Friday, December 31, 2021

The Power of Vulnerability


It is a crude image, one that gets chuckles from fourth graders studying Parshat Shemot for the first time. The Torah relates that Pharaoh was “going out to the Nile” in the early morning; Rashi, (quoting the Midrash), explains that “going” means Pharaoh was going to the bathroom. Pharaoh was considered by the Egyptians to be a god; to preserve his image, Pharaoh wouldn’t answer nature’s call while others could observe him. So at the break of dawn, Pharaoh would make a furtive dash to surreptitiously fulfill his bodily needs. It is at that moment that Moshe confronts him, demanding that Pharaoh let the Jews go. The silliness of this scene mocks Pharaoh's pretensions to divine status. In one version of this Midrash, Moshe grabs Pharaoh and prevents him from relieving himself, and tells Pharaoh that a true God doesn't need to go to the toilet.
Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Moses and Aaron Changing the Rivers of Egypt to Blood, 1631 
This Midrash has historical roots. In ancient Egyptian religion, Pharaohs were considered to be gods, sons of the sun god Ra, and manifestations of the sky-god Horus; a royal cult offered sacrifices to statues of Pharaoh’s image. Although the Torah makes no direct reference to this belief, it is implicit in the text. Despite a series of devastating plagues, Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to offer the Jews three days of freedom. (Yes, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart; but even if that means Pharaoh no longer had free will, this only occurred in the final five plagues). Clearly, Pharaoh is not just a hard-nosed monarch intent on holding onto his slaves; he is engaged in a cosmic battle over who is the true God.
This Midrash highlights the absurdity of this Egyptian belief, and reminds us that no man can ever be a god. But it also offers a related lesson about human vulnerability. Even the most powerful man in Egypt cannot fully control his own body and must run to the toilet to relieve himself. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein relates this Midrash to Montaigne’s observation that “man aspires to the stars and all the while cannot rise from his toilet seat.” To dream of perfection is a human instinct, but vulnerability is a human constant; we are reminded of our wants and needs with every breath we take.
Awareness of our own vulnerability shapes one’s moral perspective. Nietzsche rejected what he called what he called “slave-morality,” which is based on “qualities which serve to alleviate the existence of sufferers … sympathy, the kind, helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility, and friendliness...” This slave morality of sympathy was introduced into the world by the Jews, during a ‘slave revolt.’ This revolt undermined a “master-morality” of noble men, which “equals self-glorification,” power, toughness and strength. The Judeo-Christian embrace of slave-morality has left mankind cowardly, timid and mediocre.
It is easy to brush Nietzsche aside as heartless, but his argument is in some ways compelling. To flourish requires hard fought success. Man instinctively desires to be God-like, to be powerful and strong; the Torah itself instructs mankind to “conquer the world.” And not only is this perspective partly correct, it is also wholly seductive; who doesn’t aspire to be one of the masters of the universe? But unchecked, this impulse will lead to the belief that winning is the only thing that matters, and one should despise a kind-hearted person.

Pharaoh represents the paradigm of what master-morality aspires to be. He is a powerful leader, the head of an empire, a man who lives life on his own terms; indeed, he is even considered to be a god. And it is precisely at this point that the Midrash interrupts Pharaoh’s fantasy, reminding him that even great kings must regularly exchange their thrones for a far humbler commode. Vulnerability is the lot of humanity, and a moral system that fails to take this into account will end up pursuing power for its own sake, causing a great deal of destruction and misery along the way. The so-called “slave-morality” recognizes reality for what it is: everyone is in need of sympathy at times. And even the powerful ought to have some humility, because they too have to run to the bathroom like everyone else.
It is in this context that the Asher Yatzar blessing is to be understood. This blessing is recited at a very odd moment, immediately after using the bathroom, and its text is strange and somewhat disturbing. Asher Yatzar praises God for having created within us circulatory, respiratory and digestive organs; it then notes that “it is obvious and known…that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in Your Presence even for a short while.” This blessing doesn’t thank God for what has gone right; it reminds man of what could go wrong. We leave the toilet, and reflect on how easily the digestive system is disrupted, and how fragile our lives are. But the purpose of this blessing is directly related to the Midrash about Pharaoh. Both remind us how tenuous and tentative our bodies are. Anyone who has struggled with health issues knows the disciples of Pharaoh are fools; no man is a god. Man is a fragile vessel, mere clay in the hands of the divine potter; we need to thank God for life itself.
So how do we overcome fragility? Certainty not through vanity or denial. But humanity can find within vulnerability the seeds of greatness. Awareness of our fragility awakens empathy; awareness of our mortality inspires one to build families and legacies. The virtues that Nietzsche sneers at are the foundation of all democracies. And for the Jews, communal connections, compassion and kindness have allowed them to endure the difficulties of persecution; and their hope and patience has brought about the most remarkable rebirth in history. Slave-morality has proven to be a lot stronger than Nietzsche imagined.
The Torah says that man is created in the image of God, but his greatness is rooted in vulnerability. We search for a connection to others because we recognize how incomplete we are on our own. This is the very source of our strength. Love is as strong as death, and when we look beyond ourselves and our egos we can touch immortality.

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