Les Mis and mussar

Last week we saw the movie “Les Miserables,” and this week I’m reading Parashat Shemot, the first chapters of Exodus. They both shed light on the practice of order, which is one of the middot, or attributes, of mussar, Jewish ethical development (see rivertonmussar.org).

The liberation of the Hebrew slaves is going to disrupt the order of Egypt and Moses’ first actions in this drama bring disorder. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and strikes him dead on the spot, hiding his body in the sand. The next day he tries to make peace between two Hebrew slaves and gets rebuffed by one of them. Apparently the Egyptian status quo includes the sort of pecking order that is typical among those in bondage, and the dominant slave wants to maintain it. But of course as we read the whole story we realize that Moses isn’t the source of disorder, but of a better order than Egypt’s status quo, as he tries to bring justice into the picture.

This story reminds us that the pursuit of order can degenerate into a defense of the status quo. We can become too intent on maintaining order and miss God’s higher order, his justice, altogether. In “Les Miserables,” what has stuck with me the most over the years (and I first read the book in high school) is the story of the bishop’s candlesticks. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, has just been released from prison and the bishop takes him in on a cold night. Valjean gets up in the middle of the night, steals some of the bishop’s silver, and runs off. The police stop Valjean, recognize the silver, and drag him back to the bishop’s house. But the bishop says, “I gave him the silver; you can let him go.” Then he turns to Valjean and says, “My friend, you left so suddenly that I didn’t have time to give you the best part, my silver candlesticks.” He sends him off saying, “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.” The incident changes Valjean’s life, and sets up the rest of the story. What struck me when I saw the movie was the chutzpah of the bishop. He acted boldly to secure and define Valjean’s freedom. He trumped law and order with the higher order of mercy and forgiveness.

Order normally means maintaining a balanced, livable status quo. But when the status quo is unlivable—as when the Hebrews cried out to Hashem in their affliction—God’s order means taking a stand against the status quo. Like the bishop, Moses demonstrates that this stand takes chutzpah, when he challenges the status quo of Egyptian slavery, and soon after when he defends the daughters of Reuel against the bullying shepherds. For those who want to work on the practice of order, the point is clear. Sometimes pursuing God’s order will take the sort of chutzpah that the status quo never demands of us.

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