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.
The Rebs treatment of the matter is scholarly, but one-sided omitting collateral problems. If indeed G-d is not angry, but as a consequence of nature when flesh is exposed to fire, it burns, then in Moshe Cordeveros construct of Deborahs Palm Tree, in some dimension, when we misbehave, we not only disconnect, but G-d has no free will and must create prosecutors and punish. The unconsconable slippery slope arrives when one accepts that Divine Justice is not human justice, and we cannot fathom the standard or implementation, but witness say, a holocaust and both cant correlate the punishment with any disconnection that profound, and cant accept that the victims deserved it.
True, if we knew, then there would be no purpose for faith.
Perhaps it is of some comfort to know that in our affliction, He is afflicted.
and to whom, pray tell, would your questioner prefer to pray? the deity of the x-tians, who authorized the crusades and inquisition? or perhaps that of the moslems, who commands slitting babies throats? perhaps we should bow down to Science and Humanism, in whose name the gas chambers and crematoria were constructed?
i think i will stick with my own G-d, and keep kashrus and shabbos and the rest!
while this article gives insight into the Torahs language and words, as well as pain & suffering, I dont see how it answered this persons question, which in essence was;(notwithstanding free choice) Why did g-d punish the Egyptians when he is the one who has kept the Jews enslaved all those years, under the harshest conditions? This Questions remains to be answered.
Thank you for this deep analysis of pain and suffering and its association of being disconnected from G-d. very few sages understand the depth of this truth and its consequences. Blessings Lakshmi
good question and excellent answer – clear honest and challenging.
And we all have to remember that we always remain mystified and questionning because of our own intellectual and emotional limitations and agendas. Our job is to truly open up to concepts that are hard to grasp, while acknowldedging that there are things we will NEVER know and thats fine – that way lies freedom
Id like the detailed version, please. thank you!!!
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 comment is a common one and the Rabbi answers it well by talking of translation and non literal interpretation. I only would add that: Our g-d is a G-d not only of mercy but also of JUSTICE. Also his personification changes as we get to the Prophets.
I was always impressed by such logic as was expressed by the reb in his answer. Yet, I have a similar but divergent take on the subject. That like refining steel, or gold for that matter, these metals are heated to extreme temperatures, then cooled in succession until they are pure. The best steel of the worlds has been melted, smelted, pounded, and tempered 100s if not 1,000s of times. Gold? it must pass through the Acid test, process many times in order to be considered 99.99% pure. In like manner The Mighty One of Israel, has done this to His people Israel that they may become purified to hold the Light within themselves without being burnt by its brilliance, purity, and its awesome power. Many blessings to you and yours, and unto your readers, and students, reb. Shalom v Chag Sameach al Pesach
Rabbi Jacobson, as usual, your patient, wise and lucid explanation of Divine wrath is spot on. Only in our limited human minds do certain experiences of life seem negative. How else could we ever experience being human; being limited? I take the knowledge you impart and add it to my toolbox and keep working everyday to build a new consciousness where I experience the the levels you so aptly describe. Thanks.
Or we could just say that G-d created Adam to have dominion over the earth. ie–G-d gave him Power of Attorney. Adam handed that over to the satan.
Adam was not able to withstand temptation, so what makes Blunt One think any human can do it–especially pagans who never had the Torah? People sin. HaShem does not. Blunt One is putting blame where it does not belong. Blaming HaShem for what man has done and continues to do is Blunt Ones excuse for unbelief. People want to think of a warm-fuzzy G-d ie they want to make Him into their image of what they want Him to be. Thats a direct violation of the 1st Commandment. He states right there that He brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage and that He is a jealous G-d.
G-d is just and Holy. When man sins and commits atrocities against his fellow man, if he is not punished on earth, He will meet His maker someday.
Still difficult to understand how a loving G-d could order the gruesome killing of entire nations during the conquest .Big Kashya
Thank you Rabbi Jacobson for such an insightful and deeply meaningful response to a very valid question. Your magnanimousness of heart and wisdom radiates throughout your profound reply and resonates with my soul and mind. Please send me the article on the psychological implications of the ten plagues. May Hashem continue to bless you and your family.
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
My soul is deeply touched and inspired by your writings. They are so needed in this world.
Thank you, thank you –
long life and health and strength to you and your family,
Since the translation of the Torah does not accurately reflect its true meaning, why not embark upon a version, with corresponding commentary, to accurately reflect its essence. Knowing the shortcomings of mankind, why have a document which is so vulnerable to anthropomorphism? Shabat Shalom!
Please send! What a great thought fr 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].
Thank you for your insight, Rabbi. Todah rabbah!
Excellent article. Many of us read the English without understanding all the Hebrew and dont get an accurate sense of what the Torah is saying.If anger is distancing is wrath consequences of intentional wrong doing? Also, as you offered, could you please e-mail the articlwe on the blueprint of the 10 plagues and their effects against humanity. Thank you so much.
as referenced in the article, which was very helpful, please send me the article on the Egyptian reality and the consequences received. thank you, kathryn
Dear Rabbi, well explained.. thank you. please send me the article on the Egyptian reality and the consequences received. thank you
This is a marvelous article explaining the deeper metaphysical meaning of the Old Testament. I would love to learn Hebrew because without it, the Bible doesnt demonstrate the truth. Please send me the article regarding the symbolic meaning of the plagues, etc.
Thank you again for your article.
Im writing to request the article you mentioned, that treats the idea of the 10 plagues as specific answers for particular kinds of sins.
I would love to have the article mentioned in this article on the plagues. I am also looking for some suggested questions for our Seder this year consisting mostly of teenagers. Something to get their minds rolling….do you have any suggestions? Thank you.
If the the translation is an accurate one, herein lies my dilemma. Is it free will that drives us? If G-d hardened Pharoes heart, he can also modify our destructive and constructive behavior. So why doesnt he?
So, I still dont see answers to the original question. Could you please be more specific as to why G-d would let his people be enslaved for four hundred years and kill babies. Are we, then, to read it all as allegory?
When we hurt each other, we hurt ourselves. For we are all parts of one organism, of one reality, a reality protected and watched over by G-d, the essence of all there is. However, not many of us truly realise how disconnected we are. A disconnect that had began sometimes in the past when –as it is put intellectually, Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and were banished.
Surely the eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was a case of acquiring intelligence, the human intellect, with the human language, which had separated us from the animal kingdom forever. In G-d’s eye the animal is still a pure living being, still living in the Garden of Eden, while we humans are mentally corrupted and impure, thus disconnected from the natural whole. Ever since, we have two main choices: Either to maintain that disconnection –continue with our self-centric survival, or to realign our life with our Divine calling –restore our union to all life, since it’s all one.
Maybe the Egyptians were the first in our known reli-gious history to enslave an entire nation based purely on their race; however, racist crimes against humanity were not typically Egyptian; the Nazis had done the same. Even the Israelites themselves had a sworn enemy, the Amalek which they themselves were sworn to annihilate. Yes, these too would have been crimes against humanity, not a small sin, and it had profound consequences that rippled through history. These ripples caused by those wars and the mass traumas are still resonating in our global mentality.
This hatred is obviously a case of, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This concept derived from the holy book is what separates us from the concept of forgiveness, thus from the unconditional love and acceptance of all life as it is. …This takes us back to the beginning of this message… When we hurt each other, we hurt ourselves…For we are all parts of one organism, one reality, and one life.