Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900)
Seen on a wall in the subway:
"G-d is dead."
"Nietzsche Is Dead"
"Beggars should be abolished: it is irritating to give to them and it is irritating not to."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
The Power of a Name
"And G-d said to Moses: 'Come to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants in order that I might show My signs in their midst...'”
-- Exodus 10:1, the opening of this weeks Torah portion.
The name of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, means “come.”
The name (as all the names of the Torah portions) derives from the section’s opening verse, in which G-d instructs Moses to “come to Pharaoh” to warn him of the seventh plague, the plague of locusts, that will befall Egypt if he does not set free the Hebrew slaves. Indeed, following this plague and another three afterward, the tyrannical Pharaoh surrenders. The Jewish people are finally liberated after 86 years of horrendous oppression.
Yet here is the question. Judaism considers the name of a thing or a person to be the articulation of its essence, an embodiment of its soul (1). Such is, of course, the case with the names of the Torah portions. The name of each portion conveys its primary message and the common theme of all its themes and narratives. If you wish to grasp the essence of any Torah portion, analyze its name (2).
In our case, though, this idea seems far fetched. What is the connection between liberation from Egypt and the word “come?” It would be more befitting if this section of the Bible was to be called “Exodus,” “Freedom,” or some other name that expresses the significance of this defining event in the history of Israel. Instead, the portion is titled “come,” deriving its name from Moses’ coming to Pharaoh—an event that was but an unsuccessful preliminary to the Exodus. Indeed, the concept of the leader of Israel coming to Pharaoh’s palace to petition him to let the Jewish people go—implying that the Jews are still subservient to Egypt and its ruler—seems the very antithesis of the Exodus!
The Great Serpent
Yet there is a larger question looming here. The very phrase “Come to Pharaoh” is strange. Why does G-d tell Moses to come to Pharaoh? Would it not have been more appropriate to say, “Go to Pharaoh”?
The Zohar, the fundamental text of Kabbalah, presents a shocking answer (3). Moses, the Zohar posits, was terrified to go to Pharaoh. G-d needed to promise him that He Himself would accompany him on this journey. “Come to Pharaoh” means “Come with Me to Pharaoh.”
This begs for clarification. Moses has been to Pharaoh many times before. Why was he suddenly seized by fear?
The answer, alluded to in the Zohar, is that on earlier occasions, Moses met Pharaoh in other places, such as on the king’s morning excursions to the Nile (4). This time, though, Moses was summoned to enter into Pharaoh’s innermost chamber, into the most private room of his palace, at the hub of his power. This terrified even a man like Moses. G-d needed to promise Moses that He Himself would accompany him to the king.
To quote the mystical words of the Zohar (3): “G-d summoned Moses into a chamber within a chamber, to the unique, supernal and mighty serpent… But Moses was afraid. Until this point, Moses had only approached the rivers surrounding the serpent (Pharaoh), and he was scared to approach the serpent itself, because Moses saw how profound its roots were on high!”
What does this mean?
The Zoharic “serpent” metaphor is based on a description of the prophet Ezekiel (5). Ezekiel defined Pharaoh as “the great serpent who couches in the midst of his streams, who says: ‘My river is my own, and I have made myself.’” It was this “great serpent” that Moses was terrified to confront.
There were two dimensions to Pharaoh, the Zohar is suggesting: The serpent itself and the rivers flowing about it; Pharaoh’s core identity and the various manifestations of his essential personality.
And what was the core-identity of Pharaoh? His declaration that “My river is my own, and I have made myself.” It was not the promiscuity of the pagan cults of Egypt that defined the essential negativity of Pharaoh; not even his enslavement of millions or his torturing of the innocent. The root-evil of Pharaoh was his egocentrism, his regarding his own self as the source and standard for everything. “My river is my own, and I have made myself.”
