Thomas Hardy in Judea

Why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.
Thomas Hardy in Judea
From The Story of Ruth, 1876-7, by Thomas Matthews Rooke.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
May 28 2014 4:11PM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


It’s impossible to describe the sound of good preaching in Hebrew. It’s not like the sonorous English of the King James Version, and it doesn’t have the soaring voice or the roars and whispers of preaching in the Baptist tradition. But in the hands of a master preacher and teacher, the Hebrew language yields colors, textures: the fields of the Bible take on shades of red and gold, and the women in the fields have names.

I once heard such a master, Rachel Keren, teaching the biblical book of Ruth to a group of seminary girls. I was the only man in the room; I can’t now remember why. She spoke about the dangers the widowed Ruth, a Moabite, faced on behalf of Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, when she went in the dead of night to lie in a harvest field in Judea. She was there to try to persuade Boaz, a cousin of Naomi’s late husband, to marry her and impregnate her with an offspring, thereby continuing the family line and incidentally saving both her and her mother-in-law from death by starvation.

So far, so convoluted. But Rachel Keren taught the Bible as if it were a slightly scandalous novel for young women. In fact a novel by the great and not so pious Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), set not in rural England but dry, rural Judea. There the color of the land was red or yellow unlike England’s green and brown, but scandal, hostile fate, and an ever-present chorus of gossiping neighbors were facts of life just as much as in Hardy’s fictional Wessex. There was also in Rachel’s version a full sense of the looming danger of rape or other injury as the young widow picked her way among the sleeping shepherd boys to the only one who counted, the one she had to marry in order to put her family history right. As Rachel told it, this was a living and immediate story that could have happened anywhere (but not, she gave the girls to understand, just between us, in Jerusalem where she came from, and certainly not if the mother-in-law had had her wits about her).

 

The story starts with Elimelekh, a rich man who leaves Israel at a time of famine. The rabbinic commentators ask: why? The answer: Elimelekh wasn’t leaving because he would starve, since he was too rich to starve. He was leaving because he didn’t want to meet his social responsibilities and help his neighbors. That’s not only why he left, but why he was wrong to leave, and why things went downhill from there.

It was in the days when the Judges judged
and there was hunger in the land
and a man went from Bethlehem in Judea
to stay in the fields of Moab,
he and his wife and his two sons.
And the man’s name was Elimelekh
and his wife’s name was Naomi
and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Kilyon
of the house of Efrat, in Bethlehem, in Judea.
And they came to the fields of Moab and stayed there.

And Elimelekh Naomi’s man died
and she was left there with her two sons.
And they married themselves Moabite wives
one named Orpah and the other named Ruth
and they settled there for ten years.
and they, too, died, both Mahlon and Kilyon
and the woman was left without her two sons or her man.

And she rose with her daughters-in-law and returned from the fields of Moab
for she heard in the field of Moab
that God had remembered his people to give them bread.
And she went out from the place where she was
and her two daughters-in-law with her
and they walked on the way back to the land of Judea.

And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
“Go, return each woman to her mother’s house,
may the Lord deal kindly with you
as you have done by the dead and by me.
May the Lord give you something and find you rest
each woman in her husband’s home.
And she kissed them and they raised up their voices and wept.

And they said to her, “But we’ll return with you to your people.”
And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters?
Why should you go with me? Have I more sons in my belly
who could be husbands for you?
Return, my daughters, go
for I’ve grown too old to be with a man.
For even if I said I have hope
and this night could even be with a man
and then should bear sons too,
is it for them you’ll waste until they grow?
Is it for them you’ll be tied down, not being with a man?
Don’t do it my daughters for it is far bitterer for me than for you
for the hand of the Lord has come against me.”
And they raised their voices and wept more
and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. . . .

Up till now we have a fairly simple story of a man who leaves his home in Judea to “stay” in the province of Moab. He takes his wife and two sons. He dies and his widow chooses to extend the stay by settling in Moab when her sons take wives there. Then the sons die, and the three women start on the road back to Judea, the only place Naomi has anything left. And so far, it is a dog-eat-dog world that is exhibited. There are no social ties that bind, and the Almighty is not mentioned in the narrative until Naomi laments that He has struck her down. We are about to watch her be abandoned by the second of her daughters-in-law when the story takes an unexpected turn: 

But Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “Look,
Your sister-in-law is going to her people and her gods,
go back after your sister-in-law.”
And Ruth said, “Do not chide me to leave you,
to go back from following you
for wherever you go I will go
and wherever you sleep I will sleep.
Your people is my people and your God my God:
Wherever you die I will die
and there I’ll be buried.
So help me the Lord,
for only death will come between me and you:

This declaration of Ruth’s has been taken as the prototype of conversion to Judaism. But there doesn’t appear to have been a conversion in any sense understood by contemporary Orthodox Judaism. There is no rabbinical court before whom the convert makes a promise to obey the commandments. There is no ritual immersion. No subsequent adherence to Jewish practice is mentioned. So where is the conversion? The commentators find it in Ruth’s statement, “your people is my people and your God my God,” a contract sealed by her proceeding to take an oath using the Lord’s name—something that a non-Jew, the commentators observe, would not do. Ruth became a Jew by means of her statement, and as a Jew she took her oath, invoking the judgment of the Lord she had just invited to be her God, and knowing full well that He was not the easiest deity to get along with—as amply demonstrated by the experience of her mother-in-law.

What was in it for Ruth? To answer this question, you have to follow the story:

And she saw that she was firm to go with her
and stopped speaking to her.
And they both walked until they came to Bethlehem
and it was as they came into Bethlehem
all the city buzzed about them
saying, “Is that Naomi?”

And she said, “Don’t call me Naomi,
call me Bitter Woman
for Shadai has made me very bitter:
I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty.
Why should you call me Naomi
when the Lord bore witness against me
and Shadai repaid me ill?”

And Naomi returned with Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law
who had returned with her from the fields of Moab
and they came to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.

These lines, at the end of Chapter 1, emphasize the problematic nature of Ruth as prototypical convert. Although she has taken an oath to join her mother-in-law’s people, she is still identified as a Moabite. And here we have the crux of the two women’s challenge. Ruth wants to join the Jewish people and Naomi wants a son, because only through a son can she eat. How will they achieve their goals? We still don’t know, any more than we know what role Ruth, in particular, is playing in the story.

Now Naomi knew a connection of her husband’s,
a great and noble man
of the family of Elimelekh and his name was Boaz:
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and I’ll pick ears
behind whomever I take the fancy of.”
And she said to her, “Go, my girl.”
And she went and came there and picked in the field behind the reapers
and by happenstance she happened on the length of field
of Boaz who was Elimelekh’s relative.
And along came Boaz on the way from Bethlehem
and he said to the reapers, “God be with you.”
and they said to him, “God bless you.”
And Boaz said to his lad who was watching the reapers, “Who’s that girl with?”
And the lad watching the reapers replied,
“A Moabite girl who came back with Naomi
from the fields of Moab, and said, ‘Let me pick and gather between the sheaves
Behind the reapers,’ and she came and she’s been standing since dawn
and till now she’s hardly been home.”

