"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Librescu Libris

Where, Kathy Hutchins thoughtfully asks, does a Jew conversant in the traditions reach for inspiration in a moment when he or she is called upon to give up life to save others from death or pain? A wonderful question.

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Hanina, son of Tradion, who was killed by the Romans for group teaching of the Bible. They burned him at the stake by wrapping a Torah scroll around his body and setting it afire. To prolong the agony, they strategically placed moist sponges around the vital organs so the fire would not kill him quickly.

The guard assigned to managing the pyre was a Roman named Klastinuri. He said, "Rabbi, if I remove the sponges so you suffer less, will I get a place in Heaven?" The scholar assured him he would. Klastinuri removed the sponges and then fell on his own sword. It was said that a prophetic echo was heard to announce: "Rabbi Hanina and Klastinuri have been cleared to enter Heaven immediately."

Before he died, the Jews who were there asked Rabbi Hanina what he saw. "I see the scroll burning but the letters are flying through the air." Those letters are still flying two thousand years later, against all odds and historic tendency, and the noble people in every generation can reach up and pluck them for their own.

Think about Judah in Genesis (44:33) stepping forward and saying: "Take me as a slave instead and let my younger brother go home to his father."

Think about Moses in what stands as the greatest act - or series of acts - of pure heroism ever recorded. First (Exodus 2:11) this adopted grandson of the king of Egypt leaves the palace to see the plight of his Jewish brothers. (The text does not record who told him he was a Jew, but the Talmudic tradition is that his adoptive mother, Pharaoh's daughter, secretly converted to Judaism.) That was already a risky course of action for someone who enjoyed personal immunity from the Jewish laws, not to mention a life of luxury in the royal family.

Then he witnesses a beating being administered unjustly by an Egyptian to a Jew. (The text offers no background, other than the general vibe that this sort of thing happened in this oppressive environment. The tradition is that the Egyptian had sent the Jew on an assignment away from home, then gone in and raped his wife. When the husband came home earlier than expected, the Egyptian started whipping.) Moses looks around to be sure there are no witnesses and then smashes the Egyptian (with his fist?) and kills him.

Although he tried to be circumspect, he was certainly risking his cushy life. Sure enough, the Jew he saved blabbed to others, among whom was an informer. A death warrant was issued for Moses and he became a fugitive.

He ran to Midian and he "camped near the lake".

Take a moment to consider his plight. Not long ago he was an Egyptian prince. Now he is wanted for murder. The trial process has been conducted already in absentia (according to tradition he was there and escaped later but the text does not reflect this), so at this point the orders are to kill on sight. He is forced to run to a foreign country. Probably he does not even know the language. But even if he does he is still identifiable as an "Egyptian man", by accent or garb or appearance. So he has no local citizenship, he has no local resources or friends, and he would prefer to avoid the expatriate Egyptians that a traveler would ordinarily call upon for help.

No family, no friends, no job, no money, no protection, he sets up a little homeless existence alongside a lake, drinking lake water, maybe catching a few fish. Most important of all is to avoid being seen and identified. Most likely, he stays camouflaged during the day, observing his surroundings through a little peephole he has fashioned between the thick branches of a tree. At night he forages for his meager sustenance. Getting by, marking time, forced to learn gritty survival skills his palace tutor left out of the syllabus.

Then he witnesses a nasty scene. A group of sisters brings a flock of sheep to drink from the lake. They worked diligently to draw water in their pails and then fill the troughs. Before they could line the sheep up to drink, a group of male shepherds came to chase them away.

How crazy would it be to step forward? He cannot afford to make any waves and call attention to itself. Even if he could singlehandedly intimidate a group of shepherds (the exact amount is not given), they are sure to spread the word. He could be killed by their gang of friends or he could be handed over to the authorities and extradited: the king of Midian would love to score points with the king of Egypt, the regional power. And the girls are not in real danger. They are just being ripped off and pushed around.

Sure enough, Moses "stands up" and saves them. He risked everything to fight injustice.

Lucky for him, they had an influential father who took him in and gave him a job. (Although the tradition says he had to hide Moses in a cave for some months until the local furor died down. Zipporah brought him his food in the hiding place and that is where their romance sprouted, leading eventually to marriage and children.) Having established himself as a savior at all costs, the stage is set for God to give him a much bigger salvation role.

Think about Esther, once again a Jew protected in the king's palace, this time as the queen. Her cousin (and adoptive father) Mordecai tells her (Esther 4:13-14): "Don't imagine that you can escape the fate of the Jews in the house of the king. If you are silent at this time, relief and salvation may come to the Jews from another source, but you and your family will be the losers." And he adds: "...and who knows if for just such a moment you achieved majesty?"

It is a calling, you see. Salvation may not even depend on you, but if you are in the right place at the right time, you must step forward.

Esther responds (4:16): "And so I will go to the king against the rules, and whatever I lose I lose."

The one who is willing to lose is the ultimate gainer. The book gets named after her for all time.

Liviu Librescu. You wrote the ultimate book. May your name live in liberty.

3 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Loved this, Jay, and thank you. Esther and Moses (twice) make the Judaic answer quite clear.

Once you add in the rabbinic tradition for context, of course, which our Gideon Bibles unfortunately omit for space.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I don't know the going rate for the erudition that blasts out of Homnick like some sort of rabbinical Miracle-Gro sprayer on the end of a high-pressure hose. We get it for free and, as the Mastercard commercials say, "Priceless."

Jay D. Homnick said...

Thank you, guys, much appreciated.

There are some days I regret not staying "in the system" and becoming a rabbi or a professor of Judaic Studies or something. But most of the time I am happy with my decision to take my place as a public intellectual in the larger society and advocate a set of ideas and values moored in the intellectual and moral tradition where I have my roots.

At least that is the larger goal. The degree of my effectiveness is commensurate with such ability as I can muster.