If Pharaoh Was My Rebbe

Pharaoh calls his Torah the Torah of freedom.

If Pharaoh was my rebbe, G-d forbid, he’d say I was perfect just the way I am. I should not be passive or quell the dissatisfaction or the rage or greet each thing with stoic equanimity. That is not “freedom.” The true freedom is to bellow and rally against all restraints because they are not to our taste. As long as we are the masters of our destiny, we have his blessing. Pharaoh is the rebbe of all self-made men.

If Pharaoh was a rebbe (and we trapped forever), he would remind every Jewish boy and girl that they are kings and queens, empowered rulers over their own lives. He wouldn’t just say it; he would make it so: he would order his sorcerors to render unto the flock the secrets of dominion over nature. “Go out and embrace the world,” he would encourage. “And if the world needs remaking, do not hesitate.”

He does not demand wholehearted devotion from his followers. He is far more reasonable. “You are in control,” he tells them on the first day they arrive to build the cities that will guard the borders of their prison. “You decide, just like me.” Pharaoh is a man of the people, and the first day you meet him, you’ll find him in working-class denim, hard hat on, ready to set to the task. It is impossible, you are reassured, to become a slave when you are in control.

Pharaoh encourages all forms of expression. Words are the concretization of thought, and Pharaoh loves concrete as he loves brick and mortar; these are the media from which pyramids and cities and tombs are formed. When the idea hasn’t yet been put into words, it’s still personal and ephemeral and shifts in the light. The concept without words is alive like we are alive, like our skin is alive, an external interface of our soul with the world. But since it is just us, it can’t change the world; it is trapped within our soul.

“This is selfish,” says Pharaoh, with a twinkle in his eye. “We must free the world!” Pharaoh hates entrapment and demands freedom. His Torah says no idea of yours is undeserving of expression; no thought should remain naked, without a theory. Pharaoh adores theories. In the system of thought, we manifest and concretize our souls and leave monuments to eternity that explorers shall excavate millennia hence!

Do not, Pharaoh reassures us, worry at the way the walls close in. Do not fret that the cities we have chosen to build with our own hands mark where we cannot pass. Ignore the discomfort of living within the skin we have shed, dwelling within childhood towns that are now too small for us. Ignore the distinction between the living and the dead.

Pharaoh’s organization promotes from within. Those elder “Chassidim” (and he ages them quickly) deep in Pharaoh’s service thrive among the theories of Judaism they have pronounced. Inside the systems they have built with their own hands, they live like kings. Pharaoh is the king of kings, he teaches. He ensures that nothing upsets his followers’ kingdoms.

That they’re never allowed to taste the taste of matza.

Matza, lowly and broken, tastes of tastelessness, of humility and miracles and faith. “Miracles are hubris,” Pharaoh warns us. “They break down the cities you chose to build! And what will you be when the cities are gone? Certainly no king.”

Thus humility, therefore faith. For what is faith if not the inner point of divestment where all we know is known only by knowing ourselves? Faith is where ideas cannot slough off to become prisons because our thoughts are us, and we cannot imprison ourselves. Faith is where you can’t hide from the truth because the truth is all there is.

Passover reveals the subtle truth of Pharaoh’s machination. He offers freedom and choice and, in the end, brings us only to apathy, depression, and death.

Apathy, for what cares the king of a petty kingdom whose stability is outsourced to Pharaoh about what occurs beyond his borders? Depression, for there is no self-definition outside of the realm we have, with Pharaoh’s encouragement, chosen to build. Though we nominally manipulate stones, we would be nothing without them, so why try? And death, for if we can’t see beyond our words/theories/definitions, and we are nothing without them, we are not really here at all; only the walls of brick are here, the draft stirring the dust across their faces for eternity.

Pharaoh enjoys the entire Jewish year until the Spring, where things go to be reborn. He is uneasy with the supposed humility and miracles and faith. Pharaoh declares that every act of becoming must occur step by step, a chain traceable back to what you once were. He cannot conscience the leaping.

“Judaism isn’t like that fairy tale,” he claims. “Judaism is just like me. Look at the rules and regulations. Look at the controls on your behavior. By choosing ‘freedom,’ you, too, will find yourself controlled!” If Pharaoh was a rebbe, the commandments and the Torah describing them would remain some kind of system, some sort of theory. You would never hear another side to the story, a side that threatened to knock over the blocks. You would never hear that G-d does not manipulate external criteria to make them fit because He is G-d and doesn’t have to. You would never learn that the entire Egyptian exile existed to contextualize the giving of the Torah as a breaking free of the finite bonds of our own choices.

Pharaoh will never teach you that Judaism is wrapping a Jew’s arm in Tefillin or giving them Shabbos candles. He will never admit that the Torah is just what it is, with no shed skin, no shell of dead theories. He will never know, for it lies on the opposite side of the sea that drowned his army, that the Torah is no palace of bricks in which the Jew is king. That the Torah is a truth offered to take or leave, and it is taken by leaving oneself behind, in doing and then listening.

Pharaoh had no inkling of the nation that would survive for millennia alongside his buried tomb and the ruins. The palaces were broken, and the people, humble, joyous, and faithful, let free. They taste the tasteless matza and are reborn.

Hello. It’s 2 AM. And Pesach Is Coming.

I learn Torah now from 2:30 to 3:30 on Thursday mornings.