And Boaz said to Ruth, “Do you hear, my girl?
Don’t go picking in another field
and don’t even wander out of this one
and that way you’ll stick with my girls.
Keep your eyes on the field they’re reaping in
and walk behind, because I told the boys not to lay a hand on you
and when you get thirsty go to the barrels and drink
from what the boys draw.”

And she fell on her face and bowed to the ground
and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes
to honor me when I am a stranger?”
And Boaz replied to her and said,
“I heard all about what you did for your mother-in-law
after your husband died and how you left your father and mother
and the land you were born in
and went to a people you didn’t know
the day before yesterday.
The Lord will pay you your due
and may your full reward come from the Lord God of Israel
under whose wing you’ve come to shelter.”

And she said, “Have I found favor in your eyes, milord?
For you’ve comforted me and bucked up the heart of your poor servant
and I’m not even fit to be one of your servants.”
And Boaz told her, “At eating time
you come right here and eat some of the bread
and dip your slice in brine.”
And she sat to one side of the reapers
and he gave her a pinch of roast oats
and she ate and was filled and left some over
and got up to pick and Boaz told his boys,
“Let her pick between the bundles, too,
and don’t make her feel embarrassed.
And even let drop a few drops for her from the bales
and leave them for her to pick and don’t say anything.”
And she picked in the field until evening
and she sorted what she had picked
and there was about ten days’ worth of food.
And she carried it and came back to town
and showed her mother-in-law what she’d picked
and brought out and gave her what she’d left after eating her fill.

And her mother-in-law said to her,
“Where did you pick today, and where did you stay?
May whoever distinguished you be blessed.”
And she told her mother-in-law who she’d worked with
and said, “The man’s name that I worked with today
is Boaz.” And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law,
“Bless the Lord
who did not withhold His kindness from the living and the dead.”
And Naomi told her, “He’s our relation, the man is one of our redeemers.”
And Ruth the Moabite said, “Not just that,
but he told me—Stick with my boys till they finish all the harvest.”
And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law,
“That’s good my girl
because you’ll go out with his girls
and they won’t hurt you in another field.”

And she stuck with Boaz’s girls as they picked
to the end of the barley harvest and the oat harvest
and she settled with her mother-in-law.

Here at least there is a nod to the presence of the Lord as someone other than a legal authority and a harsh judge. When the text says Ruth happened to chance into this particular field and Boaz happened to come along just then on the road, we have a strong suggestion of what in the Bible turns out to be benign divine intervention and what in Thomas Hardy inevitably signals the workings of malevolent fate. Which way will this novel turn out: Judea, or Wessex?

And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her,
“My girl, haven’t I always been on the lookout for you to find a resting place
that’ll be good for you: and now isn’t Boaz our relation,
whose own girls you were out with,
sifting the barley grain right now, tonight?
Now you wash yourself and get yourself perfumed and put your best dress on
and go on down to the grain store.
Don’t let that man know about you till he’s done eating and drinking,
and when he’s lain down and you know where he’s lying
then come and uncover his legs
and lay yourself down
and he’ll tell you what to do next.”
And she said to her, “Whatever you tell me—I’ll do.”
And she went down to the grain store and did all her mother-in-law said.

This is the racy part of the novel, the part that reads most like scandalous Hardy. And in translating it I find the voice of Naomi coming through like one of those wise women in the blues, lamenting her woes and advising her sisters not to make the same mistakes she did. But we still can’t quite make out Ruth as she follows these worldly instructions. Why is she going to do what her mother-in-law tells her to?

And Boaz ate and drank and his heart was feeling good
and he came and lay down at the end of the pile
and she came softly and uncovered his legs and lay down.
And it was come the middle of the night that the man started up and reached out
and here was a woman lying at his feet.
And he said, “Who are you?”
And she said, “I am Ruth
your handmaid
now spread your cloak over your handmaid
for you are a redeemer.”
And he said, “God bless you my girl
you’ve done a better deed with your last than your first
by not running after the boys
neither rich nor poor: and now my girl you have no fear
all you’ve said I will do for you
for everyone who comes in the gates of town knows
that you’re a noble woman.
But now for all that I am next in line for redeemer
there is still a closer redeemer than I am.
Stay the night and come morning
ff he will redeem you, well shall he redeem
and if he doesn’t care to redeem, I’ll redeem you personally
I swear to God.
Lie you down until morning.”

And she lay at his feet until morning
and she rose before a man might know his friend
and he said, “Let it not be known
the woman came to the grain store.”
But he said, “Give me the kerchief about you
and hold it”—and she held it out
and he measured six measures of grain
and hung it about her neck
and he came to the town and she came to her mother-in-law
and she said, “Who are you, my girl?”
And she told her all that the man had done for her
and she said, “He gave me these six lots of grain
for he said, ‘Don’t come empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’”
And she said, “Wait my girl until you know how it falls out
for the man won’t rest without settling it all this very day.”

In this passage we have both an explicit and an implicit answer to our questions about Ruth. In her bold offer to accompany her aged mother-in-law back to her home and her people, Boaz sees something essential about her character. He perceives it as an act of pure kindness, an act from which Ruth has nothing to gain. Likewise, he perceives, she has nothing to gain from offering marriage to an older man rather than one nearer her age. Though she is a foreigner, the kindness she has shown to Naomi and the diligence of her work has made an impression, as he notes, not just on his own harvest boys but on all the people of the city.

Unlike Elimelekh, but like Abaraham the founder of Judaism, Ruth is a generous person who goes out of her way to find and perform acts of kindness for others. It was in response to Abraham’s generosity to guests that God both promised him a son and consulted him about destroying the wicked city of Sodom. Because she behaves like Abraham, Ruth is the prototypical convert: one who in Judaism is called a son or daughter of Abraham.

That is the explicit answer. The implicit answer lies in the curious transaction that takes place after Boaz both accepts and sets a condition on Ruth’s marriage offer. On the one hand, he insists on legality, saying he must first offer her to his cousin who is a more direct heir and therefore should be offered the chance to redeem her. But then he does a curious thing, asking her to hold out her kerchief and weighing out six measures of grain that he ties about her. And the next thing you know, when Ruth goes back to her mother- in-law, Naomi does not seem to recognize her. What does this mean?

In giving Ruth the grain, I suspect Boaz has made a type of kiddushin, a betrothal—something the Talmud tells us can be done with a ring, a coin, or a gift of specific value. And why does Naomi not recognize her? I think it is because Ruth is no longer the same person.

Evidently, when she married Naomi and Elimelekh’s son back in Moab, Ruth did not thereby become connected either to the Lord or to other Jews. Then, later, she voices her wish to join her mother-in-law’s people and swears by the Lord. Her conversion is indicated by the declaration and the oath; but only now, in Chapter 3, does the text acknowledge her personal transformation. The declaration lies far behind, and the wedding is still to come, but in some mysterious way Ruth becomes a different person when Boaz weighs out those grains and gives them to her. With this betrothal she has truly joined the Jewish people as a Jew betrothed to a Jew who is connected to other Jews. So deep is the change, her mother-in-law doesn’t recognize her for a moment. I can find no other explanation for Naomi’s question, “Who are you, my girl?”

