My Country Right or Wrong

January 7, 2013

16 min read


Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )

Examining separation of church and state.

Almost everyone associates the Exodus story with Moses' famous line, "Let my people go!" Actually, one of the most perplexing aspects of the Exodus story concerns the words that Moses failed to utter – words that certainly should have been part of this line.

Moses never told Pharaoh that the Jews were not planning to return to Egypt following their three-day jaunt into the desert "to offer sacrifices to God." He never said, "Let my people go for good."

Surely this was misleading; taking Moses' words at face value would certainly encourage the listener to form the impression that all that was being sought was a short holiday for the slaves; a temporary release from bondage.

It is true that Moses never specifically promised that the Jews would return, but he also never absolutely declared that they would not. The possibility of Israel's return seems to have been deliberately left open as an option. Why?

Expectation of Return

Pharaoh's reaction to Moses' request is even more perplexing. It is clear that Pharaoh expected the Jews to return. Rashi expounds on this cryptic line:

"It was told to the king of Egypt that they had fled." (Exodus 14:5)

Pharaoh had sent spies to accompany the Jews and see what they would do at the end of three days. The spies returned and reported that the Jews had no intention of coming back to slavery. Upon hearing this, the attitude of Pharaoh and his courtiers changed and they regretted having freed the Jews. (Rashi)

As he truly expected the Jews to return, why did Pharaoh put Egypt through the travail of the plagues rather than allow them to have their short religious holiday? They were only requesting a holiday; the passage shows that he was fully confident of his ability to force them to return at the end of the three-day period if necessary. How can we explain his stubborn refusal to consent? Judging by the archeological evidence, religious holidays were quite commonplace in Egypt; how harmful could it be to add one more, albeit a Jewish one?

Didn't God Harden His Heart?

It would be tempting to avoid the problem altogether and declare that Pharaoh's opposition was irrational by definition; after all, doesn't the Torah itself tells us that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? But this response is unacceptable for more than one reason. God only hardened Pharaoh's heart after the sixth plague. (See Exodus 9:12.) Until then Pharaoh refused to grant this short holiday all on his own, without any outside prompting from anyone.

What is more, the consensus of opinion among the commentators is that even the eventual hardening of Pharaoh's heart implied nothing more than giving him the courage of his convictions. Our tendency as human beings is to buckle under the pressure of a superior force even when we think the wielder of the force is in the wrong. It was to this human weakness that the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was addressed. God gave Pharaoh the courage of his convictions; he had the fortitude to endure the punishment of the plagues as long as he felt that he was in the right. (See Sforno, Exodus 4:21-23.) We must therefore seek to find the rationale behind his position. What made him think he was in the right? Does the answer have any bearing on why Moses never stated that the Jews were leaving for good?

Human-Divine Relationships

To understand Pharaoh's perspective on the matter, we first have to examine the general framework in which human relationships with God take place.

One of the hallmarks of a modern democracy is the insistence on the separation of church and state. At first glance neither the church nor the state are harmed by this separation. But in fact this is not so; the separation is based on an arbitrary assumption that turns out to be inaccurate upon examination.

The policy of separation assumes that God establishes relations with individual human beings rather than with nations and peoples. If this assumption were true then the separation would be wonderful and could bring nothing but good. The human-Divine relationship follows the individual conscience in any case, and keeping theological disputes out of the social arena certainly promotes social harmony.

Unfortunately, this assumption turns out to be unwarranted and runs counter to the teachings of the Torah:

R' Shimon said: God summoned the seventy angels who surround His throne and said to them, 'Come, let us scramble their language and divide them into seventy tongues and seventy peoples and then let us cast lots over who is to get which one ... ' And God's lot fell on Abraham and his children, as it is written (in Deuteronomy 32:8): "For God's portion is His people; Jacob is the measure of His inheritance." God declared, 'The measure and the lot that fell to Me is exactly the one I desired.' As it is written (in Psalms 16:1): "Pleasant is the lot that fell my way." (Yalkut Shimoni, Noah 247:62)

Nachmanides explains at great length that this is the significance of Jews being the "chosen people." God appointed an angel to rule over each of the seventy nations, but He kept Israel as His own portion and rules over it directly.

It would appear that God relates to individuals – Jews and non-Jews alike – as members of their respective nations. Each person has his position within the group, and it is in the context of his position within his particular group that he must relate to God.

Slicing the Individual Morally

The separation of church and state practiced by modern societies has another unacceptable consequence from a Torah perspective. Such a separation inevitably leads to moral relativism in the assessment of individuals due to the policy of subdividing people's lives into their functional and personal aspects. For example, we evaluate the president of General Motors amorally in terms of his office; the criterion of judgment is competence, not goodness. The way he treats his wife and his kids or how he addresses his mother has no bearing on his job performance. He can be an excellent president even if he isn't a very 'good' person.

