Friday, January 25, 2013

Parashat Beshalach –Tu B’Shevat

            Earlier this week, I was looking through some of the materials Hazel bequeathed to the Hebrew School, I found these handouts [present handouts]. One is on this week’s parasha, Beshalach, and one is for the first of the 9 plagues, which we saw in the last two weeks’ parshiyot [pass around handouts]. In them, modern Biblical scholars explain some scientifically possible explanations for the extraordinary events we read in the narrative of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Personally, I love this idea. That there is some scientific reasoning that supports the possibility that something happened, which looked to the Egyptians and Israelites like plagues and a deliberate parting of the Red Sea. If they could have really happened as much by the laws of nature as by the hand of G-d, how much more miraculous would that be! How amazing that we live in a world where nature is so complex and interesting and interconnected, that an over-abundance of algae could make the water look red like blood, and set off a whole chain reaction that leads to the frogs, flies or wild animals, locusts, illness in the people and cattle, and create the narrative we have today. The scientific explanations for how the universe, and specifically Earth as the only planet known to be able to sustain life, came to be is as much proof of Divine intention as our story in B’reshit. To me, G-d is in nature.
            It can be easy to forget about that, though, when you live in a city without a lot of greenery, with too many artificial lights to see the stars, when you’re busy, when it’s too cold to go for a walk just to appreciate the outdoors. I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a sunrise, sunset, or really looked at the moon. I don’t think I’ve done any of those things since I moved to New York, almost two years ago. And when we forget about how lovely nature is, when we don’t get to see it, and appreciate it, it’s easy to forget how important it is. We breathe just fine in this city, even if we find ourselves on a block with no trees! How easy to forget that trees provide our oxygen. We have plenty of fruits and nuts in front on us today, and I’ve never seen a carob tree in person before! How easy to forget where our foods come from. And in lands far away, where people wage war, it is easy for them to forget that the space between them and their enemies is natural land, neutral ground that everyone could find use of.
            Our Jewish laws teach us, then, that when we are fighting a war, we should not harm the trees in our way. The trees cannot run away, or choose sides, or ask for mercy. They are completely innocent casualties. Every Shabbat we pray for peace, we pray for the healing not only of people close to us, but any in the world injured in disasters, we say a Mourner’s Kaddish not only for those our own community has lost, but for all those in world who have died in war with no one to say Kaddish for them. This Shabbat, as we are celebrating the birthday of the trees, Tu B’Shevat, let us also say a prayer for peace for all the trees hurt by war, a prayer for healing all the soil on other continents rendered unhealthy and unusable for plant by the land mines put in it from wars past, and a Mourner’s prayer for all the pieces of the natural world lost forever by humanity’s ignorance of how important nature is. Now that we know how important nature is, now that we have organizations like the JNF learning to plant the right kinds of trees in Israel for us, now that we have modern Biblical and scientific scholars working together to hypothesize how the miracles of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea could have really happened, may we always remember to appreciate the nature around us. Children of the Hebrew School, you are the future! May you be the first generation to have everyone reduce, reuse, and recycle, to plant sustainably, and to appreciate the trees every day! Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Ha-Ilanot Sameach! Happy Festival of the Trees! 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Parashat Bo