 

And so we reach the end, with its momentary shock of suspense before the final resolution: 

And Boaz went up to the gate and sat there
and along came the redeemer Boaz spoke of, passing by.
And he said, “Turn aside and sit here, man who shall remain nameless,”
and he turned and he sat.
And he took ten men of the elders of the town
and said, “Sit here”—and they sat.
And he said to the redeemer, “The section of field
that was our brother Elimelekh’s
is for sale by Naomi who’s come back from the fields of Moab.
And I said I’d have a word in your ear
to say, ‘Buy it’ before those sitting here and before my elders.
If you will redeem, redeem
and if he who should redeem will not redeem
tell me so I know
for there is none but you in line to redeem
and I am after you.”
And he said, “I will redeem.”

And Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from Naomi
and Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s wife,
you buy also to raise the dead man’s name on his estate.”
And the redeemer said, “I could not redeem for myself
lest I ruin my own estate.
You redeem for yourself what I would redeem, for I cannot myself redeem.”

And this was in the days of old in Israel
when to redeem and to exchange and seal a deal
a man would slip off his shoe
and give it to his fellow
and this was the contract in Israel.
And the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself,”
and slipped off his shoe.
And Boaz said to the elders and all the people,
“You are witnesses today that I have bought
all that was Elimelekh’s and all that was Kilyon and Mahlon’s
from the hand of Naomi.
And also Ruth the Moabite, wife of Mahlon,
I’ve bought to be a wife for me
to raise the dead man’s name on his estate
so the dead man’s name shall not be lost among his kin
and from the gate of his town
you are witnesses today.”

And all the people at the gate and all the elders said,
“We are witnesses:
Let the Lord make the woman entering your house
like Rachel and like Leah who built the house of Israel
and do well in Efrata and make a name for yourself in Bethlehem
and may your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore for Judah
from the children the Lord gives you by this girl.”

And Boaz took Ruth and she was his wife
and he came to her and the Lord let her be with child
and she bore a son and the women said to Naomi,
“Blessed be the Lord who did not still your redeemer today
and may his name be renowned in Israel
and may he be a balm and succor for your old age.
For your daughter-in-law who loved you bore him,
who’s been better to you than seven sons.”
And Naomi took the child and put him in her lap and was his nursemaid.
And the neighbor women called him by name
saying, “A son was born for Naomi.”
And they named him Oved,
who is the father of Jesse
father of David.

When Abraham makes his contract with God in the book of Genesis, it is a contract to behave in a certain way. People who behave badly, for instance in Sodom and Gomorrah, bring down devastation upon themselves. Even Lot, who behaves decently but chooses to live in the wrong place, brings devastation on his family. In the book of Ruth we have a picture of Elimelekh who is selfish and chooses to live in the wrong place and brings devastation on his family.

Ruth, by a series of acts of kindness, restores the connection between Elimelekh’s family and the land of Israel, and indeed with Judaism. She helps Naomi return to the land, she gives her a child, and by her kindness builds the house of Israel, not coincidentally producing its greatest king: a king who survives everything because, whatever else he does, he loves the Lord and walks in his ways.

 

The question then arises: why is this particular book read aloud in the synagogue on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah? After all, nowhere in the entire book of Ruth is there any mention of the Torah.

The story is read on Shavuot because receiving the Torah is not enough. Ruth’s accepting the Lord as her God and swearing by Him: that is a theoretical business. Only when she performs an act of kindness, the act to which Boaz responds with a betrothal, does the contract become binding. By not acting like a Jew, Elimelekh had severed himself and all of his family from Judaism. It takes Ruth to come along and right that wrong. In the divisive times of the Second Temple, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a leader of the Jewish people—and one of Ruth’s direct descendants—would put it succinctly by saying that the world stands on three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

__________________

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His previous essays in Mosaic are “The Preacher’s Air” (on Ecclesiastes), “Esther in Des Moines” (on the book of Esther), and “The Love of Their Youth” (on the Song of Songs), all accompanied by original translations.

More about: Biblical commentary, Book of Ruth, Shavuot, Thomas Hardy, Translation

 

What Should Israel Do Now That Its Neighbors Are Collapsing?

Israel’s formerly quiet borders are now ungoverned zones filled with guerrillas. How should the Jewish state adapt?

What Should Israel Do Now That Its Neighbors Are Collapsing?
Smoke rises after Egyptian forces, in response to militant attacks, blow up a house in the border town of Rafah in November 2014.
 
Observation
March 30 2015 12:01AM
About the authors

Lazar Berman, news editor at the Times of Israel and a reserve infantry officer in the IDF, has written for the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, and other publications.

Gidi Netzer, a colonel in the IDF reserves, is a long-time adviser to Israeli and non-Israeli political figures, military commanders, and intelligence services.


This past January, an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian Golan Heights killed up to twelve enemy fighters. These were not conventional Syrian forces, of the kind stationed across the mainly quiet frontier for decades. Israel’s pilots were after something new and far more troubling: Hizballah men (including senior commanders) and an Iranian general believed to have been scouting the border area for opportunities to carry out kidnappings, rocket attacks, and infiltrations into northern Israel. Meanwhile, in the very same volatile region, al-Qaeda-affiliated guerrillas and moderate Syrian rebels have been engaging in pitched battles with Hizballah and other Iranian-backed forces.

No quieter is the region hugging Israel’s southern border. Also in January, jihadists launched a series of attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, killing at least 30. The Egyptian government accused the Palestinian terror group Hamas of involvement in the attacks.

At first glance, these two violent episodes seem unrelated, one the product of the civil war tearing Syria apart, the other the result of alliances between jihadist groups and tribes holding longstanding grievances against Cairo. On closer examination, however, both incidents, as well as other developments taking shape on Israel’s borders, can be seen as products of a larger process driving events in the region.

Since 2010, as a result of the Arab revolutions, sovereign state rule has been imploding. As it recedes, stretches of territory have emerged in which an array of forces, armed with advanced capabilities and led by religious sects, ethnic groups, and especially tribal entities, operates freely. Also moving into these essentially ungoverned zones are global jihadist entities like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The phenomenon is occurring across the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, the Sinai, Yemen, and potentially in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The challenge presents unique issues for advanced conventional militaries like Israel’s—different from those posed by such familiar non-state adversaries as Hizballah and Hamas, both of which see themselves as national religious movements. Conventional armies have been drawn by the new actors into long wars of attrition and have yet to solve the problem of defeating them decisively.

This emerging reality demands a reassessment of Israel’s approach both to the security threats on its immediate borders and to those emanating from deeper inside hostile territory. Innovations in intelligence-gathering, technology, training, force structure: all are needed. And such innovations, to be effective, must emerge out of an understanding of the new trends sweeping the Middle East.

