4 Tamuz 5781 / Monday, June 14, 2021 | Torah Reading: Chukat
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Bo - Exposing the Ridiculous    

Bo - Exposing the Ridiculous

Jews have a special innate ability to poke fun at things and to notice their internal contradictions, exposing the world's follies for what they truly are...


Parshat Bo
Have you ever noticed that Jews are a very opinionated people? You know the old joke, two Jews, three opinions. An abnormal percentage of comedians, whose job it is to poke fun at the absurd, are Jewish. How many radio show hosts, editorial writers, and satirists are Jewish? (This is my opinion, but you're entitled to yours, especially if you're Jewish!) This hypothesis is not just a sociological observation but, in my opinion, is a very real and important part of the make-up of our people. In fact, this ability to laugh at the illogical is based on a crucial lesson in this week's Torah portion. This lesson is also found in the story recounted during Passover as we will discuss.
Every Passover, Jews around the world retell the story of Hashem's miraculous salvation of the Jewish people. The story is well known: how we became enslaved and were redeemed from bondage. One of the conditions necessary to change our status from a slave people to a free one was to actively participate in specific mitzvot (commandments) that would give us the merits needed to deserve Hashem's special providence. Towards this goal we were given the mitzva of the Paschal lamb. The entire Jewish people were commanded to take a lamb and to offer it as a sacrifice to Hashem. There are many important details to this mitzva but the issue that is relevant to our discussion is the choice of these specific animals.
Following the plague of wild animals, Pharaoh acquiesced to Moses' request for the Jewish people to bring an offering, with one important stipulation. He specified that their sacrifices should be brought within the boundaries of the land of Egypt itself. Moses challenged the advisability of this plan and told Pharaoh as follows: "It is not proper to do so, for we are offering the animal used as a deity of Egypt to Hashem. If we slaughter the deity of Hashem in their sight, won't they stone us?" Pharaoh partially agreed to their plan by letting them go outside of Egyptian boundaries as long as they stray too far. What seems puzzling in the whole scenario is the requirement for us to sacrifice the animals the Egyptians revered. Why was it necessary to slaughter the exact animals they worshiped? If the sacrifice had been a bull, a cow, a ram, or any number of other animals, would the mitzva have been diminished? Of course, the simple reason is because this is what Hashem commanded. Even so, let us attempt to understand a possible underlying reason.
The last head of the Yeshiva in Volozhin, Lithuania, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893) wrote a treatise about antisemitism. Among the many fascinating insights in this article is his explanation of the two main causes why the Jewish people were the brunt of hatred and bigotry for so many years. One reason is our success on a material level. Jews have always been known for their economic acumen and this created substantial jealousy among our non-Jewish hosts. The second reason is due to the system of morality that we introduced to the world. In a pagan world, one is not held accountable to an absolute moral truth and standard since there is no ultimate Lawgiver. The notion of non-accountability changed forms but was easily recognizable in later Christian society where absolution would play a major role in allowing the penitent to "change their ways" without having to change their ways. As much as I don't want to bring the wicked onto these holy pages but for the purpose of understanding the idea mentioned above,we need go no further than the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. "The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. Conscience is a Jewish invention, it is a blemish like circumcision." This vicious quote encapsulates the hatred of the morality the Jews brought to the world. 
Is there, in fact, a Jewish conscience? During our sojourn through exile, what was our reaction to the idols and ideologies of world history? For this we travel back to Egypt. They believed that a lamb was a god and we were commanded to slaughter it. This command was not just to slaughter a physical animal but to slaughter all of the foolish ideologies it stood for. We couldn't have slaughtered any another type of animal since the very purpose of the killing was to bring out the truth of the emptiness of their convictions. Why were we so certain of the falsehood of their beliefs? Only through the Divine command. Both in Egypt and at the giving of the Torah, Hashem gave us a clear understanding of the truth and falsehood of this world. From that time on, we were charged with a moral mandate of slaughtering the nations' false gods. This process has been done carefully and our message was always subtle and with respect. We didn't make inquisitions and pogroms to forcibly impose our beliefs. By living lives of truth and morality the Torah's messages have made their way, slowly but surely, into the collective consciousness of the world. 
Honestly speaking, the belief that the Jewish people were given ultimate truths is not in vogue in today's society. The "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy of life is fine in terms of the respect that every human being deserves. However that doesn't change the fact that not everyone's opinion reflects the truth. The Jewish people have steadfastly maintained that all good and blessing can only grow out of our connecting to the Torah and its ultimate truths. Believing the world is flat doesn't jeopardize a person's right to be treated with dignity, but it doesn't make him correct either. 
What does all this have to do with humor and being opinionated? The ability to poke fun at something is to notice the internal contradictions and expose them for what they truly are. We've been in the business of telling the world "the emperor has no clothes" ever since the Paschal lamb in Egypt. If we weren't so opinionated the world probably would still be bowing down to trees and stones and that's no joke!
The prophet tells us in the end of time Hashem and the Jewish people will laugh. The proverbial carpet will be pulled out from those nations that led lives of falsehood, hatred, or any of the idols of history. This will be the source of one type of laughter in the future. For those who did their best to live lives of truth and goodness they will also laugh from joy with the arrival of Moshiach and the revelation of Hashem speedily in our days.

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