Separation and Connectedness

Va'et-hannan By :  Leonard A. Sharzer Associate Director for Bioethics Emeritus, The Finkelstein Institute of Religious and Social Studies Posted On Jul 17, 2013 / 5773 | Main Commentary

In Parashat Va-ethannan, Moses seems to have finally come to accept that he will not enter the Promised Land with the People, whom he liberated from Egyptian slavery and guided during a 40-year trek through the wilderness. As he concludes his first oration, he recalls his pleading with God to allow him to enter the Land, a plea that was denied because of his response to the demand of the People for water. Now, no longer pleading for a pardon, or even a commutation of the sentence, he exhorts the People to follow God’s commandments and the teachings he, Moses, has transmitted to them. In his exhortation, he reminds them of all that God has done for them, and reminds them of both the importance and uniqueness of God’s actions.

He asks,

(1) Has anything as grand as this ever happened, or (2) has its like ever been known? (3) Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived? Or (4) has any god ventured to go and take for himself any nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and awesome power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deut. 4:32–34; JPS translation)

These questions, Rashi tells us, were asked bi-t’mihah, rhetorically. It is the fourth of these questions that I find most intriguing: “Ha-nissah elohim lavo lakahat lo goy mi-kerev goy” (Has a god ever tried to extract one people from within another)? This act, as the Torah understands it, is sui generis. It is something that has never occurred before and could not occur except by divine intervention, by a miracle. The Torah does not ask if a god had ever done this, but if a god had ever even tried. The word the Torah uses for “try” or “venture,” ha-nissah, contains within it and alludes to the word for miracle, nes. This extraction is indeed extraordinary, supernatural—miraculous.

The Torah’s word mi-kerev is equally laden with many overtones. One of its connotations is nearness, proximity, hence “from within” or “from the midst of.” In the descriptions of the sacrifices in Leviticus, kerev is used to refer to the entrails, the insides, the guts of an animal. This sense of kerev is found in numerous midrashim that liken God’s taking the Israelites out of Egypt to a person (adam) removing a fetal calf from a cow (parah)—or, more graphically, to a shepherd reaching his hand into the womb of an animal (beheimah) to remove a fetus (ubar), particularly one not yet ready to be born (lo bizmano). The image is a violent one and a play on the word k’rav, meaning battle. The point is that, although the Israelites were distinct from the Egyptians, they were inextricably interconnected, just as a fetus is part of its mother’s body (ubar yerekh imo) until it is born. Anyone who has witnessed a birth can attest to its miraculous nature, as well as to the pain (to both mother and fetus) caused by the disruption of the connectedness.

The singular and extraordinary nature of taking the Israelites out of Egypt may have relevance to two quite different phenomena in our times, which are, in some ways, polar opposites: the desire for greater connection, on one hand, and for separation, on the other.

We speak about the importance of keruv, of providing ways of “drawing near” those who have been marginalized and excluded by traditional Judaism and its institutions. We generally think of keruv in terms of inclusiveness and welcoming. Perhaps we should be thinking more in terms of the kind of kerev the midrash envisioned regarding the Israelites in Egypt—an integration so deep and complete that separation would not only be painful, but would require divine intervention. I am not suggesting any particular actions or programs—I leave that to others with greater experience than I—but rather to a way of conceptualizing our goals in dealing with those who have been kept separate and apart.

The flip side of the coin is, of course, peoples who want to be separated. We have witnessed throughout history, and sadly even in our times, attempts at separation and expulsions. They are painful and destructive. We see the situation in Israel with two peoples who might well consider it desirable to be completely separated from each other, but who are inextricably connected, linked to a degree that separation would require a “miracle,” and “act of God.” Parashat Va-ethannan tells us that prior to the Exodus, not only had such a separation never happened, but no god had even attempted it, and surely no human. It is a vain hope.

As with keruv, I have no practical program to suggest, but it seems to me that the Torah is telling us that barring separation by divine intervention, we had better find a way to get along with those with whom we are irretrievably interconnected. On the other hand, it is within our power, and I would add that it is our responsibility, to integrate the marginalized and excluded among us.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.