Posts Tagged 'Secrets'

A Scent of Self

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

We are left with the question of why they perceived that the Egyptians saw them smelling? This blending of sight and smell indicates a deep insight into their perceived lack of value. They were embarrassed that the shoddy quality of their work reflected some lesser quality of their being. This synthesis of sight and smell at the nadir of their existence is the foundation for a parallel synesthesia at the apex of their existence at the revelation of the Torah. At Sinai they saw the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). In Egypt their odor was exposed, at Sinai the sublime beauty of God was revealed to them.

When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? Take a lesson from this week’s Torah portion; at the heart of this feeling of shame might be the key to a deeper revelation of self-knowledge. While in many ways perception is reality, the lesson of the Exodus from Egypt is that we can escape that. Somewhere in between our perception of ourselves and other people’s perceptions of us we will discover a better sense of ourselves.  If a group of smelly slaves can enter into relationship with God, we all have the ability realize inner worth and our scruptious selves.

– Check out two fascinating TED lectures that deal with the science behind and the concept of  synesthesia:

1) The science of synesthesia- Fast forward to end

2) Kika and Booba Test used again but in the context of metaphors and communication.

The Secret Life of Moses

Can you keep a secret?

I think that secrets play a dynamic and critical role in the Bible, Jewish memory, Jewish life, human psychology, contemporary life, and of course most family issues.  OK that is not the best secret. If only the Elders of Zion really existed I would have some better secrets to share with you. But how might I argue my claim of  the importance of secrets? For now I am going to focus on last week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning of the book of Sh’mot we see that a couple from the tribe of Levi clandestinely have a male child. They, Amram and Yocheved, need to keep this a secret out of fear that this male child will be killed under the new government rule. How long will they be able to keep this secret? They put the child in a basket and put him in the river. None other then Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants discover the baby in the bulrushes. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moses and brings Miriam and Yocheved into the plot to raise Moses as a closeted Israelite in the house of Pharaoh.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”  How did so many people conspire to keep this secret? It seems somehow that these people are able to keep a secret; Moses grows up with his secret secure.

His identity seems  safely hidden until one day when Moses sees an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moses is inspired to action, but he does not want to betray his secret. We read, “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) It seems like the perfect act of vigilante justice. He saves his fellow Israelite, there are no witnesses and he is able to  maintain his old secret of being an Israelite and his new secret of killing the Egyptian. The very next day Moses intervenes as one Israelite is beating another. The Israelite responds, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14) Moses leaves town out of fear that his secrets are known by all. The juxtaposition of these two secrets, one kept and one not, frame the importance of secrets in Moses’s life.

In many ways a secret is like being naked. If shared with the right person it is high level of intimacy. If your secret is revealed to the wrong person you feel exposed, embarrassed, and even in real danger. But, if you had a secret that you could never  share, it could be a very large burden to carry having to keep this part of yourself in the closet. In the words of Sigmund Freud, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Moses had to leave Egypt because  everyone knew his secrets. He also had to leave to evade the deafening sound of the  Tell-Tale Heart. While he might have been killed if he stayed, keeping his secrets bottled up would have also killed him.

Moses was born and raised in a secret. He leaves his birth place for fear of his secrets being revealed. Soon after God reveals God’s self to Moses God charges Moses to get the people out of slavery, bring them to receive the Torah, and bring them into the land of Israel. Moses responds, “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) While on the simple level he wants to know on what authority he will get Pharaoh to release the slaves, on another level Moses really just wants to know who he is. Moses’s whole life is a secret.  And how will Moses share the secret to the people? God responds, “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14)  As if God is Russian behavior as described by Winston Churchill, ” a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Moses is similarly a Matrushka doll of secrets.  He has lived with secrets and really needs to share. It is appropriate that this man of mystery is the one who is uniquely equipped to reveal the secret of the Torah with the Israelite people.

– I hope to develop this theme in the next few weeks. I would love your ideas on the topic. Please do share them.

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