            What was the purpose of the plagues? At first glance, it seems it would be to punish Pharaoh for not listening to G-d. Each time Pharaoh refuses to let the people of Israel go, G-d brings down a new plague. It looks like a classic struggle of good and evil, a fight between two titans, although it is too obvious who is the greater titan, who will end up the winner. This idea, though, often leads to the same questions. How can the plagues just be about punishing Pharaoh each time he refuses to let the people go? How can this be a struggle between good and evil or a fight between two titans? We’re talking about G-d verses a mere mortal, here! Sure, it’s Pharaoh, the great king of Egypt. Probably the most powerful man in the world at the time. In his own culture, people revered him as the embodiment of one of their own gods. But, we know there is no G-d but Adonai. Pharaoh has no unearthly powers. Although I think we have some proof that G-d cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent, or the Jewish people wouldn’t have been enslaved for so long in the first place, it seems that once G-d “heard their moaning, and remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and [finally] took notice of them,” it should have been pretty easy to swoop in and save them
But maybe, G-d didn’t want to save them right away. In last week’s parasha, the Torah speaks of Pharaoh being stubborn, or hardening his heart. In this week’s parasha, the text is more explicit, that G-d is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Why would G-d do this? Why does G-d want to drag out the suffering of all the people in Egypt? The children of Israel continue to suffer as slaves, though they are safe from the plagues, and the children of Egypt suffer from the plagues, though they are safe from slavery. Perhaps this time was meant to prepare them for their journey.
In Parashat Shemot, there is a hint that the people were oppressed and enslaved for a long time before they thought to call out to G-d for help. When they cry out, their cries rise to heaven, and G-d takes notice of them, resolving to free them. Why didn’t they think to call out sooner? Maybe because they were busy being oppressed! It’s easy to forget about G-d’s protection when not actively benefitting from it. Sometimes, when at a low point, it’s hard to believe that someone out there really cares at all. Sometimes it’s hard to accept help or reassurance after getting quite used to despair. Maybe G-d was worried that these people weren’t emotionally ready to be freed, to have their whole lives uprooted and flipped upside down, even if for the better. First G-d needed to show the people that they were noticed, that they were still cared for, by an Awesome Being that truly had the power to free and protect them. While protected in Goshen, the people of Israel could see G-d’s wrath reign down on their oppressor through the plagues. They could see that G-d had great power to both destroy and protect at the same time, and build their trust in this G-d that put up a fence around them to keep them safe while swarms of wild beasts, locusts, and hail plagued the people of Egypt.
Additionally, I think the plagues served as something of an equalizer between the people of Israel and Egypt. The Egyptians, cruel slave masters and uninvolved citizens alike, suffered from the plagues. Even innocent children were forced to suffer the plagues. I’m sure this made the people angry toward their Pharaoh and the slave masters that brought this suffering down on them. Maybe not at first, but once it became evident that indeed Moses brought the wrath of Adonai, and Pharaoh was powerless to stop it, not an embodiment of their own god at all,  they might wonder why Pharaoh didn’t just admit defeat and end it. What kind of leader allows the suffering of their own people to continue, because of his pride and his hatred of the “others”? (Well, most, but it’s still not right). Certainly by the tenth plague, the people of Egypt might have come around to see that G-d is powerful, and loves and protects the people of Israel, and Pharaoh is a stubborn meanie. Thus, by the time the Israelites were able to flee, the Egyptians were disposed favorably toward them, and gave the Hebrews all their gold and silver to escape with.
So, when you find yourself in a time when you feel plagued, try to think of it as a learning opportunity. You probably will never be plagued by slavery or by swarms of wild beasts and locusts. But you might find yourself otherwise oppressed, or feel like the world is coming down around you more figuratively. This happens to everyone, at several different points in life. It’s normal. It’s awful, but it’s normal. When it happens, try not to forget about G-d’s love and protection, as the Israelites might have. Try to look around at the situation and find where G-d’s might is playing a role, and what good the time of darkness (figuratively, or as in the 9th plague) may lead to. What lesson is it trying to teach you? Should you change your alliances or help out a neighbor or another community you never paid attention to before? After the plagues comes freedom, made all the more sweet by the contrast of the hardships endured to get there. May you all have the patience and wisdom to make it through the plagues, and reach a time of safety and freedom with peace. Amen. Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Parashat Va’era

            For a man who claims to hate to talk, Moses seems to talk a lot about his speech impediment. In this week’s Torah portion, he calls himself a man “of impeded speech” twice in the same chapter. In last week’s Torah portion, as well, he claims he cannot be the messenger G-d seeks, since he “has never been a man of words … [and is] slow of speech and slow of tongue.” G-d reassured Moses then that his brother Aaron will serve as his mouthpiece and together they will free the Israelites. Yet, still, in this week’s parasha, Moses is still harping on about his speech impediment.
            However, as the parasha goes on, it seems that Moses ends up doing most of the talking. Aaron spoke to the Israelite people for Moses in the beginning of this adventure, and in several places the Torah says that “Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh” or “they spoke to Pharaoh,” making it not completely evident who is actually speaking. But by chapter eight in the book of Exodus, the text clearly says, “Moses said to Pharaoh,” and throughout this week’s parasha, we never once see Aaron speaking. G-d keeps telling Moses to instruct Aaron to hold out his rod or strike his rod to bring about each sign of G-d’s might, each plague. Aaron seems to be more of Moses’s magician than mouthpiece.
            Moses was extraordinary in spite of his disability, or more accurately, in spite of how he viewed his handicap. There is an often-cited Midrash explaining how Moses came to be slow of speech and tongue. As a baby in Pharaoh’s palace, he liked to play with Pharaoh’s jewels and crowns. Pharaoh was afraid this was an omen that Moses would one day usurp his crown and kingdom. So his advisors proposed a test to determine the baby’s fate: put the crown and a hot coal both in front of the baby and see which he grabbed for. If he grabbed the crown, it was a sign that he would grow up to overthrow the king, and should be killed or cast out. If he grabbed the coal, he was just a regular baby. G-d guided Moses’s hand to the coal, to ensure that he would live, and the baby popped the coal into his mouth. Although, he spit it back out immediately, his mouth was permanently burned, and he would always have trouble speaking clearly. However, since this is Midrash, we don’t actually know how bad Moses’s speech impediment might have been, how long he lived with it, or how he came to develop it. Even if we were to accept the Midrash as cannon, we still don’t know how it might have impacted him growing up. If the other Egyptian kids teased him for it, if he developed low self-esteem, if he avoided speaking his whole life out of embarrassment of what he might have sounded like.
            Everyone has something they’re embarrassed of in their lives. Something they avoid doing, at least for a time, because others made them feel bad about it. For someone, it might be he refused to dance in public because someone he had a crush on made fun of his dancing. For another, it might be she was afraid to sing loudly because a music teacher once told her she shouldn’t sing with her friends who were much better than her. Even if Moses didn’t have that complex, maybe he just felt self-conscious of showing off how great a speaker he really was, and wanted to sound modest. Many people are afraid to show how smart or strong they are, or how much they enjoy bettering themselves. People are afraid of looking over-zealous about anything, afraid that others will demean their efforts, or envy and resent their achievements. People are afraid to be too different from those around them. We are all told that each of us is a special snowflake, and it’s true. We are all so different already, that to distinguish ourselves any more is intimidating. If we make ourselves too visible, how will our peers view us?
            But Moses gets over it, and so can all of us. It takes time to develop that much maturity and confidence, but it’s possible, and it’s important. Everyone is their own person. Everyone is exactly who they are meant to be. We are all made in the image of G-d, and so our personality quirks are all, in some way, Divine. Kate Bornstein said it best when she spoke at my college orientation, stating that as long as you are not hurting yourself or others, you should absolutely feel free to be exactly who you are. Best advice I ever heard. You should say it loud and proud. You should speak out with that speech impediment. You never know who is listening, or how far your words may take you, and others close to you. May we all learn to speak out, as Moses did, shed our self-consciousness, and free ourselves. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Parashat Shemot

