rather than for myself, but in doing so act in my own interest. Thusly are parents agitated to turn the tide of climate change or diminishing biodiversity, and thusly do our boundaries, even in pain, stretch and hold those who are more precious to us than ourselves.
Torah commentators compare the root of the words matzoh with mitzvoth, and explain the haste of matzoh’s creation by saying that mitzvah should not be allowed to be leavened – before it attains a shape, a limited power of shaping. I am reminded of complacency – how the Israelites could perhaps have devised a compromise of their lives and their oppression. Survival can occur at the detriment of thriving, in learning how to live with stunting circumstances. But when we extend our boundaries and our vulnerability, we can include our loved ones, and our environmental and social contexts within the boundaries of ourselves. We shake off of our complacency with present inequities, we encapsulate the larger world that we live in, and if we act in harmony with its needs, we achieve the means to take care of ourselves.
Amanda Hoffman is from Charleston, SC, attended Brandeis University and is a Community Associate at the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center.