Brexodus (31st January 2020) Feb 9, 2020 19:26:37 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on Feb 9, 2020 19:26:37 GMT
This week, we think about a group of people leaving an oppressive regime that tried to wipe out their identity, that imposed evil diktats upon them, and that the people had to fight for their freedom. That is, of course, if you listen to the UK’s Brexit Party. It’s really interesting for me as a British Rabbi to read the Torah portion of Bo, in which the Israelites leave Egypt, on the same Shabbat that the UK leaves the European Union. It gives an opportunity to read our Torah portion in a very different way, and also to reflect on this political event of global importance, and I thank my British colleague Rabbi Jeremy Gordon for bringing this coincidence to my attention.
The Hebrews couldn’t wait to leave Egypt, and for good reason. They had been kept as slaves for hundreds of years. When the idea of them leaving Egypt was first mentioned, they didn’t listen to Moses (Ex. 6:9) because their spirits had been so crushed by the cruel slavery. The Remainers, as one might call them, were so broken that they couldn’t imagine freedom, which is profoundly different to today’s British Remainers who don’t see themselves as being oppressed in any way, and who want to remain because of the need for international cooperation in a globalized world, saying that we’re stronger united than divided. Indeed, some of the differences in the narratives are rather stark – in the Bible, the Egyptians only took from those who had to stay by force, but while the European Union takes from the UK, in the form of money, it would then give back far more in terms of subsidies, particularly for agriculture. The hardship that today’s Brexiteers often complained about was excessive and nonsensical bureaucracy that didn’t even benefit the UK. The often-quoted European directive ordering that cucumbers be straight and not slightly curved was often a case in point. Without European farming subsidies, I do fear how much British agriculture will suffer. I wonder how long it might take before the British people are complaining exactly as the Israelites did in the desert - “We remember the fish that we used to eat free… [and I must interject here that European fishing quotas were actually essential to the long-term sustainability of the UK fishing fleet, but I digress…]… “we remember the fish we used to eat, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all!” (Num. 11:5-6). I wonder how long it will be before the nutritional impact of Brexit becomes apparent.
There are other profound differences between the two exits. For example, after the Ten Plagues, the Hebrews are actually driven out by the Egyptians (Ex. 12:33), who fear that if the Hebrews remained then the Egyptians themselves would perish. Not so with Brexit, where European countries begged the UK to stay, until it became obvious that the UK was determined to leave, even if it did itself harm in the process. The Exodus from Egypt was a deliberate separation of people due to the oppression of the smaller by the greater. Brexit, on the other hand, is a deliberate separation of people due to the xenophobia of the smaller toward the greater. In the Exodus, the smaller group was humbled and psychologically scarred. With Brexit, the smaller group is haughty, arrogant and psychologically disturbed.
There are similarities, though. Both with the Exodus and with Brexit, there is a sense of leaving in order to be free. The problem for the UK now is, I believe, clearly spelled out in next week’s portion, B’shallach. As the Israelites leave Egypt, God guides them. In fact, God specifically steers them away from danger, saying, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (12:17) They had supernatural guidance to ensure that their departure was a safe one. The British people have no such guidance – indeed, no plan at all post-Brexit. They might walk into the worst traps of international trade deals ever seen. But by then they won’t be able to return to Europe.