Israel’s broader region of strategic interest stretches well beyond the Middle East through a swath of Africa and Asia. From the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, from the Sahel to West Asia and the Hindu Kush, money, weapons and fighters flow to conflicts near Israel’s borders. There, as government control contracts or collapses, guerrilla campaigns, led mainly by tribes, are becoming the region’s dominant feature. Using terrorism as a core tactic, these groups enjoy the cooperation of other, like-minded organizations and the support of states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The non-state actors operating in these ungoverned zones present no clear command or organizational structure. They, and often individual cells within them, decide independently when and where to initiate attacks. Growing and developing without ostensible logic, they spawn temporary, changing, and mobile formations that the most capable Western intelligence agencies have struggled to track. In addition, the deep cultural DNA of the tribal and ethnic fighters in these areas allows them to keep fighting indefinitely against far superior conventional forces.

The tribal and ethnic groups are not the only problem. Traditional powers can and do exploit the chaos to improve their own positions and move weapons and forces to the borders of enemy states. Foreign state actors can also manipulate guerrilla groups into forming confederations that serve their own interests.

With armed groups spread across national borders, the borders themselves have become increasingly meaningless. This, in turn, has enabled money, weapons, and fighters to flow to conflicts in close vicinity to Israel. On the frontlines of the battle against IS in November of last year, the Israeli journalist Itai Anghel reported being able to stroll back and forth across what was once the major border crossing between Syria and Iraq. If an Ashkenazi Jew from Tel Aviv can cross that border unnoticed, so can every type of weapon and fighter. The same goes for the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, blurred by Hizballah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

 

A quick tour of the ungoverned zones bordering Israel will give a sense of the gravity of the threat.

In the north, Syria has lost its coherence as a country. The Assad regime controls the Mediterranean coast and much of southwestern Syria. Kurds hold the northeastern corner bordering Iraq and Turkey. Meanwhile, across the ungoverned zones in much of central and eastern Syria, guerrilla armies have seized power. These are the poorest and most neglected regions of the country, where hostility to Assad and the Alawites runs high and where local tribes took an early role in protests and then in armed resistance against the regime. In this large area, with fighters largely dressed in civilian clothes and constantly battling each other as they move into new sectors, the IDF cannot readily identify the enemy.

Nor does this begin to account for the whole dizzying mix of organizations on both the pro- and anti-Assad sides of the conflict. They include Syrian Sunni jihadist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front; the nationalist Free Syrian Army (some groups within which are also supported by Islamists); the Lebanese Fatah al-Islam; the Muslim Brotherhood; Islamic State; and several Salafist organizations. All told, some 15,000 fighters from at least 80 countries have streamed into Syria, among them militants from North Africa, Turkey, Europe, and as far afield as Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, central Asia, and China.

Most of the Syrian Golan, on Israel’s border, is controlled by the Nusra Front, whose stronghold is the city of Daraa just north of Jordan. In the same region, the Assad regime still holds the Druze area of al-Hader, from which attacks on Israeli troops have originated.

The fighting in the Golan has also severely endangered the UN observer force on the Syrian-Israeli border, one of the few stabilizing influences in the region. In March 2013, 21 Philippine soldiers were kidnapped; six months later, the Irish contingent was attacked; in August 2014, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were seized by the Nusra Front, with dozens more fleeing into Israel. Since then, Austria, Japan, and Croatia have withdrawn their troops.

Iran and its proxy Hizballah, whose main role has been to prop up the Assad regime, have exploited the Syrian chaos to improve their position against Israel and create a forward base for Tehran. As arms transfers increase in both quantity and quality, Iran has managed to organize and direct into combat a force that includes Hizballah, conventional Revolutionary Guard troops as well as crack Quds fighters, homegrown Syrian militias, and unaffiliated Shiite combatants. Iran and Hizballah’s moves on the Golan Heights, temporarily stalled by the Israeli airstrike in January and a failed offensive by Hizballah, regime forces, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard advisers to take the area from the opposition, are clearly intended to open a Golan front against Israel.

Also to Israel’s north, the government of Lebanon has been able to exercise higher levels of control than does Syria’s, but rival elements in the country could push it into looking more like its neighbor to the east. Sectarian violence is common. Lebanon is home both to Palestinian terror groups and to global jihadi organizations, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. Many are taking an active part in the combat in Syria.

But the strongest actor in Lebanon is Iran’s proxy, Hizballah. Though it has suffered as a result of its participation in the Syrian civil war, having sacrificed more than 1,100 fighters and seen its support weaken as Lebanese parents lose children in Syria, the Shiite terror organization still controls both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border, in the central portion of which it has established a permanent security zone. For now, it is unlikely that Hizballah will initiate a direct, sustained conflict with Israel, but it will continue to help other groups launch periodic attacks that remind Jerusalem of its presence. Such attacks could spread to the Israeli-Lebanese border as well.

Moving south, Israel’s long border with Jordan is relatively secure and stable, but there is no guarantee it will remain that way. Although Islamic State is not yet strong enough to invade Jordan as it did Iraq, it can spark unrest by carrying out terror attacks in the kingdom, where its fighters are already operating. Last August, Jordanian forces arrested 71 Islamist activists, including members of IS and the Nusra Front. IS’s horrific immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muaz Kasasbeh in February may well have been designed to drag Jordan deeper into a fight that could yet wash back across the kingdom’s borders.

 

As for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas of prime concern to Israeli commanders and decision-makers, they are not ungoverned zones. Still, as we will soon see, developments in Gaza affect Sinai terrorism, and there are multiple terrorist groups operating in Gaza even as the territory as a whole is controlled tightly by Hamas—itself, of course, a terrorist organization pledged to Israel’s destruction. On the West Bank, Israeli and PA security services work to ensure that the area doesn’t disintegrate in a manner akin to the Sinai or Syria.

On Israel’s southern border lies Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, rapidly turning into an ungoverned zone dominated by a tribal guerrilla campaign. The actors there fall into five broad categories. First, there are the locals, mainly Bedouin tribesmen who initially turned to terrorism for economic reasons. Next, Palestinian terrorist groups, primarily from Gaza, have used the peninsula both as a safe zone that Israel dare not strike for fear of upsetting its peace with Egypt and as a launching pad for attacks on southern Israel. Then there are jihadist groups from the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, followed by jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda from farther afield. Finally, Iran uses the peninsula as a smuggling route into Gaza and as part of the ring of hostility it has been working to create on Israel’s borders.

Sinai has long been a region of weak government control. Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak pushed Bedouin tribes away from the coast, locking them out of the lucrative tourism industry on the Red Sea. Their economic prospects damaged along with their honor, the tribes turned to terrorism against Egyptian security forces and infrastructure. After Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, tribal fighters drove security forces out of northern Sinai, killing dozens, putting up roadblocks and checkpoints, attacking police stations, and repeatedly sabotaging the gas lines into Israel and Jordan.

In doing so, the Bedouin took advantage of existing family ties, used until then to facilitate smuggling. Then, as Salafist groups managed to make inroads among the tribes, and Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad did the same, many young Sinai Bedouin started growing beards, wearing Salafi garb, and abandoning tribal norms in favor of Islamist principles. Attacks by jihadist groups are now often carried out entirely by members of Bedouin tribes. In the aftermath of a 2013 drone strike that killed four militants, a statement released by the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group, many of whose fighters have pledged loyalty to Islamic State, identified all four dead as Sinai Bedouin from different tribes.