Self-centeredness might seem a benign sin compared to the acts of cruelty and depravity to which man can sink, but it is the source and essence of them all. When a person considers the self, its needs and its vision to be the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, such a person is ultimately capable of committing any act, should he regard it as crucial to himself or to his self-defined vision of reality. The moment you are overtaken by the belief that you alone have the magical eye that sees the truth; that you are in sole possession of the ultimate understanding of how things must be, and that your vision for the world must be attained at any cost -- you become a dangerous force. Your arrogance and ego-centricity can cause you to deprive others of their dignity, liberty and life. Has this not been the cause of most wars and bloodshed throughout history till this very day?
Yet the question is why was Moses so fearful to confront the core-ego of Pharaoh? If he was not scared to confront the manifestations and symptoms of Pharaoh’s egocentricity, what was the fear that gripped Moses when summoned to stand face to face with Pharaoh’s exaggerated sense of self?
Nietzsche's Understanding of Judaism
For this we must analyze the position of the ego within the Jewish tradition.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Jewish religion and its derivatives have declared a war on self aggrandizement and the worship of self. Religion came to tame the ego and to cultivate a life of sacrifice and surrender. Occupation with the self and its needs and desires is selfish and brute and deprive one from the ultimate good of a relationship with G-d.
Among all philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, captured this sentiment in brutal keenness. Nietzsche consistently opposed Judaism because Jews had given birth to Christianity, which to him represented the inversion of all natural instincts. Judaism found G-d in right, not might; in compassion, not ruthlessness; in humility, not aristocratic disdain. It represented all the things he despised: “pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.” The true ethic was the precise opposite, the "will to power."
In "The Genealogy of Morals" the German philosopher wrote: “Whatever else has been done to damage the powerful and great of this earth seems trivial compared with what the Jews have done -- that priestly people who succeeded in avenging themselves on their enemies and oppressors by radically inverting all their values, that is, by an act of the most spiritual vengeance.
“It was the Jew who, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equations good/noble/powerful/beautiful/happy/favored-of-the-gods, and maintain, with the furious hatred of the underprivileged and impotent, that ‘only the poor, the powerless, are good; only the suffering, sick, and ugly, are truly blessed. But you noble and mighty ones of the earth will be, to all eternity, the evil, the cruel, the avaricious, the godless, and thus the cursed and damned.’
“It was the Jews who started the slave revolt in morals; a slave revolt with two millennia of history behind it, which we have lost sight of today simply because it has triumphed so completely.”
A War On Pity
In his book "The Antichrist" Nietzsche unleashed his tsunami-like fury against the G-d the Jews gave to the world and the “slave virtues” they invented:
“The god as the patron of the sick, the god as a spinner of cobwebs, the god as a spirit -- is one of the most corrupt concepts that has ever been set up in the world… God degenerated into the contradiction of life. In him war is declared on life, on nature, on the will to live! God becomes the formula for every slander upon the "here and now," and for every lie about the "beyond"! In him nothingness is deified, and the will to nothingness is made holy.
“The Jews are the most remarkable people in the history of the world, for when they were confronted with the question, to be or not to be, they chose, with perfectly unearthly deliberation, to be at any price: this price involved a radical falsification of all nature, of all naturalness, of all reality, of the whole inner world, as well as of the outer. They put themselves against all those conditions under which, hitherto, a people had been able to live, or had even been permitted to live. Out of themselves they evolved an idea which stood in direct opposition to natural conditions -- one by one they distorted religion, civilization, morality, history and psychology until each became a contradiction of its natural significance.
“Psychologically, the Jews are a people gifted with the very strongest vitality... The Jews are the very opposite of decadents: they have simply been forced into appearing in that guise, and with a degree of skill approaching the non plus ultra of histrionic genius they have managed to put themselves at the head of all decadent movements and so make of them something stronger than any party frankly saying Yes to life… The history of Israel is invaluable as a typical history of an attempt to de-naturize all natural values.”
Nietzsche was aware of the contradiction inherent in his analysis of the Jews. On one hand, “The Jews are the most remarkable people in the history of the world,” professing extraordinary vigor, skill and genius, “the very strongest vitality.” Yet they chose to use their force and skill to embrace the slave virtues of decadence and defeat, rather than the master virtues of power and dominance. By their power and brilliance, Nietzsche believed, the Jews caused these destructive attributes to define civilization.
