Vaera: Humans and Lice in Social Systems

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 4 months ago

      This week is the parashah of the ten plagues, in which God first reveals Himself to a nation: Egypt. Each plague is designed to teach something to the Jews and something to the Egyptians. The plague of blood, for example, is designed, in part, to show that dependence even on the most “dependable” aspects of nature is misguided when it runs afoul of God’s plans: the Nile may seem like a stable and consistent resource, but immoral behavior can disable it. How much we could learn from this in America today, where we expect our market system to continue providing even as we hear more and more self-righteous lectures on the need to accept “justified” riots and theft.

      Perhaps the most salient warning in the plagues to today’s West, including America, is in the third plague: כנים, generally translated as “lice” or “gnats.”[1] In his discussion of possible etymologies of the Hebrew word, Rav S.R. Hirsch writes:

      “It is not impossible that כנים are so called because they are parasites, living on other living organisms. They are ‘nesting[2] in’ creatures, parasites that live at the expense of others and feed on their sweat and blood.”

      God instructs Moshe to tell Aharon to hit the dust (עפר) with his staff, and that it will turn into these כנים[3]. This should sound somewhat familiar—we have seen a creature crafted from עפר before, and it was the human[4]. To chalk this up to coincidence would be to miss a lesson.

      We are fashioned from the same substance as כנים; the difference between us is not so great, and if we lose the qualities that make us specifically human, we can become, in ways, indistinguishable—and part of what makes us human is our free will and our freedom. In a slave society, there is little non-coercive incentive to produce new value; everybody is busy leeching off of each other, effectively being כנים.

      In the last two centuries, in the relative freedom and humanity of the West, where one could keep (much of) his property, there was an explosion of wealth, and material quality of life shot up in a historically unprecedented way. A century ago, eugenicists were busily investigating what it was in the physiology of Western man that made him capable of this—and they completely missed the point. The Christian West had taken the Torah, albeit imperfectly, and used it, albeit incompletely, as the basis for their social system; with the Enlightenment, it got close enough—humans were treated sufficiently like humans—that it began to make sense to be productive rather than to leech off of others. The less humans are treated like slaves, the more they produce; treated as slaves, they devolve into a different, less productive reconfiguration of dust: כנים.

      Today, the cracks in the West’s adoption of the Torah are starting to show, and the plagues of Egypt are threatening to engulf it in response—including that of כנים. In political campaigns, one of the most commonly appearing adjectives is “free” (as in “free education” and “free healthcare”). What is being offered is slavery: the enslavement of one class of society (“the rich,” i.e. those who work, but not for the government) for the benefit of another (a combination of “the poor,” i.e. the unemployed, and “public servants,” i.e. those whose salaries are are collected through an approved form of theft). As such a system intensifies, few want to belong to the enslaved class; this is why so many Westerners now seek government jobs (or are voluntarily unemployed), and why immigrants from dictatorial regimes so often venerate government jobs as the peak of success. This is the plague of כנים.

      Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this is the feedback between Yaakov and Eisav: the government of Israel was created with the absorption of some of the worst aspects of Western social structure in a way that makes Israelis poorer, discourages olim, and poisons society, preventing geulah in a fairly direct way. If we want to be a light unto the world, we must first extricate ourselves from the scourge of the plagues, including that of כנים.

      After washing and eating, we recite a few pages of words; some of them express gratitude for the food that we eat, and some seem completely unrelated. One example of the latter is ונא אל תצריכנו…לידי מתנת בשר ודם—“Please do not make us needful of gifts from flesh and blood.” How appropriate such words are when the places we inhabit become like Egypt, forcing us into social systems where we are all dependent on gifts of stolen property. Should we live in such places? What about when Israel itself exhibits these characteristics?

      At the end of every standard davening, we say עלינו, a paragraph that begins by thanking God שלא עשנו כגויי הארצות—that He did not make us like the nations of the lands. Let us daven for their well-being, and that they not fall prey to the plague of כנים; but for that, first and foremost, we must not take their example, and not allow ourselves to fall prey to it, even if they do.

      [1] While it is often spelled כינים, every appearance in the Torah is חסר to different degrees; we follow the least חסר spelling here.
      [2] Rav Hirsch is analyzing the possibility of a relationship to קן, a nest.
      [3] Shmot 8:12
      [4] Breishit 2:7

    • Michal 4 months ago

      I love the connection to the human being being formed from the dust just as the  kinim  is; and the description of the kinim as a parasyte.   It seems to be “midah k’neged midah” of the fact that the Egyptians whole existence was only because of Yosef, and Klal Yisroel.  It came to the point that Paroah no longer knew Yosef.  Then they began to harm their “host” so to speak with the slavery inflictions and oppression and therefore the plague of kinim.

      I think that your connection to the prayer of “Aleinu” is such a perfect fixing of the danger; since I think if any time a person is  chas v’shalom relying on anything other than Hashem, it is a form of a “Parasyte Harming the host” so to speak.  It creates damage to the relationship with Hashem.  In fact every time I daven and direct my heart to Hashem, it seems to me as an undoing of the “parasyte” and fixing of this malady.

      I also think that for me, this goes much further.  I think that anytime I chas v’shalom limit myself, or do anything that is not constructive, not in the ratzon of Hashem, I have to know that not only am I damaging my relationship with MY Host, Kavyachol,  it is detrimental and harmful to Klal Yisroel as a whole.

      So I would think that when saying “Aleinu” , I can have in mind my gratitude and acknowledgement of Klal Yisroel and pray for this awareness of my responsibility to not only myself to Hashem my TRUE Host, and myself to myself (My Neshama), but myself to “Yisroel”,  “Aleinu” that I maintain my focus on “Lishabeach Laadon Hakol” and never become a parasyte in my Middos, actions …

      I would also use this as a Kavana when I say “Vihaarev na” es divrei Torasecha.. that Your words of Torah remain the words I depend on, and may I please have the awareness of my responsibility with Your words to all of Klal Yisroel, for all of Klal Yisroel to only depend on Hashem and His words..

    • intomeaning 4 months ago

      Such a beautiful piece. This makes me look inward. Sometimes I find myself unsatisfied with my avodah. I can be in a rush and not focused on the words I’m reciting as carefully as I would like to, almost like I am leeching off my mitzvah, without giving it the kavod (honor) it deserves. What this post inspires in me is a fight against this “parasite” that, in my experience, just wants to get the avodah over with, but leaves me feeling like dust. היודך עפר? היגיד אמתך?1 But, “Does dust give thanks to You? Does it proclaim Your faithfulness?”-Siddur. פִּתַּ֥חְתָּ שַׂקִּ֑י וַֽתְּאַזְּרֵ֥נִי שִׂמְחָֽה׃ לְמַ֤עַן ׀ יְזַמֶּרְךָ֣ כָ֭בוֹד וְלֹ֣א יִדֹּ֑ם יְ-הֹ-וָ֥-ה אֱ֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ. I ask of Hashem to “undo my sackloth”, to “gird me with joy” so that “my soul should sing to You and not be silent.”-Siddur

    • Tzvi Chulsky 4 months ago

      This is a wonderful thought.  If I do not live up to my potential as a human, can I know Hashem?  Can I proclaim His truth?

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