As for the Palestinian terrorist groups in the Sinai, their presence grew dramatically after the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, when IDF forces were removed from the Philadelphi corridor separating the Sinai from Gaza, thus freeing up the hundreds of cross-border tunnels that were Hamas’s primary smuggling route for arms and fighters. Treating the Sinai as its strategic hinterland, Hamas developed a network of intelligence operatives, recruiters, and safe houses. Weapons came from Iran, Sudan, and occasionally the Balkans, Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa.

President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, with Israeli consent, has increased Egyptian military activity in the peninsula. Last October, after the attacks by jihadists that left more than 30 Egyptian soldiers dead, Sisi redoubled his efforts, reinforcing the 12 battalions already stationed there with elite army units, including anti-terror battalions. But the problem is far from being solved, and the peninsula remains a terror hub that threatens Israel in a variety of ways. In June 2014, Egypt deployed several hundred soldiers at Taba to stop militants from firing missiles at Israeli airplanes in Eilat. As it happens, the attacks were carried out entirely by Sinai tribesmen, marking a break with the Bedouin policy up to that point of focusing their attacks on Egyptian targets. Rockets have also been fired numerous times at Eilat.

The rocket threat is likely to get worse, and not just from the Sinai and Gaza. Iran has an interest in seeing Israel surrounded by rockets targeting every inch of its territory, and is working to create that reality. Fighters in Syria have captured Scud missiles from overrun Syrian army bases; they could easily find their way into the hands of groups targeting Israel.

Nor are threats limited to ground-based weaponry and forces. Israeli ships could also see increased threats. In Yemen, the Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran, after capturing the capital of Sanaa, took control of the strategic Red Sea port of al-Hudayda, potentially giving Tehran a commanding position on Israel’s route to the Indian Ocean and its Asian markets beyond. Back in the 1970s, as Avi Issacharoff has noted in the Times of Israel, Palestinian terrorists used to attack Israeli ships passing through this waterway; Iran could well try to replicate those attacks today. Iran’s strategic position in Yemen has only improved over the ensuing months as daily flights from Tehran started landing in the country and its U.S.-supported president fled the capital.

 

What can Israel do to cope with the high- and low-tech threats from these ungoverned zones, with the uncertain intelligence picture, and with the ability of traditional enemies like Iran to improve their position?

The overarching principle for Israeli military units tasked with fighting in these zones or on their edges should be to imitate the guerrillas’ strengths: to create uncertainty, as they do, by continuously changing tactics and shape and favoring multiple small-unit actions over heavier maneuver. And to move quickly: as targets present themselves only for brief periods of time, the “loop” from detection, to identification, to neutralization needs to be even faster than at present, especially since it will be impossible to pick up many operations while they are still in the planning phase.

The IDF has taken steps in the right direction. In 2013, recognizing that a conventional Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights was no longer a realistic prospect, Benny Gantz , then the IDF’s chief of staff, relieved the Israeli armored Division 36 on the Syrian border, replacing it with a new formation made up of rotating infantry units and focused on border security and surveillance. These units were the first in the IDF to operate “multi-sensor systems,” which pull together radar and visual data into one concrete warning. The border fence between Israel and Syria has also been completely overhauled; it is now fifteen feet high and can withstand anti-tank missiles.

Another useful step was the 2011 rejuvenation of the Depth Corps, which coordinates the IDF’s long-range operations and its capacity to strike deep inside enemy territory. This was not an entirely new idea. Back in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, the IDF drew up plans to take over launch sites in western Iraq. One special-forces group tasked with playing a major role in the planned operation was the air force’s Shaldag (“Kingfisher”) unit, then commanded by Gantz himself.

Still, the upheavals of the last couple of years have created a demand for more drastic innovation. In the words of reservist Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, deputy commander of the Depth Corps, Israel’s opponent “has become sophisticated, agile, and diversified, and has a faint intelligence signature. . . . [This] makes it extremely difficult for state security organizations to stay informed of the rate of his learning and evolution process.”

Writing in Israel Defense three years ago, Hirsch recommended that “in the face of our unique, irregular opponent, we should develop unique, irregular organizations and regard them as our main force for these times.” Hirsch foresaw new IDF formations: smaller, technologically more advanced, with enhanced capabilities and the freedom to exploit them. “These forces may operate under their own legislation and procedures,” he wrote. “They are educated to improvise, to develop relevant knowledge, to initiate and to evolve constantly.” Only thus, with “new players and new game boards,” could Israel change the rules of the game to its advantage.

It is inevitable, for example, that Israel will again be forced to operate inside neighboring territory. Instead of heavy tank and infantry maneuver, preference will have to be given to small, mobile units. In effect, it will be guerrilla vs. guerrilla, but ideally with an Israeli advantage in training, technology, intelligence, and numbers. Dozens of IDF columns will need to operate independently and simultaneously, converging on targets from different directions, then disappearing.

This, too, is not an entirely new concept; in some respects, it is a very old one. Jewish mobile commando units formed in pre-state Mandatory Palestine—notably, Orde Wingate’s “Special Night Squads” and the Haganah’s “Fosh” field companies—operated with great effectiveness against Arab insurgents.

Other pre-state models are also still relevant. Through tunnels and breaches of the border fence, Hamas and Hizballah already pose a threat to Israeli communities on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, and Syrian rebels could soon turn their attention to Golan villages. The infiltration and capture of a border kibbutz, even for a few hours, would be a nightmare for Israel, with dozens of civilians killed or captured.

Unfortunately, in September 2013, the IDF decided to cease deploying soldiers inside 22 border communities, opting instead to focus on improved protection of the border itself. In today’s circumstances, as in yesteryear’s, a wiser policy would be to station IDF units within those communities, capable ofresponding independently without waiting for help to be summoned via a centralized command center.

Changes can also be made to protect the borders themselves. By their nature, borders favor static and predictable defensive actions. Fixed observation posts abound and patrols are often conducted on a predictable schedule and along a predictable route. Terrorists thus know what to expect: a no-man’s land, a smart fence, cameras, observation posts, mobile patrols. Nor is it difficult to develop a clear picture of how the defenders operate: just pay a few unarmed men to touch the fence or try to get over it, and you’ll gain a good idea of how long it takes for a response and where it arrives from.

Hizballah has enjoyed success against IDF patrols since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. That same year, it ambushed a patrol jeep, kidnapping and killing three soldiers. Six years later, it attacked two IDF armored Humvees on the border, killing five soldiers. The bodies of two of them were spirited into Lebanon in the incident that sparked the second Lebanon war. And attacks continue amid the present-day chaos. Last March, four Israeli soldiers were hurt in a blast along the Golan border fence south of Majdal Shams. In October, a Hizballah IED injured two soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area. In January of this year, an IDF soldier and officer were killed by a volley of Hizballah Kornet missiles that struck an Israeli convoy near Har Dov.

