Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices
I, like so many others, am at home during Ontario’s provincial lockdown. My home now consists of five people (some of our kids are back in the house from university). Five people in one home, all adults, all family, all with shared history and family experiences. This lockdown should be a breeze, I mean, how different could we all be?
Generally speaking, most things run smoothly, but that is after we went through designating spaces in the house. The tv room can’t be the hobby room, because some of the hobbies are loud (one of us has a loom) and some hobbies involve relentless pounding noises (one of us has decided to learn how to tan leather), while others are trying to focus on playing chess. We finally agreed that the news updates should only happen on the tv in the kitchen, because the big tv is in the family room which has been designated as Switzerland — neutral territory so no news allowed. Making that decision was not easy, since it sparked a spirited debate on whether Switzerland was truly neutral, and is anything in the world truly neutral, either by politics or by nature. Some of us volunteered to cook, while others volunteered to clean (we decided to head to the self-defined chore system), which worked…until the people cooking communicated they didn’t mean every time and every meal. Likewise, we had not defined whether the cleaning group could enter someone’s private house space in order to clean, or is everyone responsible for their own personal space.
The other day, my daughter walked into the room and asked if anyone had given any thought to dinner. The cleaners and the cookers all looked at each other, and the room went silent. We are trying to be so respectful of everyone we have actually stalemated ourselves in certain moments.
It took years of ongoing discussion to modify our family model as we’ve grown and changed, but the usual model isn’t working anymore because anything we enjoyed doing outside has now struggled to find its place inside. We did not account for needing a political model that would address our home reality. When the children were growing up, our house was a dictatorship — my husband and I were the decision makers. Temper tantrums were waited out and never gained the upper hand (we both agreed we don’t negotiate with terrorists). The kids were taught that their opinions would always be heard, but life experience would empower their view, so the more life experience, the more weight to the opinion. But our little oligarchy lost much of its force each time another child attained ‘adulthood’, as well it should. And now, we are five adults together in the house searching for a political model.
Together we have discussed the differences between republics and democracies (decided neither will truly work for us). Then we watched the political struggles in the United States, and our discussions gained many layers.
As a Canadian, I am mindful that we have a parliamentary system and a multicultural view. Although we are close neighbours to the United States, we are distinctly different. I watched a mob attack the Capital building in Washington, and could only imagine how my American neighbour might feel. I could only imagine the shock and the heartbreak.
But after watching all the news reports and the videos, I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot, with different eyes.
The book of Shemot (Exodus) begins with a list of names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt. After the names of his sons, it tells us that seventy people had all come from Jacob, and had all descended to Egypt. Over the years, I have looked at the commentaries and opinions on why we need that information, since it seems more appropriate to the book of Genesis –all the people listed are long dead. Then I thought of my current household.
We are all one family but we are all distinct in every way. The number ‘seventy’ in Judaism represents all peoples and all nations. It reflects the totality of diversity contained under the common umbrella of humanity. Jacob, the single patriarch, had produced a clan of total diversity, and then they all entered Egypt, a tyrannical empire. It is of no great surprise that they are noticed and viewed as a threat. It is not the people that are threatening, it is the model.
While the text is detailing the names of everyone (the book itself is called Shemot, which means “Names”), pharaoh will always remain without a name. In fact, we are told the old pharaoh died and a new pharaoh arose, and we still don’t have a name for either one of them. The Torah will always refer to the king as “pharaoh”, because this model of leadership does not value the distinct individual, and so no name is attached. History will continue to perpetuate our understanding of that model through the development of the title. The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt was Ptolemy XV Caesar (nicknamed Caesarian) who reigned with his mother, Cleopatra. It is from his name, Caesar (named after Julius Caesar) that the title persists into the word Tsar (Czar) and Kaiser. They are all words that track back to ‘Caesar’, which tracks to pharaoh.
Interestingly, the Torah never gives Moses a title, we are always on a first name basis with him, but we never know pharaoh’s first name, only his title — two distinct models of leadership. As the leadership model is forming with Moses, the model of the people is also forming. All of Israel must learn how to retain their distinct voices while sharing a common vision of the future. The Israelite slaves who leave Egypt will struggle with this their entire lives as they expect Moses to behave like a pharaoh and tell them what to do. They never quite understand that without distinct and different opinions, we do not learn discourse or dialogue, and we cannot learn resolutions. They always speak to Moses as a mob, and when we speak as a mob we return to Egypt.
There is a wonderful story from the village of Chelm, that Jewish place where the logic could be sideways but the insights are always there. One night, a great fire is raging in the village. The rabbi gathers everyone together for a blessing. He addresses the village and says he will now lead them in a blessing of gratitude. Everyone asks how he could possibly think of gratitude at this moment. The rabbi responds that without the illumination from the fire, they could not see where the buckets are to put it out.
No one wants the fire, but when it happens, do we want to focus our eyes on the damage of the fire and blind ourselves by its glow? Perhaps the preferred choice would be to search for what it has shown us that we didn’t realize we should always have valued.
As I get ready for Shabbat, I listen to the sound of the loom, the silence of the chess game and the tv turned to the news in my kitchen. The balance of a working political model is always delicate, and should never be underestimated.