The yearning for freedom is important, yet we have to ask “freedom to do what?” For the Israelites, it was freedom to serve God, whereas for today’s Brexiteers it’s freedom from foreign intervention, freedom to make our own decisions not matter what. But again, what Torah teaches me is that that’s impossible. No-one (apart from a true psychopath) is ever truly free by virtue of the fact that we live in relationship, and relationship necessitates some kind of interaction and therefore code of behavior, or even code of communication like a unifying language. The yearning for freedom from foreign influence isn’t freedom at all, it’s a lie. Just as the Israelites go from one form of service to another – from the service of slavery to the service of God – so the Brexiteers in the UK will discover themselves moving from one foreign influence to another. The difference, of course, is that in Europe, Britain was a major partner, not some flimsy slave being pushed around by other unwelcome countries. Now, ironically, the freedom that the vocal minority in the UK have sought will very possibly lead to exactly that kind of economic violence. I do wonder how many years it will take before a sizeable part of the British population start echoing the words of the ancient Israelites – wouldn’t it have been better back as it was? (see e.g. Ex. 14:12)
Expressing that, though, will be futile. The Prime Minister has pushed ahead without a plan in such a rush that there isn’t even time for the economic and political leaven to rise (see Ex. 12:39). He has implied that he has a mandate from the people – that he is just fulfilling the will of the people, in a pseudo-Mosaic role. One particularly obnoxious individual who has really been at the forefront of the Leave campaign – although to be fair that doesn’t really narrow it down very much - this evening said that in the past the people were divided but now we will “all be Leavers.” The idea of national unity is a fantasy that only exists very briefly in times of immense trauma, such as the Exodus from Egypt. Before Shabbat, I saw some images from Parliament Square of people cheering and waving Union flags and they all looked very unified. They also all looked very white. There were a lot of people not out celebrating in front of Parliament this evening from very diverse backgrounds. The claimed unity is a lie. Moreover, that phrase, “we will all be leavers” immediately resonated with me as a religious individual because I immediately heard the word-play of “believe.” And that’s ultimately the profound difference between the Exodus and Brexit. The Exodus is about believing in God who redeems, while Brexit is about believing that we answer to no-one. The Exodus is about freedom to serve appropriately, Brexit is about freedom to serve no-one.
Even the unity of the people after the Exodus doesn’t last long. A small group of people fear Moses’ death when he fails to come down off Sinai, and so they break away and build a golden calf to worship. Priests like Korach break away from Moses’ leadership. Unity is an ancient myth designed to support domination of the many by the few. In the Bible, the people who separate themselves from any sense of a unified community are swiftly punished – the golden calf idolaters were put to the sword while Korach and his company were swallowed up alive into the earth. With the narrative of unity in mind, I see a real connection between the fact that the people moan to Moses about wanting to stay and the fact that in Britain today, those supporting Leave called their opponents the Remoaners. If you don’t want liberation from all other influence, you must be a remoaner, they implied. Communal unity is a lie that leads to the denigration of others who express any difference. Ultimately, communal unity is the path to violence against the human other. I think of MP Jo Frost, who was gunned down by a Leave supporter as an absolute case in point. In fact, plurality is the only human condition in which we can come closest to real freedom because it is in the shared acceptance of plurality that we can truly express ourselves.
My reading of the today’s story of the Exodus is that it is an entire people’s search for freedom from negative influences in order to create a healthy understanding of communal self that in turn generates the freedom to be able to serve the Other in a healthy way. Conversely, my reading of today’s exodus from the EU is that it is an empty search for freedom from any external influence in order to create a false sense of communal self that in turn rejects the human other in an impossible search for autonomy in an intricately connected world.
So, where from here? I fear that there will be many years of wandering in the wilderness. I fear that the arrogance of certain individuals will lead the people astray and cause profound harm. I fear the growth of racism and violence through the guise of national unity. I fear that the destination that was promised to so many will not be seen by the generation of this exodus. I could be wrong, although if the similarities with the Exodus from Egypt hold up, I may not be. Earlier, in the book of Genesis, Lot decides to separate himself from Avram, and he ends up being captured by more powerful forces as a result. Much, much later in Pirke Avot, Hillel adjures “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Tonight, I read that as “Do no separate yourself from the European community.” And yet separate we have. The forces of division have, through fear and lies, once again won a major battle in the political world. I believe that their act of division must be shown to be the falsehood that it is. To achieve that, we need to unify more than ever. We need to celebrate diversity, not unity. We need to emphasize our responsibility to the other. If we can do that, then I believe that in the end, we will all reach the Promised Land. Although our journey will likely be long, the promise and the vision of that better future must be our guide, and let us say, Amen.