Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Parashat Bo - Pesach 2012

The bit of parashat Bo that was read today contains a statement where the Torah relates how G-d smote the Egyptians …Va yehi bachetzi halailah [verse 12:29]. “And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the first-born…”.

Earlier in the parashah – in the bit before the reading – Moses is quoted as saying, in connection with the same event: “At about midnight – ka chatzot – I will go out into the midst of Egypt…” and he predicts the plague of the first-born – “all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die….”
In connection with this, Rabbi Avivah Zornberg mentions the following Talmudic recommendation in her commentary:‘Teach your tongue to say “I don’t know”, lest you be exposed as a liar’.

It is very heady stuff to be ‘the one who knows’. Not so popular among a person’s friends and relatives, who might call him or her a “know-it-all”. And if they are kind, they might add – “And he - or she - is often right”. Which is of course the person’s un-doing, the bit that keeps  us trapped in this idea that we know  – as mentioned earlier: it is heady stuff, to be in the right.

A visiting friend who lives in France said that her family call her “Madame Je-sais-tout” - Mrs I-know-everything. We both laughed: maybe the fact that there is a name for it in another language reflects how common a failing this is.  But at times, it seems important not to know. When we believe that we know, the idea we have of reality may be skewed. One who knows has erected a barrier to finding out what is happening in fact.Whereas the statement  ‘I don’t know’ implies an open mind. To go back to the parashah: where the Torah mentions when G-d will inflict the plague – the time is given exactly: at midnight.

Moses, talking of the same event says : “At about midnight….”

Before rambling on about this, here is the paragraph in Rabbi Zornberg's book* which caught my attention. She says the essential point about this reading is the precariousness of truth. Truth is a fragile thing, to be handled with care. The handling that is taking place is the talking about it. 

Whenever we open our mouths to speak, we risk being wrong. Moses knows that the plague will strike at midnight, but he says “At about midnight….”

Now some people may be knowingly wrong. When we find out – we may find out some of the time -  we call them liars. Sometimes people are wrong unknowingly, but it may still happen that they are called liars because of it. Certainly they will be less trusted, if only because they did not have the wisdom to acknowledge when they did not know.

So back to Avivah Zornberg: the precariousness of truth. Moses has predicted the plague and she writes
“the slightest of time-gaps – an error of milliseconds in the Egyptian calculation of mean time – will give them grounds to belie Moses’ whole story. Although Moses, and certainly G-d, knows the precise moment of midnight, human language must engage with the approximations and not with the absolute. This is particularly true in speaking about time, where subjectivity is unavoidable.”
And here she mentions the narrative of the night of the plague of the firstborn, the word Ba Chatzi – “at exactly midnight” is used: the narrative is about G-d’s actions and she says the expression describes “the absolute, divine measurement that is beyond human perception”.

She says: “There is no way of absolutely preventing or repudiating the subversive narratives of Egypt…. Moses avoids an arrogant exactness of prediction, he adopts a modest scepticism, which in the Talmud becomes exemplary: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’. …”
The prediction after all had been precise, had it not?
Avivah writes: “The human modesty recommended here takes account of the narratives and probable mis-narratives of others.” You can imagine how, if anything had happened even slightly differently from what was predicted, the Egyptians would pounce and say triumphantly – It is not what you said would happen, you said midnight – well it wasn’t midnight, was it!

There is no way of preventing this – given any chance, events will be misconstrued, and there is no way of overcoming the effect of the misconstruction.
There seems to be wisdom in this – to know that there is nothing to be done, that this is the world we live in – something happens and it may get misconstrued.
Moses was careful not to appear arrogant and a “know it all” – if he’d said “at exactly midnight” he would have been laying the ground for people to jeer and say “Well, was that exactly midnight? I don’t think so!” and ”Who does he think he is? How much control does he believe he has? He speaks as if he himself made the plague happen.” Better to appear a little remote from it. Better to be modest, and not so accurate.

A friend found that she had several house-bound people to visit over a certain period. Except for the first one, she found it an effort to arrive on time – sometimes visits were longer, sometimes shorter, depending on the need.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  These were her friends: she wanted to visit in peace and quiet, stay for as long as was necessary and not get stressed if the traffic was slower than expected as she travelled from one place to another. She felt it was rude to arrive a quarter of an hour later than she’d said. She felt she was being unreliable, and even disrespectful. And in a small way, to say that you’ll arrive say at three and arrive at a quarter past is a kind of lie. Her friends did not complained about this to her, it was her own feeling of guilt and inadequacy – surely there had to be a solution?
A friend who was a social worker told her: “Don’t give an exact time”.
 “What do you mean?”  
"Say “I’ll arrive between three and a quarter past three”."
 Very simple.
And that is what she did. In fact all she did was be more exact not in her arrival time but in the way she spoke about it. She only told the truth - she was more truthful. But it had required an effort on her behalf – it may be that many of you are thinking that they would have thought of this themselves…
It did require an effort and it did involve being exact with her speech.

Being aware of what one is saying and its effect on other people seems to be a life-long work. Sometimes when people come across this idea of taking care with their words for the first time, they say: “But I’d have to watch every word I say! That’s ridiculous!”. And that of course is precisely the thing to do - to attempt to watch every word we say.

The Particulars of Rapture: reflections on Exodus, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (2001, Schocken Books)