In a society that has separated the church from the state, you cannot base the assignment of public positions even partially on spiritual merit. Amoral standards based on pure functional competence are applied even to political leaders. Generally speaking, our credo is that a person's private life is his own business. The fact that President Clinton survived his term of office shows just how widespread this feeling has become.

It should surprise no one that the Torah takes a dim view of such moral relativism. The Torah teaches us that God relates to each person in terms of his level of spirituality in all aspects of life. It is true that He is also generally prepared to overlook the moral flaws of the President of General Motors, but this is due to the fact that each person's spiritual niche is determined by the position he or she occupies within society and the position of the President of General Motors is relatively unimportant in spiritual terms. A teacher, for example, is held up to a much higher moral standard, and political leaders who are charged with the preservation of our social values to a higher one still.

The spiritual power of a society is the sum total of the spiritual power of its individual members combined; the more effectively these individual spiritual potentials are blended together, the greater the unified power. The rules that govern spiritual might exactly parallel those that govern economic might. To maximize their economic potential, societies rely on the mechanism of the free market to blend the economic potentials of all their members as efficiently as possible. To efficiently combine all the disparate spiritual potentials into a single whole requires a spiritual mechanism that duplicates the effectiveness of the free market in the spiritual realm. The institution of monarchy was the mechanism invented to fill this function.

Divine Right of Kings

We regard the theory of the "Divine Right of Kings" as an outmoded primitive idea that the world is fortunate to be rid of. The belief in this principle bred cruel tyrants who oppressed the populace at their whim on the grounds that whatever they did was sanctioned by the authority vested in them by God.

However, the fact that it has been historically abused does not invalidate the idea itself; in fact, the principle of royalty flows logically from the paradigm of the human-Divine relationship as we have explained it. If a nation is to establish a face-to-face relationship with God, it must first create a human focal point that symbolically represents it. The nation does this by selecting an individual to serve as the microcosm of the entire nation rolled into a single human consciousness, who becomes his nation personified. The personality of the monarch is the nation's human interface with God. It is through his personality that the nation expresses its needs to God, and it is through him that the Divine energy flows from God to the nation.

Of course, it would make no difference whether such a "king" was elected or chosen on the grounds of ancestry. The point is that the creation of kings is born out of the need to create a mechanism that combines the spiritual potentials of the entire populace in a harmonious way by providing a human interface that represents them all. Kings are a spiritual phenomenon. A corporate body will not serve the same purpose; such a body has no human voice. Corporate bodies are capable of making decisions, but they have no talent for spontaneous communication. Prayer must come from the heart.

The Pharaoh's Position

At this point, we can begin to comprehend Pharaoh's opposition to the creation of a Jewish religious holiday.

God demanded repeatedly that Pharaoh send out the Jews – "My people" – so that they might serve Him. From Pharaoh's standpoint, if the Jews conducted their own dialogue with God, they existed as a separate nation regardless of whether they remained in Egypt or left it.

As God relates to human beings as members of their national group rather than as individuals, the Jews could only establish their own separate relationship with God by becoming a distinct nation. As long as they remained an offshoot of the Egyptian nation, the way Pharaoh regarded them, they would naturally relate to God through Pharaoh, the Egyptian king. He was their interface with God.

Question of Attitude

The Sages present us with two sharply differing attitudes about the proper approach to man's relationship with God. [See Bereishis Rabba 89 and Mechilta, Yisro 6.] All religious societies take it as axiomatic that God created the world to express His attribute of benevolence. But this axiom can lead one to sharply contrasting conclusions about the way we interface with God.

  1. Pharaoh's approach to the human-Divine relationship is based on the assumption that God needs man as much as man needs God. If it is axiomatic that God created the world because He needed to express His attribute of benevolence, then it follows that by serving as the recipient of this benevolence, man offers God a valuable service.

    According to this view God received a fair return for the bounty He showered on Egypt. In the interface between man and God, the parties face each other as equals. Man owes God honor, not service. He provides the service by providing an outlet for God's benevolence. And the Egyptians certainly knew how to honor their gods. The enormous resources the Egyptian people devoted to paying proper tribute to their deities are still very much in evidence. God not only received an outlet for practicing His benevolence, He was also honored for it.

  2. In contrast, the Jewish attitude to the human-Divine relationship is that God's benevolence finds its most sublime expression in the opportunity it provides man to serve and obey God. If he takes advantage of this opportunity man can connect with God and actually become one with the Divine. Such unity with God is the true goal of all existence. There is no greater bounty available to be had in the universe than this unity.

