Sunday, January 22, 2012

Va'eira, Shemos 6:6. Sivlos Mitzrayim. The Chidushei HaRi'm and Martin Luther King

I was born in 1952, and I have personally seen the enormous change American society has undergone in the relationship between Caucasians and African Americans.  It is hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when blacks were considered not fully human- many saw them as part animal and part man, placed somewhere on the continuum between ape and human.  The natural thing for a black revolutionary would be to react with violence and anger, as many did.  Martin Luther King was the catalyst of such enormous change, change that in other societies would take centuries, or millennia, and he did it within thirty years and with non-violent methods.  This is a testament both to Dr. King and, Baruch Hashem, to the unique character of American society.

We were discussing at the table something the Chidushei Harim says on this week's parsha (also quoted in Ma'ayana shel Torah), and someone pointed out that Dr. King had made a very similar observation.  (I have a feeling that Abraham Joshua Heschel mentioned it to him, but I certainly can't prove it.  See here.)

The passuk says והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלת מצרים, I will take you out from beneath the crushing burden of Mitzrayim.  The word סבלות means burdens.  But it also can mean patience.  Over the years, the Jewish People had developed patience, the patience to tolerate their miserable life in Egypt.  As terrible as their life was, they had learned to cope with their condition, and it was the only life they knew.  They had lost the desire to be autonomous, the desire to breath as free men, the concept that this was not what life should be like.  They had lost any desire to be redeemed, they feared the instability and danger freedom might bring.   Hashem told Moshe to hint to the Jews that the first prerequisite to their salvation was to become impatient; to say "Enough!  This is unacceptable!  I refuse to despair; I will do whatever it takes to become free, despite the danger, despite the fear."  
Rabbi Oizer Alport (author of "Parsha Potpourri", available by writing to points out that Rav Gedalya Shorr makes a similar point.  Rav Shorr brings a Medrash that prior to Yetzias Mitzaryim, not a single slave had ever escaped from Egypt. One would think this was because of the hermetic efficiency of the Egyptian police state.  But Rav Schorr suggests that it was due less to physical control than to mind control. Mitzrayim had such an effective system of mental debilitation, of convincing the slaves that any other life was more dangerous or less meaningful, that by being good slaves that were accomplishing the greatest good that they were born to do.  It was their Tafkid!  It was a curse of complacency, and Moshe Rabbeinu's first task was to break away this destructive willingness to be subordinated.

In Dr. King's essay, Three Way's of Meeting Oppression, the first paragraphs are as follows:
Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic ways. One way is acquiescence: the oppressed resign themselves to their doom. They tacitly adjust themselves to oppression and thereby become conditioned to it. In every movement toward freedom some of the oppressed prefer to remain oppressed. Almost 2800 years ago Moses set out to lead the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. He soon discovered that slaves do not always welcome their deliverers. They become accustomed to being slaves. They would rather bear those ills they have, as Shakespeare pointed out, than flee to others that they know not of. They prefer the "fleshpots of Egypt" to the ordeals of emancipation.
There is such a thing as the freedom of exhaustion. Some people are so worn down by the yoke of oppression that they give up. A few years ago in the slum areas of Atlanta, a Negro guitarist used to sing almost daily: "Been down so long that down don't bother me." This is the type of negative freedom and resignation that often engulfs the life of the oppressed.
But this is not the way out. To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber. Religion reminds every man that he is his brother's keeper. To accept injustice or segregation passively is to say to the oppressor that his actions are morally right. It is a way of allowing his conscience to fall asleep. At this moment the oppressed fails to be his brother's keeper. So acquiescence-while often the easier way-is not the moral way. It is the way of the coward. The Negro cannot win the respect of his oppressor by acquiescing; he merely increases the oppressor's arrogance and contempt. Acquiescence is interpreted as proof of the Negro's inferiority. The Negro cannot win the respect of the white people of the South or the peoples of the world if he is willing to sell the future of his children for his personal and immediate comfort and safety.

Elsewhere, in an essay titled The Meaning of Non-Violence, he repeats this theme with a slightly different focus:

One method is that of acquiescence there are those individuals who feel that the only way to deal with their oppression is to resign themselves to the fate of oppression. There are those who surrender and find themselves becoming conditioned to things as they are. They feel that it is better to live with these things than to go through the ordeals of changing the old order to the new order. There was a man who lived in one of the Negro communities in Atlanta some years ago; he used to play his guitar and sing various songs, and one day he was heard singing a song that went something like this: "been down so long that down don't bother me." I guess he had achieved a level of freedom-a freedom of exhaustion. He had given up the struggle.
So this is the method of acquiescence- but it is not the way. It may be the easy way at times, but it is not moral way and it is not the courageous way; it is a cowardly way for the individual who adjusts to an evil system, and he must take some of the responsibility for the perpetuation of the unjust system.

Obviously, Dr. King's approach would not have worked in Mitzrayim.  But his moral logic, and its success in the milieu within which he championed it, is undeniable.

1 comment:

  1. I never understood why otherwise intelligent Jews stayed in New York City. Thank you for the explanation.