But how did this occur? Why would such a potentially successful people, capable of actualizing their “will for power,” embrace the path of mediocrity and extinction? Why would a nation with a healthy ego resort to a moral system that denies, rather than affirms, life? Why would a people capable of living by power embrace an invisible G-d who believes in the powerless and who denies the natural laws of life? Why didn't Judea become Rome, choosing the Master Morality over the Slave Morality?
Of course, Nietzsche was short sighted. He defines the good as that which enhances the feeling of life. If "to see others suffer does one good, then violence and cruelty may have to be granted the patent of morality and enlisted in the aesthete's palette of diversions." Yet, as scholars have pointed out (6), attacks on virtue are most attractive when virtue remains well established, just as the homage to power, violence, cruelty, and the like seems amusingly bracing only so long as one doesn't suffer from them oneself. In 1887, such glorification of violence and the voluptuousness of victory and cruelty may have been intriguing and stimulating; by the 1930's, when the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche's rhetoric as a garland for their murderous deeds it had become impossible to view some of his passages without disgust.
It is no accident that seventy years after Nietzsche wrote about the "Death of G-d," referring to the end of the Judaic moral view on the world, his very own nation began exterminating the people of G-d.
Nietzsche never tired of pointing out that the demands of traditional morality fly in the face of life. The Jewish response to this claim was: Yes, and that is precisely why morality is so valuable: it acknowledges that man's allegiance is not only to life but also to what ennobles life, that, indeed, instinct and subjective desire itself is not the highest court of appeals.
Nietzsche's heartlessness is reminiscent of Pharaoh's "stubborn heart" in the opening of this week's Torah portion. Both believed that to embrace compassion and sensitivity represented weakness. The goal of life was to become a barbarian. For the Jewish people, in contrast, creation was authored by a moral G-d who conceived the world in love. If G-d exists, then the moral law prevails, and there must be limits to power.
As it has been pointed out before, Nietzsche's conviction that morality ought to be defined by nature was also profoundly questionable. Did the philosopher not believe that people ought to live in homes and done clothing, to protect themselves against the furies of nature? Was curbing nature's forces desirable only when when the subjective human being willed so?
Yet an important question remains: what did the Jewish people do with the "will for power" which according to Nietzsche runs supreme in man’s psyche? Did they ignore it, repress it or transcend it? What was the emotional and mental mechanism they employed in order to transform themselves from "masters" into "slaves"?
Setting the Stage for Change
The Kabbalah teaches that every historical ill is preceded by a force that is capable of vanquishing it. Before a malady strikes the planet, the stage has already been set for its ultimate obliteration.
The same, we may suggest, is true regarding Nietzsche’s powerful accusation against the Jews. Thirty-two years before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844, one of the greatest Jewish scholars and spiritual giants of his day penned a mystical discourse that would transform the landscape of Jewish thought and its perspective on the human will for power. This discourse claimed that in its profoundest interpretation, Judaism embraced rather than rejected the Ubermensch. Yet while Nietzsche’s Ubermensch represented the ideal of a being strong enough to create his own values, strong enough to live without the consolation of traditional morality, the Jewish Ubermensche, in his very unbridled lust for power and self affirmation, came to embrace the G-d of morality, justice and compassion. The Jews needed not to crush or deny their sense of selfhood and vitality in order to find G-d; on the contrary, the vibrant brute and selfish ego led them to G-d just as much as the call of transcendance and mystery that spoke to their souls.
The circumstances that brought about the penning of this discourse were extraordinary. It was December of 1812, and the author was escaping the French army who was swiftly advancing through Russia. Tragically, the cold Russian winter claimed the life of this saintly man, who passed away in a small Russian town called Piena. Two or three days before his passing he wrote this discourse, which can without exaggeration be described as one of the profoundest in the history of Jewish mysticism.
This man was Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), one of the great Jewish personalities of his day and the founder of the Chabad school of Kabbalah. This particular discourse was published posthumously in the fourth section of his famous magnum opus, the Tanya (7), and
subsequently explained by the six Chabad masters succeeding him.
Interestingly, the seventh leader of Chabad, the Lubavitcher Rebbe chose to address and explain this theme during the first Chassidic discourse he delivered upon assuming the leadership of Chabad in 1950 (8).
