If you’ve been following the story so far, God, through Moses, has been sending plague after plague upon the Egyptians, steadily bringing the greatest empire on Earth to its knees all for the sake of a small nation of slaves. This week, in Parashat Bo, the story is coming toward its great climax, with God delivering the greatest (or worst depending on your perspective) of plagues upon the Egyptians, leaving them with no choice but to free the Hebrews. There is a lot of important information contained in this portion, and I highly recommend reading it yourself first, to discover some amazing Torah. However, I’m not going to go into the obvious, you can discover that all on your own. Instead I would like to revisit the topic of objectification that I spoke about a few weeks ago.
While translating this week’s portion I came across a new word. During Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh before the plague of locusts, Moses tells him that the Israelites will be leaving “b’veneinu uvivnoteinu,” with their sons and daughters. From then on, Pharaoh refers to the children as “tafkhem”. Both Chabad.org and Artscroll translate this as “your children.” This seems like a lazy translation to me, as even “b’nei”, “sons,” is often translated as children. I couldn’t just accept this, the juxtaposition between Moses calling them sons and daughters versus Pharaoh’s “tafkhem” seems important. When I asked a rabbi, he wasn’t sure of the reasoning, but told me that “taf” means offspring, and that’s when it hit me: If my parents were to introduce me as, “Our offspring, David.”, it would feel impersonal. Calling someone “my son” shows a relation of affection and love; calling him“my offspring” reduces a child to merely an object that has sprung from you–taf has the same root as the Hebrew word for “drop.” It’s like referring to someone as “she” right in front of her face, or to your boyfriend as “this guy I’ve been hanging out with.” It’s not only hurtful, it’s insulting because it lacks relation and objectifies the person. This is the problem with Pharaoh–while Moses refers to actual people, Pharaoh sees only objects. He’s unable to understand why he is wrong because in his mind, he isn’t hurting humans, he’s hurting things. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the firstborn is killed, so that Pharaoh could feel what it’s like not just to lose an offspring, but your own son.
We see that the problem with Pharaoh is that he can’t relate to others as humans, and we see the result of this is suffering, at first for the Hebrews, then for him and his own people. This is a moral lesson that anyone can learn from, Jew or non-Jew, secular or religious. When we treat other humans as less-than-human, we all suffer. The abuse doesn’t even have to be physical—just denying others the opportunity to build an enriching relationship with you causes you both to suffer. This suffering becomes worse as objectification becomes a habit and can lead to a subconscious acceptance of objectification.
Now I want to flip this upside down and say that this week’s portion also teaches that for those of us on a spiritual path, not only must we avoid treating others as objects, but we also must try to relate to even inanimate objects on a spiritual level. Later on in the portion, as the time for freedom grows closer, Moses is asked to tell the Jewish people to go to the Egyptians and request their objects of gold and silver. An explanation of this is that God promised Abraham that his descendants would leave quite wealthy. Why should God have to promise Abraham, a man of unquestionable faith, that his descendants will be rich? Because it isn’t about wealth at all. Material objects themselves can be tools for spiritual development. God’s promise of giving Abraham’s descendants wealth is a promise to give them the opportunity to develop spiritually. Just as relating to others can create enriching relationships, appreciating objects can create an enriching relationship with God. However, just as objectifying others can cause inhumane behavior and suffering, so can being blind to the inner depths of an item cause materialism and suffering. In a later portion, we witness this as the gold is used to build an idol, the Golden Calf. The Israelites failed, their minds were clouded by the gold, and, like the idolatrous Egyptians, they built an idol, the epitome of a materialistic theology.
They should have used their wealth in order to worship the one God that took them out of Egypt, but they didn’t. They didn’t even need to go that far in order to develop spiritually–it’s fine to wear beautiful jewelry, and I admit I dream of driving a Cadillac. What we do need is to take a minute to think about the things we use. When you appreciate the beauty of a necklace, appreciate that God helped you receive the necklace, feel wonder at the fact that you even have the ability to see its beauty. When you get into that dream car, or even your nightmare car, think about those who engineered and manufactured the car, think about the science defined by God that allows something so miraculous to exist. This is why we say many of our blessings in Judaism, to remind us that nothing just exists, it is all created, and that we don’t just act, but we were given the ability to act. The blessings might not cover every object, but they don’t need to, they’re guides, and it’s up to us to consciously bring out the relation we experience through blessings to everything else. Doing so will not only push us away from the path of materialism, but it can thrust us in onto a path of spirituality.
David Gutbezahl is a recent graduate of Ramapo College in Jersey.