As we approach Passover and prepare to celebrate the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, we are reminded again not only of the victory but also of the misery. We don’t only drink wine and eat matzo – symbols of freedom – but we also taste the moror (bitter herbs) to remember the bitter suffering. Moreover, we also recollect the plagues and destruction wreaked upon the Egyptians.
All this brings to mind one of the timeless questions – and fundamental myths – about the Bible: The seemingly endless cycle of anger, violence, wrath, jealousy and vengeance – all on the part of the Divine. What kind of G-d is so punitive? And who would want to embrace a violent and furious G-d?!…
We thus bring you here a recent question from a reader about the grotesqueries of the Passover story and Rabbi Jacobson’s reply.
We thus title this week’s column:
Is the Bible a Violent Book?
With Passover just around the corner you will shortly be reading again the Haggada, which tells of a loving God who put his chosen people in slavery. … He then allowed Pharaoh to kill all the Jewish babies and save Moses so that he could free the Jewish slaves. God then hit the Egyptian people (who were his creation also) with ten plagues. Finally, he sent his angel of death to murder all the first born, because he wanted Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves that HE allowed to suffer for a long time?
You may answer that it is man’s free will to carry out evil acts … But… Angels only act on God’s instruction … Why would you want to pray and pay homage to an invisible killer of babies?
I look forward to a straightforward answer with no wriggle-room to put your dodge ’ems in … All the best.
Dear Blunt One,
I embrace your question for its candidness. The best questions of all are the irreverent ones that cut through protocol and don’t buy into conventional group mentality. Your question captures the struggle facing many people today when they confront the story of Exodus or other Biblical events.
In the spirit of “question and answer” – which is the central theme of the Haggada – I applaud your initiative to ask in a direct fashion. I will attempt to reciprocate with equal candidness.
Anyone reading the literal Bible with an honest eye cannot help but be taken by the deluge of violence and war in the name of a vengeful G-d. Some of the curses stated in the Bible are too blood curdling to repeat.
No wonder that one of the most powerful stereotypes of our time is the fire brandishing, Bible thumping evangelist pounding the air with clenched fist and trembling voice, invoking the name of the Lord who shall strike the sinners of the world with pestilence and disease.
Who in their good mind and healthy spirit would want to associate with this fire and brimstone approach?!
Add into the equation millennia of religious authoritative abuse, and we have all the ingredients for the profound alienation and knee-jerk rejection of all things religious today. Who after all wants a relationship with such a bloody, vengeful and punitive G-d?!
Indeed, for this precise reason many people find much more solace in the love and gentleness of religious texts other than the Bible. It seems more appropriate that a spiritual book should make you feel warm and nurturing, rather than expose you to an onslaught of wars, betrayals and retributions.
Even more perplexing is the fact that this same Bible is the foundation of civilization. The moral principles of the Ten Commandments remain the first and greatest statement of virtue and ethics. Amidst all the violence of history Biblical values stand out till this very day as a shining example of the noblest standards that man can ever attain.
How did such a violent book produce so much beauty and actually give birth to benevolence, hope, providence and all the greatest ideals we are capable of?!
Indeed, as opposed to other religions, Judaism never pursued a religious crusade to impose on others its beliefs – through wars, inquisitions, jihads and other violent means. Quite ironic for a belief system based on the aggressive Bible! There are belief systems that are beautiful on paper but in reality have wreaked havoc on the human race; the Bible it seems may sound belligerent on paper, but when applied it produces the most refined life style.
Uncovering the mystery – and paradox – of the Bible – requires a return to its roots. Any translation (in English or other languages) of the Bible hardly reflects and does justice to the original Hebrew and its rich, metaphorical meanings. (For this reason translation of the Bible was seen as a sad moment). Firstly, Hebrew, even in its most literal form, is a symbolic language as opposed to most other languages, which are descriptive, literal languages. Words like “anger” and “vengeance” have completely different meanings and implications in Hebrew than their translated renditions.
Even more important is the fact that the Torah “speaks in the language of man” (Talmud, Berachot 31b). We must eliminate any anthropomorphic notions which may be inferred from Biblical expressions, concepts and analogies. They must be understood in non-spatial and non-corporeal terms. The Torah speaks in human language in order for us to be able to have some conception of these ideas. But these terms need to be stripped of any temporal, spatial and corporeal connotations, for they are all non-ascribable to the Divine.
The Torah cannot be appreciated only through a literal reading. Even its literal dimension is infused with layers of meanings – specifically four layers (literal, allegorical, homiletic and mystical) – embedded within each other.
Our sages actually describe the Torah as a spiritual document. It:
“Talks about things above [spiritual] and alludes to things below [physical].”
Sometimes the Torah is compared to an architect’s blueprint, which the Cosmic Architect used to build this universe.
So instead of imposing our mortal, narrow and superficial meanings in the words “wrath” and “curse,” the Torah challenges us to open ourselves up to Divine meanings of these terms and experiences. Indeed these very concepts originate from their spiritual roots.
Anger at its root is essentially disconnection. When you are angry at someone (for good reason) you are experiencing “distance,” turning you away from the object of your anger.
