Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beshalach: The World Without Us

Imagine you are Pharaoh; ruler over the most powerful civilization on Earth. You have enslaved the Israelites for hundreds and hundreds of years. No heavy lifting is involved. Life is pretty good. But then one day, instead of waking up to the laborious groans of the collective slave population, you instead cough on the collective dust left in the wake of the Israelites flying the coup.

That’s right, this is the granddaddy of them all (no, not the Rose Bowl). Parsha Beshalach describes the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the whole nine yards. When first daydreaming about this Parsha, one cannot help but reenact the infamous scene from the Ten Commandments with Moses (played by Charlton Heston) leading the Israelites to the Red Sea, while Ramses (Yul Brynner) is trying to figure out what happened and leads his troops to stop them. At this point, I consciously stopped my clich├ęd daydream and began to ponder this Parsha from Pharaoh’s point of view.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery is a bad gig and no one should condone it, but assuming it’s a viable alternative to stock one’s labor force, instantly losing it in its entirely could have some pretty catastrophic consequences on one’s economy and the overall morale of your people. Who would build the pyramids now?

When the Israelites fled Egypt, it was like someone turned off the lights, turned them back on again and everyone had vanished, leaving most of their possessions to live on without them. The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, assumes a similar premise: At the blink of an eye, the entire human race simply disappears from the Earth. No trace of the human form is detectable. All human bodies have simply vanished.

Setting up this premise, Weisman dives into his non-fiction hypothetical by explaining the main legacy that the human race’s collective will bestowed upon the Earth – its infrastructure. Covering topics as varying as the extinction of species to the structural flaws of the NYC Subway System, Weisman extrapolates how long it will take before humans’ imprint in these realms disappears, if ever. Weisman even cites the Egyptian pyramids’ ability to entomb their contents (due to lack of direct sunlight, moisture, and oxygen) when trying to explain why plastics will never decompose: “Our waste dumps are somewhat like that. Plastic buried where there’s little water, sun, or oxygen will stay intact a long time.”

Like the reading of this week's Parsha prolonging the legacy of ancient Egypt, the choices we make have a profound effect on the future of both the Earth and mankind. Are you a Pharoah or Moses?

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