Thursday, December 19, 2013

The early life of a mystery religious leader (Torah portion of Shemot)

Let me tell you a story about the early life of one of the most significant religious leaders in world history - someone who was effectively a founder of one of our world’s major religious traditions.

At the beginning of this story, this future religious leader is growing up in a palace, living a life of spectacular material comforts:  a life very different from the spiritual path that he would later help to chart for millions of people.  As a member of the king’s family, he has plenty of whatever he wanted.  He is certainly unaware of any suffering or poverty that existed outside the palace’s walls.

The king does his best to insulate him from witnessing any pain, any injustice, any suffering.  But one day he does venture out of the palace walls.  And what he sees there challenges him deeply - and changes him forever.  After seeing the terrible suffering that goes on outside the walls of the palace, and after beginning to identify with those who were suffering, he knows he can no longer return to the palace.  He renounces his role as a member of the ruling family and begins his role as a spiritual leader - and as a liberator, with the goal of liberating those who were suffering.

If you have been reading carefully, you know who I have been describing.  It’s obvious, isn’t it? --- well, maybe not.  It could be Moses, whose early life is described in this week’s Torah portion of Shemot.  But it also could be, surprisingly enough, the life of Gautama Buddha -- who certainly also qualifies as one of the world's most important religious leaders, and is effectively the founder of Buddhism (just as you can make a case that Moses was a founder of the Jewish people).

When I first studied about Buddhism in college, I was struck by how similar the story of Buddha’s early life seemed to the story of Moses.  But, of course, with some important differences.

Buddha was the son of a king, and grew up in the palace.  His father had heard a prophesy that if his son experienced any suffering, he would discard his opportunity to be a ruler and instead become a religious leader.  And, in fact, one day Buddha ventures out of the palace walls and sees -- all for the first time - a poor man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk.  This experience first makes him aware of how distant his existence in the palace had been from your typical human existence.  He becomes driven to find the way to relieve humanity of that suffering.  Those who have studied Buddhism know that his way is recognizing that all temporal phenomena are illusion, and one can learn to transcend one’s inevitable suffering by realizing that it is not part of one’s ultimate reality.  (That’s a vast oversimplification, but it will have to do for now.)

So how is the story of Moses similar and different?  Moses isn’t actually the son of the Pharaoh, but he is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised in the palace.  While the Torah doesn’t tell us anything much about Moses’ early life in the palace, there is a well-known Midrash -- a traditional Jewish story, thousands of years old, based on the Torah -- which says that Pharaoh heard a prophesy that some day in the future, Moses would take Pharaoh’s empire away from him. Which -- as you can imagine -- makes Pharaoh a little bit wary.  (Exodus Rabbah 1:26)

Moses ventures outside of the palace walls, and for the first time, he sees the injustice of slavery:  he sees an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses sees that there is no one around to come to the aid of the Hebrew slave, so he strikes the taskmaster - and the taskmaster dies.  Moses realizes he is now a wanted man who must flee Egypt.  But before the chapter is over, Moses intervenes in two more conflicts - in a conflict between two Hebrew slaves who are arguing, and in a conflict between the seven daughters of Jethro and some aggressive shepherds that are molesting them.  In each encounter, Moses comes to the aid of the underdog in the conflict.

What are we supposed to make of the dramatic similarities between these two stories?  First, it is not surprising for great religious traditions to share certain ideas.  It’s the ‘great minds think alike’ principle: there’s something universally powerful about the idea of a great religious leader growing up in circumstances of power and plenty and then throwing it all away for a chance to do something that REALLY matters.

But then again, it’s the differences in the stories which help to highlight what is most distinctive about each religious tradition. The essential difference is in the kind of liberation that each leader seeks to achieve. Buddha’s experience taught him that there must be a way for every human being to transcend his or her circumstances, no matter how terrible they are.  But it’s primarily an otherworldly liberation.  We liberate ourselves from the world by recognizing that all temporal phenomena are an illusion. 

Whereas when Moses sees injustice, he does not try to transcend it or to understand it as illusion -- he simply tries to overcome it. He acts - with force if necessary; with violence if necessary.  It is no surprise that he becomes the principle leader of a religious tradition that values spiritual life, but places its emphasis on the here and now and pictures and strives towards a world that is free of injustice.

As a religious pluralist, I am glad that our world includes both the religious paths of Buddhism and Judaism (as well as many other paths).  I can learn much wisdom from Buddhism, even as Judaism is my chosen path and tradition.  On this particular issue, though, I find myself more aligned with the world-engaging approach of Judaism than with the world-transcending approach of Buddhism. 

According to stereotype, Jews are uptight while Buddhists are relaxed.  Like all stereotypes, of course it's not really true.  But I appreciate the example of Moses as a person who will not rest or relax in the face of injustice.  Injustice spurs him to be maximally engaged with the physical world, rather than to withdraw from the physical world.  To paraphrase the words of the great 19th century Jewish sage Rabbi Israel Salanter:  There are some people who think that spirituality is being concerned with the welfare of other people’s souls. But in Judaism,   spirituality is being concerned with the welfare of your OWN soul - and the welfare of other people’s bodies.

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