Avraham Burg

We Are Not All Alike

By Richard Hirsh

  • Print
  • Share Share

Avrum Burg draws a number of distinctions in his analysis of parashat Bo. The core of his argument is that “Every struggle for freedom is a struggle to seize the mastery of time” and coordinate with this, and that “command of time is the essence of freedom.”

A subsidiary argument contrasts in a similarly binary way the ideas of slavery and freedom, using the mythic models of Exodus to deploy “Israel” and “Egypt” as metaphors embodying the essential attributes of each paradigm.

While these sorts of contrasts are useful in exposing some of the dynamics of human life, the way in which these are carried forward in Burg’s teaching is reminiscent of many of the modern paradigms of academic as well as of more popular modern rabbinic and Jewish communal exegesis, exposition and advocacy. Put differently, the idea that one people “is” the paradigm of “one thing” (slavery, freedom) may be rhetorically inspiring and even in certain instances in the life of a people mostly accurate, but it misses the complexity.

The complexity exists on multiple levels, but the two that I am thinking of as central are: the reality that any people (Israelite or Egyptian) is an amalgam of multiple individuals, not all of whom agree about a presumably shared identity, whether collective or personal; and the reality that in a given moment, people who share a collective identity can be behaving in very different ways.

In other words, assigning polar personalities to differing groups misses the messy issues that result when we acknowledge that these polarities are not in fact binary but unitary, and that each of us individually as well as collectively embodies (at least potentially if not always acted out) all of the paradigms, passions and proclivities that come under, for example, the headings of “slavery” and “freedom.” What Burg suggests operates between groups I am suggesting could equally be thought to operate within. This casts a different light on the meaning of our story.

Burg edges up on this approach when he acknowledges that “In different circumstances the roles can just as easily be reversed, whether by inattention or malice. The oppressed can become the oppressor, and a past history of victimhood will be no excuse. Even Israel can become an Egyptian taskmaster.” But not all Egyptians were taskmasters, not all Israelites were freedom-loving humanists.

And so when we return to the question of “command of time as the essence of freedom” we can, as Burg suggests, focus on the contrast of “either/or” or on the paradox of “both/and.” It is not clear that Jewish tradition offers us the command of time. In a halakhic framework, time is rigidly regulated, and even those modestly acquainted with the Mishna and Talmud know that rabbinic literature begins precisely with a question about the precision of time: “From what time may the morning Shema be recited?”

In historic time, we have no more or less control: exodus, wandering, national independence, subjugation and exile, restoration, exile…..despite prophetic rhetoric, these things happen to us, not because of our behavior, ethical, political or otherwise.

In a post-modern world stripped of unspoken assumptions about the nature of identity, assigning anything as the “essence” of anything else raises more questions than it answers. Yes, the control of (one’s) time is an aspect of self-determination; but it transpires within a context in which time moves in, through, and beyond us, until, perhaps, as Burg notes, the onset of messianic time….something over which we in fact have no “command.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: bo, exodus, parashat, torah tent

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.