This is how it happened: I have a chevrusa (a one-on-one study session) with a genius from Israel once a week. It involves a lot of him talking very quickly and me nodding as if I understand, and we used to do it at 8:30 P.M. his time, 1:30 P.M. my time, when I was in Atlanta. But now I am in Hong Kong, and his schedule cannot change, and so — 2:30 A.M.

So now on Thursday night I typically go to sleep at 10, wake up at 2, go back to sleep at 3:45 (if I can), and get up at 9 (work starts later on Thursday, making all this possible — thanks, G-d!). At around 2:10 A.M. I make a cup of tea and drink it staring out the apartment’s living room window at the lights and the bay. Then I grab a liter of water and a cup, open Google Hangouts, and find our place in my copy of Moreh Nevuchim. There is no sound other than the thankless toil of the air conditioner.

A ring pierces the silence.

I start, resist the urge to look over my shoulder, paranoid. I am worried about…what exactly? I am worried about the cosmic balance upset by this clandestine antemeridian study session. Surely this venture cannot succeed.  I, who cannot do anything consistently for more than two days, am going to keep a commitment to learn medieval philosophy at witching hour? An outrage. A scandal. When do I learn during my regular daily schedule, I wonder. I seem to rack up way more hours playing video games and concocting brilliant Facebook statuses….

My teacher’s face appears on my laptop screen against the backdrop of his library.

We do not greet each other.

Greetings are a luxury. Greetings are for day-time Torah, part of the schedule, that hallowed space before work or on lunch break or during the commute. Even out-of-the-ordinary occurrences still occasion a greeting; the order of life itself condones a touch of madness, allowing for a “fancy meeting you here” or even a “good evening, officer.” We expect the unexpected, some of the time.

But when you wake up at an hour normally reached only by accident (“oh look, half a season of Daredevil I haven’t watched!”) to do something good that is totally unnecessary, salutations are the least of your worries.

In the moment before we fail to greet each other, I find myself surrounded by the spirits of all the Yeshiva students I have known who somehow studied Torah for twelve hours a day. My memories of them encircle me, like a strange cross between priori incantatem and the bickering familial spirits of that great masterwork Mulan:

“Philosophy, shmilosophy. 100 pages of Talmud a year! That’s what Rabbi K. says!”

“Yeah, you’re really devoted to chassidus. That’s why you show up to learn it so often.”

“Pesach is coming and I’ve only learned the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch with Kuntres Acharon. I feel like such a slacker.”

“You know, this weird middle-of-the-night once-a-week tryst with the Rambam only serves to salve your guilt over all the other learning you’re not doing.”

“You’d know for sure whether to say birchas haTorah before this chevrusa if you were not fundamentally irresponsible.”

But this puritan pantheon, this cruel court, this glowing nimbus of garish guilt implodes the instant my teacher says, “Can you hear me? Good. We are on page…”

The Rambam speaks tonight on the eternality of the world and the nature of volition. Our discussion, like all our Rambam discussions, terminates in that Great Mystery who is the G-d of his philosophy. If the Guide is an intricate chamber of complex, crystalline design, then G-d is its oculus, the highest point to which everything converges, where is found — nothing, a gap, empty space, a window to the sun.

And together, in the night, we taste the sun-Torah. Here, in the Moreh, is a Judaism in which G-d does not move and our goal is to become refined enough to appreciate His stillness. Here is a universe governed by order flowing from the commonsense reality of what is, rather than underlying abstract principle. It is a worldview in which randomness is the opposite of order, an exception that proves the rule, at odds with the modern idea that randomness is the rule that generates the world’s apparent order.

The philosophy of the Rambam can rub us 2 A.M. learners the wrong way.

Because we revel in a bit of randomness. Because disorder is our operation space. Because Purim precedes our Passover.

Because we are the night thieves.

We steal the witching hour for Torah study and a friendly conversation on Jewish belief. When the sun sets we crawl out of our flop houses like goblins, glad to be free of the hateful light of day and its unerring constancy, a tireless reminder of the things we could never be.

We, the night walkers, stride sure in the silver moonlight, ever-shifting, treacherous. Some nights there is no moon, our inspiration dies, and we are full of shame. We reschedule our good intentions or simply roll over when the alarm rings, as we have a thousand times before, unable to care.

So, no, we may not have the riches of the day workers. We yearn for that normal, scheduled, productive life. But as long as we don’t have it, we sleep in our shabby apartments with barely a dime to our name and dream of being men one day and in the night we wake to play and ply our secret trade. At the moment, due to my own weakness, I do not learn in the light. But I learn in the dark. My tower to the heavens crumbles, but I etch holy words upon the ground. In the dark, we still twist wires. As the Dutchmen steal from the sea, we steal from the night.

The day of our national redemption is coming, and Torah after midnight is the perfect preparation. Our ancestors were slaves and idol worshippers who in their toil could not remember the G-d of their forefathers; they could not hack G-d by day. All they had to their name was a little spilled blood when their creator came in the middle of the night, found them awake and ready, and redeemed them.

So if you are like me and your actions are lacking and your devotion is weak and you wonder to yourself sometimes if there has not been some mistake and perhaps you cannot do this at all — take heart. Who you are is not in question, and what is a mere drop of blood in your eyes is not worthless. You are one of the many who in the depth of night find a foothold. By the power of that one good deed, we, too, shall cross the sea.

We, too, will wake up.


Originally posted on Hevria.