    As the aim of existence is to be one with God, the human relationship with God must be founded on service rather than honor. We do not interface with God as equals. Our goal is to attain perfection by attaching ourselves to Him and attaining a state of unity with His perfection. Honoring God for the things He bestows on man emphasizes the gulf that separates them and serves to establish duality rather than unity.

    The world itself is not God's ultimate gift to man; the opportunity to work on connecting oneself to Him that life in this world offers is the true expression of Divine benevolence. It is only in this world that we enjoy the benefit of the power of free will that allows us to voluntarily accept God as our ruler.

    In Pharaoh's view there are two rulers facing each other as equals; in the Torah view there is only one ruler, God.

Israel as Part of Egypt

Had Pharaoh accepted the formation of a separate Jewish nation gracefully in the name of the Egyptian people, he would have placed his people in the enviable position of having done God an enormously valuable service, for which He would have been eternally grateful. The sojourn in Egypt allowed the Jewish nation to be born. The graceful acknowledgement of the birth would have given Egypt a powerful claim to share in whatever glory fell to Israel's lot throughout history. There would have been no sharp, clean break between the Jewish and the Egyptian peoples.

This culmination to the Exodus story was a distinct possibility when Moses first approached Pharaoh. Pharaoh had free will; no one could dictate his response. Consequently, Moses never stated that the Jews were departing Egypt permanently; at this point a permanent separation was far from inevitable.

But Pharaoh turned Moses down. God is God but in Egypt it is he, Pharaoh, who is king. By opening a separate track of communication with the Jews God was interfering in his domain. He, the Pharaoh, was not willing to become God's viceroy and rule Egypt in God's name, carrying out his orders. The Jews could not have their own religious holiday. They have to interface with God through Pharaoh, the Egyptian symbol of spiritual unity.

This clash of philosophies helps to explain something perplexing about human attitudes towards religion in general.

The Honor Principle

Most human beings are firm believers in the concept that there is no such thing as a "free lunch." In this world the return is always commensurate with the size of the investment. Yet, even truly religious people spend only a few hours a week at most thinking about God, or worrying about fulfilling His wishes, and still confidently expect to receive as their reward for this small investment eternal life and happiness in Paradise. How does this make sense?

The answer lies in the fact that they share Pharaoh's understanding that what God desires from them is honor rather than service. If they build a beautiful church or temple in His honor, and conduct inspiring ceremonies to pay tribute to Him, they feel that they must have fulfilled His expectations. Their service to God is the fact that they provide an outlet for His benevolence.

Jews, whose view of Paradise is the attainment of unity with God, understand that a much greater investment is required. You can only reach unity by connecting every aspect of your life to God's will, something that calls for commandments that express His will, and a lifetime of effort devoted to their observance.

Religion as National Identity

In this context, there is something else that is unique about the Jewish people.

For the non-Jew religion is secondary to national identity. His residence in a particular country renders him an integral part of the nation that inhabits it. The nations are part of the world of nature, and in the natural world, people belong to the land that supports them. The relationship with God is expressed in terms of God's help in bringing peace and prosperity to the portion of the earth that supports each nation.

It follows therefore that when an Egyptian for example leaves Egypt and is sustained by a different patch of the earth, he becomes a citizen of another nation, and must now relate to God through the nation he has decided to join, as it is his new land that will henceforth sustain him and provide him with his livelihood.

But Jews are not part of the natural world [see Mayanot Shmot]; our survival through 2000 years of exile amply demonstrates that we belong to no particular patch of soil. We are dependent directly on God for our survival; the world of nature does not support us. The Jew's homeland is his interface with God, his Judaism, not the physical country he happens to inhabit.

As is true for the rest of the world, God relates to the Jewish individual only in the context of his nation. But in the case of the Jew it is only his religion that defines his nation; to have a relationship with God, a Jew must have a connection with his religion. If he does not relate to his religion, he effectively has no country. What will sustain him? Certainly not the natural world!

When your religion is also your country you have a dilemma the rest of mankind does not have to face. All people who separate from their national religion and seek out their individual paths weaken their country by reducing the intensity of its bond with God. But their country continues to exist as part of nature and it is still able to sustain them.

But Jews have no country other than their religion. When a Jew parts with his religion, part of the Jewish country ceases to exist altogether. The less religious Jews there are in the world, the smaller the bond of the Jewish nation with God. All Jews are dependent on this bond for their very existence. There is nothing else to sustain them. Jews who remain faithful to their traditions and maintain the Jewish national bond with God are directly supporting the entire Jewish people.

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