One would expect that in a discourse written just prior to his death, a religious leader would discuss the meaninglessness of our false and temporary physical world, where G-d is eclipsed and the selfish ego reigns. Astonishingly, though, and contrary to the accepted notion of the function of religion, the author attributes the profoundest divinity to the egocentricity of human nature, to his will for power!
I am unaware of a similar document in Jewish thought, paying such profound tribute to the physical world of egotism and might. Perhaps this was the Rabbi Schnuer Zalman’s response to the new world that existentialist philosophers the like of Nietzsche and the forces of emancipation and enlightenment were in the midst of creating. This essay attempted to present a deeper appreciation of Judaism, one that would become a necessity if Judaism was to thrive in the new milieu of individual freedom and unbridled self expression.
The Genesis of Atheism
The question perturbing the religious thinker was from where we, the human race, inherited the potent will for power? From whence did we develop this sense of ego that is driven to banish G-d from our existence and to see ourselves as the axis of all reality, despite the inevitable angst and meaninglessness that might follow from this approach, what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called "the unbearable lightness of being?"
For Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, for whom the living presence of G-d was as real as physical existence itself if not more real, this was a burning question. From whence do we derive such a powerful sense of solitary individuality and selfish distinctiveness? From whence does the physical existence derive its brute immanence, its unyielding substantiality? How did the human being utterly dependant on G-d acquire a sense of self-containment that seeks to deny G-d all together?
If all existence comes from G-d, how was atheism born? How does G-d create a human imagination that denies its own very substance and reality?
The common religious answer for this is that atheism was born from G-d’s concealment in the universe. In Kabbalistic terminology this concealment is described as the “tzimtzum,” meaning G-d’s act of self-suspension that preceded the creation of an autonomous and self-contained universe. Rabbi Schnuer Zalman himself affirms this doctrine numerous times in his writings. Yet in the discourse that he chose to write as his final contribution to the world, he revealed a deeper truth. Atheism did not originate in divine concealment, but rather in divine revelation.
Human spirituality, our sense of belonging, dependence and ego-less-ness are rooted not in the divine essence, but in the divine light. Hence, just as the divine light feels dependant and linked to its source, our spiritual side, too, feels dependant and linked to the cosmic consciousness. In contrast, the human physical sense of self, the crude ego and will for power, lacking any acknowledgement of anything outside of itself, is a reflection of the divine essence, of G-d’s innermost and intimate self. Therefore, it is absolutely self-contained just as its progenitor.
The human ego, in other words, is nothing but the embodiment of the divine "ego." The human I mirrors the divine I. Just as the ultimate divine I has no antecedent, no preceding force that justifies its existence, no preexisting law to define it or curtail it, the human I, too, senses that its own self embodies the ultimate of existence, that its desires require no justification, its ambitions require no mitigation, and its power must reign supreme.
The Great Jewish Ego
So is the ego evil? Is this fundamental component of our existence an alien implant that must be uprooted and discarded in our quest for goodness and truth?
In the final analysis, it is not. The ego, the sense of self with which we are born, also derives from G-d; it is a reflection of the divine “ego.” We, who were created in G-d's image, possess an intimation of His “sense of self” in the form of our own concept of the self as the core of all existence.
It is not the ego that is evil, but the divorcing of the ego from its source. When we recognize our own ego as a reflection of G-d’s “ego,” it becomes the driving force in our efforts to make the world a better, more G-dly place. On the other hand, the same ego, severed from its divine moorings, begets the most monstrous of evils.
This is what Nietzsche failed to grasp and we, too, often fail to understand. The Jewish people did not embrace the “slave virtues” in spite of their master-like characteristics and capabilities. On the contrary, the Jews understood that for the great ego of man to be true to it self, to its essence, it must reflect its most authentic source: the divine intimate essence, Nietzsche himself always insisted that the most important thing is that people be true to themselves. The Jews understood that for the “will for power” to actualize itself in the profoundest way it must align itself with the divine. Its vigor must be directed toward constructing a G-dly world; its ambition must be harnessed toward the expulsion of cruelty and suffering and the building of a moral and loving civilization.