In response, Israel must become as unpredictable as the groups on its border, and there can be no clear line beyond which terrorists know they are safe.

 

Although the most pressing threats are still on the border, that should not keep commanders from devoting particular attention to where many of those threats originate. Better and longer-range intelligence will enable Israel to counter weapons smuggling and the formation of plots before they reach the ungoverned zones close to home. Such intelligence has already been critical, for example, to intercepting Iranian weapons ships before they unload in Sudan for the trek across the Sinai to Gaza.

Many of the tools in this effort will be technological. Though traditional satellite reconnaissance over ungoverned zones is not an answer to tribal terrorism, it can help track the movement of weapons shipments and fighters. If armed groups decide on a major attack, and especially if they provide themselves with biological or chemical agents (“the poor man’s WMD”), sensors similar to those employed by the U.S. can provide early warning.

If technological intelligence is crucial, human intelligence is no less important. In zones with a multitude of actors and combatants, understanding the culture, norms, religious beliefs, and rationales of tribes and ethnic groups can offer insight into capabilities, tendencies, and shifting alliances. It can also open a window into possible opportunities for quiet partnerships. This can be used by both Israel and moderate governments like Egypt to wean tribes away from jihadi groups, as the ties remain in place only so long as tribal interests are met and honor protected. Israel’s ability to do this is limited by the fact that tribes operating in Egypt and Syria nurse grievances against the policies of the central government, not Israel. But by offering a range of assistance, Jerusalem can work to enlist groups who might ensure that when common enemies attack Israel, they will have to fend off local militias as well as the IDF.

And that brings us to the other side of the picture—where, amid the dizzying range of potential threats, opportunities emerge. Alarmed by Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and its steadily evolving nuclear-weapons program, and stunned by the brutal efficiency of Islamic State, Western-oriented Arab states are working together and in quiet cooperation with Israel to resist, contain, and, where possible, defeat common foes. Egypt and Israel are coordinating efforts to combat terrorism in the Sinai and smuggling into and out of Gaza, and Israel has acquiesced in the introduction of heavier Egyptian formations to conduct anti-terror campaigns in the peninsula. The IDF and Jordanian armed forces work together to keep terrorists from crossing Israel’s border.

In the face of Iran’s moves across the region, both in ungoverned zones and in more traditional areas, it became conceivable that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE would form a military alliance, and in fact such an alliance coalesced quickly in response to the Houthi takeover of Yemen. Led by Saudi Arabia (but not, notably, by America) and backed by Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, and other Sunni states, it has carried out waves of airstrikes while readying a ground invasion. The coalition, whose interests align closely with those of Israel, the strongest military power in the region, will likely endure.

In this era of collapsing state control, Gal Hirsch has called upon Israel to develop new players and new game boards. But the enemies’ new game boards are already here, and so are the new and fiercely aggressive players. For the IDF, the key is to anticipate threats and to develop flexible approaches before those threats materialize. Doing so will take vision, creativity, and daring; fortunately, these are precisely the traits for which the IDF has long been known and feared.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs

 

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"

It’s not just bad grammar.

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"
Photo by Edsel Little/Flickr.
 
Observation
March 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


From Ken Ehrenburg comes this query:

A fellow shul-mate and I are engaged in a small dispute that I hope you might settle or illuminate. He has maintained for a long time that calling the repast that precedes the end of the Sabbath shalosh se’udot in Hebrew is grammatically incorrect, since this means “three meals” rather than “the third meal” [the first two being Friday-night dinner and Saturday lunch], which would be ha-se’udah ha-shlishit. I, on the other hand, have argued that this usage could be a form of synecdoche, whereby a part is referred to by means of the whole. What do you think?

The oddity of calling the Sabbath’s third meal “three meals” has struck me, too. Until now, I must say, I thought Ken Ehrenburg’s fellow synagogue-goer must be right. In Eastern Europe, the Sabbath’s third meal was called sholesh suddes, as it continues to be by many Orthodox Jews today; this is the Yiddish pronunciation of Hebrew shalosh se’udot, and I had always assumed it to be a Yiddish garbling of Hebrew grammar that was subsequently introduced into Hebrew itself. Such an assumption made historical sense, because the se’udah shlishit was accorded special importance in Jewish ritual by the Eastern-European movement of Ḥasidism, which observes it in the synagogue with singing and chanting in a highly charged religious atmosphere, and Ḥasidic authors were notorious for their mangling of the rules of Hebrew.

Still, I was never quite satisfied by this. Even Ḥasidism mangled Hebrew only so far, and sholesh suddes, which substitutes the Hebrew cardinal number shalosh for the ordinal number shlishit, and puts it before the noun it modifies rather than after the noun where it belongs, would seem to go well beyond that. Could there be another explanation? Ken Ehrenburg suggests what this might be.

The tradition of a third Sabbath meal goes at least as far back as the early centuries of the Common Era, there already being mention of it in the Talmud. In talmudic times, it was the practice, with the exception of Sabbaths, to eat only twice a day, once in mid-morning and once in the evening. Yet even in our own age, when three meals a day are the norm, Orthodox Jews skip breakfast before the Shabbat-morning prayer, with the result that they, too, would eat only two Sabbath meals were it not for the se’udah shlishit. The talmudic tractate of Shabbat gives as the tradition’s source a verse in Exodus (16:25) about the manna: “And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for it is the Sabbath today, today you will not find it in the field.” Three “today’s,” the rabbis reasoned, equal three portions of the manna provided by God in the desert, which was not gathered on the Sabbath.

Although this exegesis probably served to rationalize an already existing custom of celebrating the Sabbath by eating an extra meal, it lent the meal rabbinic authority. Still, only in 16th-century Palestine, with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, did the Sabbath’s third meal come to be considered the time of special divine grace that it was later thought to be by Ḥasidism as well. And it was only in Eastern Europe that the se’udah shlishit became the shalosh se’udot or sholesh siddes.

I asked an acquaintance steeped in Jewish sources if he knew the reason. His answer was that he believed there was a discussion of the matter in Divrey Emet or “Truthful Points,”a collection of homilies by the Ḥasidic master Yakov Yitzḥak Horovitz (1745-1815), also known as “the Seer of Lublin,” but he couldn’t remember where in the book I would find it. Fortunately, Divrey Emet is a short volume, and three-quarters of the way through it I came across the passage in question. In commenting on the verse in the book of Numbers (24:19), “And out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion,” Horovitz writes:

The rabbis of blessed memory have said that whoever eats three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three calamities: the pangs of the [coming of the] messiah, the wars of Gog and Magog, and the retribution of hell. And I have heard it said that the reason the third Sabbath meal [se'udah shlishit] is called “three meals” [shalosh se'udot] is that partaking of it is [like] partaking of all three. For, in the first two, the eater is hungry and enjoys his food while observing the commandment “And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight” [Isaiah 58: 14]. But this [third] meal is entirely for the sake of heaven, since, having no appetite, he [who eats it] acquits himself of all [three]….This is why it is called “three meals,”’ because a commandment is named for what completes it.

