Saturday, 28 March 2015

Exodus & Numbers: Who's counting this Passover?

When it comes to the Exodus we seem to love the numbers.

Our Passover Haggadah is full of numbers. In fact, full of arguments about numbers.

We gather our family and friends around the Seder table and recount an esoteric rabbinical discussion about exactly how many plagues the Almighty brought down on the heads of the Egyptians.

The rabbis debate back and forth, arguing first for ten, then 60, then 200 and finally Rabbi Akiba stops the bidding at 250. By which time Pharaoh must have been very glad to see the back of us. It all comes down to interpretations about the fingers and hand of God and various methods of linguistic and metaphysical multiplication. Go figure!

There's more number crunching in the book of Exodus itself as we attempt to count how many Hebrew slaves left Egypt. According to Exodus 12:37:
"The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from women and children."
The book of Numbers (appropriately) gives a more precise figure.
"These were the men counted by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel, each one representing his family. All the Israelites twenty years old or more who were able to serve in Israel’s army were counted according to their families. The total number was 603,550." Numbers 1: 44-46
According to the Jewish Study Bible, if you add in women and children you would reach a grand total of at least 2.5 million people. Googling I found a figure for the Egyptian population in 1250 BCE of 3 to 3.5 million. So no wonder Pharaoh was getting concerned about the growing number of Hebrew slaves in his land.

Further frivolous research reveals that marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, the escaping Children of Israel would have formed a line 150 miles long. An impressive slave escape. No wonder Moses had trouble keeping them all in order.

For most of us these numbers don't add up to much. The documentary and archaeological evidence for the Exodus, including plagues (whether ten or 250), is somewhere between scant and non-existent. But none of that matters three thousand years later.

What matters is how the story of the Exodus from Egypt has marked Jewish behaviour and outlook throughout the generations in good times and bad.

Every year something draws us back to this story of a God who intervenes in human history on the side of liberation and justice.

In the past the numbers spoke for themselves.

In the turmoil of Russia at the start of the 20th century Jews were starkly over represented in radical movements for social and political improvement.

When the American Civil Rights campaign was at its height in the mid 20th century, Jews were right in the thick of it, showing activism and solidarity and losing their lives for the cause of African American liberation.

When the world finally opened it eyes to the injustice of apartheid South Africa, Jews were already in the vanguard.

But in the last fifty years or so something has gone awry with our previously reliable Exodus orientated moral compass.

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians all that wonderful ex-slave mentality becomes a fraction of what it was. These days, when faced with the issue that should trouble us most deeply, the number of Jews showing solidarity with the oppressed takes a tumble. Instead, like Pharaoh, our hearts constrict and we become gripped by denial and self-justifying rationalisation.

They brought it on themselves
They are uncompromising and obdurate
They teach all their children to hate us
They prefer death to life
Our security must always be paramount
We won, they lost, let them get over it

It all looks like ethical bankruptcy to me. No numbers left at all.

As we come together to celebrate Passover in the coming days, I offer you some new numbers to consider. Try adding these to the traditional numerical debates we find in our Haggadah and in the pages of Exodus.

All of these figures are from one week in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza) covering 17-23 March 2015. They were collected by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Israeli forces injured 21 Palestinians, including seven children, in various clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians. The most serious incidents reported in the West Bank, include an eight-year-old child who was seriously injured when a soldier, with his rifle, hit the child in the eye while playing in proximity to clashes in Al Khader (Bethlehem); three Palestinians, including two children (14 and 15 years old), shot with live ammunition in Silwan; and a man who was shot with live ammunition in the back during clashes at the entrance to Al Jalazun Refugee Camp (Ramallah). Another three Palestinians were injured during clashes with Israeli forces next to the Gaza perimeter fence, east of Khan Younis.
At least 21 incidents involving Israeli forces opening ‘warning’ fire into Access Restricted Areas (ARA) on land and at sea in the Gaza Strip were recorded this week, one of which ignited fire in a vehicle. Israeli forces entered Gaza east of Rafah and carried out land leveling on one occasion.
Israeli forces conducted 86 search and arrest operations and arrested 93 Palestinians in the West Bank, mainly in the Hebron and Jerusalem governorates.
In Area C of the West Bank, the Israeli authorities demolished 30 Palestinian structures for lack of Israeli-issued building permits. The demolished structures included five residences, leading to the displacement of 15 people.
Israeli forces uprooted 492 trees and saplings planted by Palestinians next to the Majdal Bani Fadel (Nablus), Bidya (Salfit) and Adh Dhahiriya (Hebron) villages in Area C of the West Bank, on grounds that these areas were designated as “state land”. According to official data, over 99 per cent of “state land”, or public land, has been included within the jurisdictional boundaries of the local and regional councils of Israeli settlements, built in contravention of international law.
Four Israeli settler attacks resulting in Palestinian injuries or property damage were recorded, including two stone-throwing incidents leading to the injury of a six-year-old girl and a woman; and the uprooting of 83 trees and saplings in the villages of Turmus’ayya and Deir Ndham (Ramallah) by settlers from the outpost of ‘Adei ‘Ad and the settlement of Halamish, respectively.
Israeli settlers took over a family house of a Palestinian family, consisting of three separate apartments as well as two plots of land, in Silwan (East Jerusalem), claiming ownership to the properties.

We choose not to see numbers like these that add up week by week and year by year.

When it comes to the Palestinian people, we are still trapped in the 'narrow place', in bondage to our own fears and prejudices.

It is as Rabbi Nehorai describes in this passage from the second century Mishnah:
"Only one out of five of the Children of Israel went out from Egypt. Some say one out of fifty. And some say only one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: Not even one out of five hundred."
Exodus & Numbers - choose the ones you want to figure out this year.

Hag Sameach!


If you found this post worth reading you may like these too.

'Occupy the Haggadah' from 2012 (a signature post for this blog)

'On the impossibility of Passover' from 2013 (Micah tries his hand at poetry)

'In Every Generation: How Passover locks shut the Jewish imagination' from 2014 (Group therapy)

And if you are on Facebook and you haven't done so already please 'like' my Micah's Paradigm Shift community page.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on as ever Robert! For a Christian, it is lovely to hear your perspective on the Exodus – seems more central and intimate somehow! But you are so correct about the numbers we need to concentrate on now! At this special, holy time of year I shall be praying that Israel will have the courage to free the Palestinians from their bondage and then the Israelis will be released from their own prison of shame. I wish you Hag Sameach and Happy Easter too! God bless you.