Confronting Pharaoh's Ego
When G-d commanded Moses to “Come to Pharaoh,” Moses had already been going to Pharaoh for many months. But he had been dealing with Pharaoh in his various manifestations: Pharaoh the pagan, Pharaoh the oppressor of Israel, Pharaoh the self-styled god. Now he was being told to enter into the essence of Pharaoh, into the soul of the evil of the ego. Now he was being told to penetrate beyond the evil of Pharaoh, beyond the mega-ego that insists “I have created Myself,” to confront Pharaoh’s quintessence: the naked and raw “I” that stems from the very “I” of G-d.
Moses did not fear the evil of Pharaoh. If G-d had sent him, G-d would protect him. But when G-d told him to enter into the essence of Pharaoh, he was terrified. How can the “will for power,” the purest manifestation of the divine truth, ever be defeated? The ego was so much more powerful than the spirit, as it was rooted in the G-d's essence!
How could Moses the man of the spirit conquer Pharaoh the man of the ego, when, in the ultimate scheme of things, the ego had more power than the spirit, originating in the very essence of the Divine?
Said G-d to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh.” Come with Me, and together we will enter the great serpent’s palace. Together we will penetrate the self-worship that is the heart of evil. Together we will discover that there is neither enduring substance nor eternal reality to Pharaoh's and Nietzsche's ego — that all it is, is the misappropriation of the divine in man.
If this truth is too terrifying for a human being to confront on his own, come with Me, and I will guide you. I will take you into the innermost chamber of Pharaoh’s soul, until you come face to face with evil’s most zealously guarded secret: that it does not, in truth, exist.
When you learn this secret, the great powers of history will never defeat you. Most importantly, when you learn this truth, you will be worthy to attain freedom. Liberty will become a force that instead of distancing you from the moral law and the divine will, will bring you closer to G-d. For you will have discovered the truth that your craving for individual self expression and power is an embodiment of the most divine quality in your existence. (This is why the name "come (to Pharaoh)" captures the essential prerequisite for redemption to take root).
Hence, the prophecy that the Moshiach (Messiah) will arrive as "a poor man riding on a donkey(9)." The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, can be translated as "brute materialism." Moshiach riding on the donkey symbolizes the idea that Moshiach will reveal to the world that the brute forces behind materialism, in their deepest place, bespeak the truth of G-d as much as the still, subtle voice behind spirituality (10).
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1) See Genesis 2:19; Midrashim and commentaries on verse; Tanya, part 2, ch. 1.
2) Often, the name of a Torah section seems to merely derive from its opening verses, with little visible connection to its overall contents. For example, Chayei Sarah (“The Life of Sarah”) actually begins with Sarah’s death and burial, and goes on to recount events occurring after her demise. But an in-depth examination and analysis of a section’s contents always reveal that its common theme and axial principle are expressed by its name (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5, p. 57.; vol. 15, p. 145.; vol. 16 p. 200).
3) Zohar, part II, 34a.
4) See Exodus 7:15; 8:17.
5) Ezekiel 29:3.
6) See "Nietzsche Still Influences," by Roger Kimball (United Press International, 2001).
7) Tanya, Igeres Hakodesh section 20.
8) Maamar Basi Legani 5710 (1950), pubslished in Sefer Hamaamarim Basi Legani vol. 1.
9) Zecharyah 9:9.
10) See Gevuras Hashem chapter 29. Likkutei Sichos vol. 31 pp. 19-22.
11) Many themes of this essay are based on a number of addresses by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, including his first address when he assumed leadership of the Chabad movement in 1950 (referenced in footnote #8). In it the Rebbe articulated what would become his approach of how to rebuild Judaism in a free and democratic society, in a generation often described as “the ME generation." The essay is also based on his address of Shabbas Parshas Bo, 5752 (January 11, 1992), and particularly his address of Kislev 23, 5752 (November 30, 1991), both of them published in Sefer Hasichos 5752 vol.1. A significant part of this essay, particularly the beginning and the end, was culled from "The Soul of Evil," by Yanki Tauber.