In other words: eaten a few hours after a large lunch, at a time when one does not really feel hungry, the third meal alone truly fulfills the commandment to eat three Sabbath meals, the other two of which would be eaten anyway. This explanation, which testifies to the Yiddish usage of sholesh suddes being common in Eastern Europe already over 200 years ago, is precisely the one offered by Ken Ehrenburg: the third meal is called shalosh se’udot because it stands for all three. The term is indeed a synecdoche.

Whether the Horovitz-Ehrenburg thesis is historically correct, I can’t say. All in all, though, it seems to me more likely than the mangled-Hebrew theory. And in case you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the biblical Jacob, kabbalistic tradition associates each of the Sabbath meals with a different patriarch: the Friday-night dinner with Abraham, the Saturday lunch with Isaac, and the se’udah shlishit with Jacob. Forcing oneself to eat once a week when not hungry is a small price to pay for being spared the apocalypse of Armageddon and the fires of Gehenna.

More about: Religion & Holidays, Shabbat, Talmud

 

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh

You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind. What’s the point of such a Shakespearean portrayal?

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh
From Pharaoh Notes the Importance of the Jewish People, 1902, by James Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
March 19 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


The Sabbath service this week marks the imminent onset of the month of Nisan, in which Passover occurs. Appropriately enough, a special reading from the Torah, harking back to the portion of Bo in the book of Exodus, is added to the week’s regular portion of Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26). Here I want to concentrate not on the specific verses (Exodus 12:1-20) from Bo that are read, or rather reread, on this Sabbath but on its overall narrative of the unfolding relationship between Pharaoh and the Lord as mediated by the Lord’s instrument Moses.

The central issue of Bo is what is within the body of Egypt, whether the body in question is that of Pharaoh, or the body of the people of Egypt who are an extension of the sovereign’s body, or the body of the land of Egypt. And not only what is within the body but outside it, what belongs and what should be expelled, what will enter without permission and what will finally be released unwillingly, spat out like poison or bile.

The very first verb of the reading is bo, come, and this divine instruction to Moses (“Come unto Pharoah” . . .) uses precisely the same verb that in Genesis instructed Abraham to “come unto” and impregnate Hagar, the barren Sarah’s Egyptian maid. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the Lord instructed Moses to enter Pharaoh physically. But the appearance of that particular verb at this particular juncture alerts us to a whole series of intimate and unjust relationships in the Torah. The series begins with Sarah’s oppression of Hagar, continues with Joseph’s enslavement of all Egypt, rebounds upon the Israelites in Pharaoh’s subsequent enslavement and oppression of them, and enters into its culminating episode here as the Lord instructs Moses to come unto Pharaoh before the Lord Himself will enter into Pharaoh’s most private and intimate space: his mind.

But the Lord said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh
For I’ve given him a heavy heart and his servants, too,
To put these marks of Mine in him
And to make you tell your son and grandson how I abused Egypt
And My marks that I put in them, so you’ll know I am the Lord.”
And Moses and Aaron came unto Pharaoh and told him,
“So says the Lord, God of the Hebrews:
‘How long will you refrain from responding in My presence?
Send out my people to worship Me.
For if you refrain from sending My people
I’ll bring locusts over your border
And they’ll cover all visible land,
You won’t be able to see the land.’” . . .

And he turned and he left Pharaoh’s presence
And Pharaoh’s servants said to him:
“How long will this ensnare us—
Send the men to worship the Lord their God.
Do you not realize yet, Egypt is lost?”
So Moses returned with Aaron to Pharaoh
And he told them, “Go, worship the Lord your God;
Who’s who that’s going?” And Moses said,
“We’ll go with our boys and old men, with our sons and our daughters,
Our sheep and our cattle we’ll go
For it’s God’s festival for us.”
And he told them, “Let it be so, the Lord be with you when
I send out you and your children—
Look how there’s evil over your face.
Not so; kindly go, just the males, and worship the Lord
Because that’s what you’re asking.”
And Pharaoh drove them out from his presence.

In addition to what you might call the special effects of the ten plagues, which I’ll largely omit here, what’s beguiling in this portion is the acute portrayal of Pharaoh as petulant villain. But he’s not two-dimensional; he’s more than three-dimensional. You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind, turning on a dime, arriving almost at the point of cooperating and then withdrawing again like an insecure businessman not quite capable of closing a deal. The irony of his consenting to Moses, swiftly followed by the outburst about how Moses and Aaron are scheming to deceive him, followed by the noblesse-oblige condescension of his polite “request” that the males go without their children, followed finally by the curt dismissal of Moses and Aaron, gives you a Shakespearean portrait in just two or three lines.

And it’s not over.
But Pharaoh was quick to call Moses and Aaron
To say: “I’ve sinned to the Lord your God and you.
But now bear with my sin just this once
And petition the Lord your God to remove from me just this death.”
And he went out from Pharaoh and petitioned the Lord
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart
And he didn’t send out the children of Israel.

Rabbis over the centuries have tied themselves in knots to prove that Pharaoh had freedom of choice, free will, that he was able at any point to release the Jews but chose not to. A literal reading of the text shows that this was not the case. Not only does the Lord declare at exactly what point He will allow Pharaoh to come to his senses, He also tells Moses that He’s not interested in Pharaoh’s coming to that point. He wants to pummel Pharaoh into submission, and it does not suit His purposes for Pharaoh to have free choice, let alone to make an intelligent call.

Time and again, the Lord reinforces Pharaoh’s heart. Two different verbs are used for this action, which is often flattened in English translation into a single “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” On the one hand, He makes Pharaoh anxious, literally makes his heart heavy; on the other hand, He makes him proud—literally strengthens his heart. This is the cycle by means of which a losing hand or two become a total bust. Pharaoh is meant to be left incapable of running a lemonade stand, let alone the mightiest empire on earth.

And Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go worship the Lord
Just your sheep and cattle will be deposited,
You children can go with you, too.”
But Moses said, “You shall also put sacrifices and offerings in our hands
To make for the Lord our God,
So our livestock will go with us,
Not a hoof will be left behind
For from them we’ll select to worship the Lord our God
And we won’t know how we’ll worship the Lord till we get there.”
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart and he balked at sending them
And Pharaoh told him, “Get away from me,
Take good care you don’t see my face again
Because the day you see my face you’ll die.”
And Moses said, “Just as you say. I will not look on your face again.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “One more ache
I’ll bring on Pharaoh and on Egypt,
After that he’ll send you from here as he’d send a bride,
He’ll drive you in droves out of here.” . . .

And Moses said, “So says the Lord,
Around midnight I’m going out into Egypt
And every first born in Egypt is dead
From the first born of Pharaoh who’ll sit on his throne
To the first born of the maid behind the millstones
And every beast of burden’s first born
And there will be a great shriek in the land of Egypt
Such as has never been and such as won’t be again
And to all the children of Israel
No dog will wag its tongue, neither man nor beast
So that you know the Lord discriminates between Egypt and Israel
And all these servants of yours will come down to Me
And bow to Me saying, ‘Go, you and the people at your heels’
And after that I’ll go.” And he went from Pharaoh’s presence in a fury.
But the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh won’t listen to you—
So as to increase the examples I’ll make of the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh’s warning to Moses not to look on his face again lest he die is both pathetic and accurate. When Moses does see Pharaoh again, it is at Pharaoh’s request and it’s the middle of the night—when nobody can see anything. By then, Pharaoh’s the one begging Moses to intercede so that he himself won’t die in the general carnage.