Two major distinctions must be made to distinguish our experience of “aggressive” emotions from their Divine (spiritual) counterparts. The first is that our emotions are a bundle of healthy and unhealthy forces, driven often by our own human fears, insecurities and pettiness. (In our world there is “no good without evil and no evil without good”). Even when an aggressive emotion is primarily healthy, its secondary effects can often escalate into inappropriate forms of violence. In the Divine dimension, on the other hand, all reactions are healthy forms of expression throughout.
Second, in the world of the Divine every “reaction” is actually a reflection of “cause and effect.” Indeed, our sages explain that reward and punishment are really cause and effect. Would you consider a charred hand being punished by fire? When one places their hand in fire, the natural effect is a burn. All the seemingly “bloody” reactions in the Torah are in essence the “natural” collective effect of a distorted world; a misalignment between existence and its true purpose.
The Torah statement “G-d was angered” means that when humans through their behavior distance themselves from their Divine image and calling, they have the power to cause the effect that G-d distances Himself from us.
We must continuously resist the temptation to project our human reactions when we are hurt by others onto G-d. G-d is not human. G-d is not like an angry father authority who is angered by our behavior. G-d is the essence of reality, and reality reacts to each of its components. Just as the body has violent reaction when one of its organs (or even a single cell) is compromised – not as retribution, but as cause and effect – so too is it, in macrocosm, with the macro-organism called existence.: It responds to our compromising behavior.
Hate of evil is not to be confused with the hate we experience. Divine despise of evil is like the white blood cells recognizing an infection as the enemy, and relentlessly attacking to protect the health of the body.
The Egyptian exile – which was foretold to Abraham 400 years earlier – was part of the mysterious cycle of life and death, joy and pain, which reflects the reality of the soul’s descent into this harsh world.
Indeed, the entire Torah narrative reflects the realities of life on Earth, in all its glory and ugliness, with no words minced and no human “packaging” and “marketing.” It is the true story of life – exposed. In our daily grind we don’t see the true causes and effects of our behavior. We can hurt each other and never feel the destruction we bring into our lives and into the world. The Torah – as a gift to us – reveals for us the inner mechanisms of life, and all the effects of human behavior.
When people hurt each other, they are hurting themselves. For we are all parts of one organism, of one reality – a reality protected and watched over by G-d, the essence of all Reality.
We may never understand why innocent children were massacred in Egypt and throughout history. We are entitled, nay obligated, to challenge G-d for every painful experience we endure. But at the same time, we must remember that if there were no life there would be no death. If there were no joy there would no pain. We are deeply disturbed by any senseless (in our minds) death; and rightfully so. But our disturbance should serve as a reminder that our conscious lives – and the universe as a whole – feels disconnected from our source and we have the power to repair the rift.
The consequences of this disconnection is not the problem, but part of the solution. When we feel pain we complain about the discomfort, but pain is a reminder and a reflection that something needs repair. As much as we would prefer not to experience the consequences, an honest life would rather feel the effects so that they can serve to elicit healing.
By no means does this suggest that every experience of individual suffering is a direct result of one’s sins. In an infinitely complex web, we are all bound to each other and to all of history – as limbs of one organism. Pain and suffering, both personal and collective, are part of the overall collective effects of a world disconnected. A disconnect that began thousands of years ago when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and were banished (an effect caused by their own spiritual detachment).
Ever since, every human being and each of us, has two choices: Either to perpetuate that disconnection, or to realign our lives with our Divine calling.
As painful as the Egyptian exile was, it forged a nation eternal, imbued forever with the natural compulsion toward freedom. One can say that the exile and redemption from Egypt gave birth to freedom – a freedom that would begin a steady march that led to the freedoms and rights that we take for granted today. (That’s a pretty good reason to celebrate the Passover Seder!)
The Divine retribution of the Egyptians too is a story of cause and effect. Here is not the place to elaborate, but the Ten Plagues are actually a fascinating blueprint of the ten psychological effects of crimes against humanity. [For a detailed discussion on this, please e-mail us and we’ll send you an article]. The Egyptians were the first to enslave an entire nation based purely on their race. This was not a small sin. It had profound consequences that ripple through history. The Torah’s detailed description of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, the ten plagues and all the other elements of the story offer us an intimate look into the anatomy of evil, human suffering, its consequences, and above all – our ability to heal and redeemed from the deepest abyss.
The power of the Exodus story lies precisely in its manifestation on our human, ugly plane. The deepest forms of spirituality are to be found not only when we escape the trappings of this cruel world, but within its pain. Indeed, the story of Exodus begins with G-d appearing to Moses in the burning thorn bush. Why not appear in a beautiful fruit tree? Because G-d wanted to demonstrate to Moses that I am with you not only in joy but also in suffering; not only in beauty but also in the thorn.
So when we sit down at the Seder this year we cry for the pain and the losses as reflections of the world’s dissonance; but above all we celebrate our ability, then and now, to be emancipated from our constraints. Even in our spiritual distance and exile we have the power to realign ourselves with our purpose in one glorious expression of unity.
Thank you again for writing. May the power of your questions always serve as catalysts to reach deeper into the intimate mysteries of existence and discover profounder answers. And always remember the words of the Baal Shem Tov: For every question there is an answer. And for every answer there is another question.
May you be blessed with a meaningful and transcendent Passover.