And it was midnight and the Lord struck every first born in Egypt
From the first born of Pharaoh who’d sit on his throne
To the first born of the prisoner housed in the pit
And every beast of burden’s first born.
And Pharaoh rose that night
And all his servants and all Egypt did, too
And there was a great shriek in Egypt
For there was no house without a corpse in it.
And he called Moses and Aaron at night, saying:
“Get up and get out from inside my people,
Both you and the children of Israel, and go worship the Lord just as you said,
Your sheep too, your cattle too; take what you said
And go—and bless me, too.”

This is the final humiliation: Pharaoh is reduced to asking Moses to pray for him and, as Moses prophesied, to make a sacrifice in his name to the implacable God who has come over his borders, into his houses, and finally into his mind. When the text specifies that the Lord kills not the child of the maid (as promised previously) but the child of the prisoner in the pit, it is no slip of the pen. The Lord went walking to the place where Joseph started his great ascent in Egypt by foretelling what would happen to Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants.

In this portion of Bo, we revisit first Hagar, then Joseph, before seeing how the cycle of slavery and abuse is finally ended with the Hebrews having undergone a 400-year punishment for abusing Hagar, and with Egypt, in turn, being crushed completely in order to pluck the Israelites back out of it like pips from an orange. The Lord started a cycle with Abraham that he would complete with Moses, only to make the great point, reiterated a total of 36 times in the Torah: do not abuse the stranger, because you were a stranger in Egypt. The subtext is clear: do not do again what you did then, nor ever do what they did to you, because what I did to them I can do to anybody.

More about: Bo, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Moses, Pharaoh, The Monthly Portion, Torah, Vayikra

 

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?

When we ask for guarantees of our safety, we’re met with speeches and calls for patience. This is not living.

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?
In the wake of a nearby explosion, a man enters a Jewish community centre in Malmo, southern Sweden, in 2012. DRAGO PRVULOVIC/AFP/GettyImages.
 
Observation
March 18 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political adviser and an activist in support of Israel.


They canceled Jewish winter camp. It sounds like a little thing, but in Sweden, where we have very few venues in which to lead our Jewish lives, it means a great deal. Winter camp is a yearly highlight, a place where our children can learn and play with other Jewish children, without worry. This year, they won’t be able to go, and for a simple reason—because it’s not safe.

The decision to cancel the camp was a reaction to the terrorist attack in neighboring Denmark, where Dan Uzan, a volunteer security guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue, was shot dead while protecting a bat-mitzvah party in progress inside. The Jewish community in Sweden was already reeling from news of the massacres in Paris a month earlier; with this latest murder, the peril came too close for comfort.

Of course, things did not start with these particular events. In a 2013 survey conducted by the European Union’s agency for fundamental rights, 76 percent of European Jews said that anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years, and 29 percent said they contemplated emigrating. Perhaps most astonishing, of those who said they had suffered a physical attack, fully two-thirds had chosen not to report it since they were convinced the police would react passively. Since that time, we European Jews have experienced some of our darkest days in over 60 years, from defaced synagogues and cemeteries to riots and assaults on Jews in broad daylight. This past summer, the floodgates opened wider as Israel’s war in Gaza erased any subtle (and largely disingenuous) distinctions that may have existed between anti-Zionism and outright anti-Semitism.

Back in the summer of 2013, I read Michel Gurfinkiel’s sweeping essay in Mosaic on the threatened state of European Jewry and was moved to write him a letter. The editors then kindly published it as a response to his analysis. In it I described the particular difficulties and dangers facing a Jew in contemporary Sweden, and announced my intention to stay and fight for the future of Jewish life in the European Diaspora. As the situation in my country worsened, I ended up—as I again reported in Mosaic—filing for asylum in my own country on grounds of religious discrimination. My act was aimed at raising public consciousness and eliciting from my government at least an acknowledgment of reality. But despite the publicity my filing attracted, no such acknowledgment was forthcoming. Nor did my action garner any significant support within the official Jewish community itself; to the contrary, I was not spared ridicule for my alleged hyperbole and fear-mongering.

Now that there are policemen with automatic rifles outside our children’s schools, guards outside our synagogues, and no go-zones in our cities, the community has at last awakened to the harsh truth. This is no longer a matter of fighting a ban on kosher slaughter, or of retaining the right to circumcise our sons; at risk is the security of each and every Jew in the country, whether affiliated with the community or not, whether religiously observant or not, whether politically left, right, center, or none of the above.

As more and more people, including communal leaders, are voicing their anxiety and alarm, and attracting the notice of the media, the sheer intractability of the problem is also emerging, sometimes with startling nakedness. A couple of weeks ago, a major public-radio station interviewed Isaac Bachman, Israel’s ambassador to Stockholm. ‎During the interview he was asked: “Do the Jews themselves have any ‎responsibility for the growing anti-Semitism that we see now?”‎ Naturally, the ambassador was stunned. “I reject the question ‎altogether,” he said. “It’s like asking a woman how she has contributed to the fact ‎that she is being raped. I don’t think there is any provocation on the part of the Jews; they just exist.”

‎After the show, Sveriges Radio issued an apology; but the cat was out of the bag. Starkly illuminated by this “unfortunate incident” (their term) was the extent to which anti-Semitism, far from being the property of marginalized and uneducated individuals, as the comfortable trope would have it, is built into the psyche of the establishment. The apology itself was but a gesture, and gestures, in lieu of change, are mainly what the European Jewish minority is seeing.

 

Rallies, speeches, a solidarity ring around a synagogue as in Oslo: these are no substitute for the actual guarantee and protection of civil rights, for actual inclusivity, for actual religious freedom; they are at best a way of treating symptoms while ignoring the disease. We are being urged to join others in striving for peace and understanding, as if all along we have been striving for something else and need to assume our share of responsibility for the campaign being waged against us. The marches, the one-off visits of dignitaries to synagogues, the solemn frowns of sympathy: all instruct us to be patient and do nothing until we reach the point where there will be nothing left to do.

They canceled the Jewish winter camp, and men with automatic weapons are guarding our schools. Our children will not forget this; fear and hate—their fear, others’ hate—are now somehow coterminous in their minds with the very nature of Jewish life. We European Jews have been here before.

In 2014, immigration to Israel from Western Europe went up by 88 percent over the previous year, corroborating the trend already emerging in the 2013 survey. Jews are leaving Europe in record numbers, and more are thinking about it. I am now one of them. In my first contribution to Mosaic I wrote that I was absolutely determined to stay and fight for a strong Jewish life in the Diaspora. “We want to live,” I said. Today I don’t know what’s next for me, or for Europe. But I know that for my children and for me, this is not living.

More about: European Jewry, Jewish world, Politics & Current Affairs, Sweden