            Happy New Year! Welcome back to Hebrew school and our Saturday morning services. I hope everyone enjoyed their vacations. I know I did, and partly because I got to spend most of my New Years’ Eve and Day watching the Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy network. I love the Twilight Zone, and always look forward to this marathon every year. Every episode is different, with a new cast and story; there’s no consistent storyline throughout the series, which lasted many years. Each episode is filled with some sort of science fiction or supernatural events. When I was younger, I especially loved the outright scary ones – “Night of the Living Doll” or “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Around high school and college, though, I started to realize how many of the others – the ones I found kind of boring when I was a kid – had great social commentaries hidden within them, and I love every year watching the marathon and finding more and more like that. “Number 23 Looks Just Like You,” which could be the inspiration for the very enjoyable current Young Adult novel series, Uglies, warns of the problems with a society that requires total conformity. “The Monsters are Due on Maple St” is one that is commonly shown as part of a curriculum teaching about the Holocaust, used to show how easily people can be manipulated into turning on each other.
 In “The Monsters are Due on Maple St,” an average suburban neighborhood is startled by a sudden power outage and a clear day. When the adults want to investigate the rest of the town, a teenage boy warns they probably can’t leave or re-enter to the neighborhood. But one adult leaves anyway. He says he once read a comic book wherein aliens shut down the power in a neighborhood just like this to isolate them and make it easier to take over. In the book, he says, one of the families in the neighborhood are actually part of the invading aliens’ force, sent ahead to blend in and learn the ways of the earthlings. Immediately, the whole neighborhood freaks out and starts accusing each other of being aliens, and eventually, one particularly panicked man shoots a shadowy figure coming down the street. The shadowy figure turns out to be the neighbor that had gone to investigate the next neighborhood on his return. Truthfully, though each episode might have a different lens or be about specific facets of society’s ills, at least half of the Twilight Zone is basically about xenophobia, the fear of people different from us. Whether showing the attempt to make everyone the same, or showing the panic that leads to the deaths of innocent people to simply because they might be different, the route of the problem is the same.
            In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people face xenophobia for the first of many times in history. A new pharaoh arises that did not know Joseph and all that he had done for Egypt. All he knows is that there is the huge family of people who are not Egyptian living on Egyptian soil, and he is scared. Like in most Twilight Zone episodes, there is a tragically small minority of upstanding people who refuse to give in to fear. In the parasha, we find two Hebrew midwives are asked to kill Hebrew babies as they are born. The women lie to the Pharaoh, saying that the children are already born and in their mothers’ arms by the time they arrive, and it is too late to kill the boys. As Hebrews themselves, there is the possibility that Pharaoh already hates or is somehow afraid of them, too. They are lowly midwives, with no real power or voice in Egypt, and yet they have the courage to stand up against the great king of Egypt. They could easily have been harshly punished, even killed, but they are spared.
            Pharaoh then orders his own people to throw all baby boys into the Nile. Given that these two unimportant, outsider women, were not harmed for passively disobeying Pharaoh’s orders, it seems it would have been fairly easy for the Egyptian people to also just, you know, not go out looking for Hebrew babies to actively drown. But there is nothing in the text that lets us believe there was any dissent from the Egyptians. Again, like in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple St,” the real “bad guy” is distant. Pharaoh is in his palace, the aliens are on a hill behind Maple St. They are not actually doing any of the violence themselves. They are merely creating the situation that makes it easy for normal humans to become the monsters themselves. When the community only has one guy willing to say, “We’ve lived next to each other for years, how can you suddenly believe any of us to be monsters from outer space?” or only two women willing to quietly assist in the healthy births of children ordered to die, the odds are not great that they can triumph over horror.
            But with just one or two “good guys,” the community is still better off than with none. At least the “bad guy” has some difficulty, sees that not everyone agrees with him. It’s not easy to be that one, or one of few, willing to stand up against what’s wrong. Especially in these particular situations, when the opposing force is so powerful or unseen. It requires a lot of courage. As Jews, we have a particular responsibility to find that courage. To draw inspiration from the midwives of this week’s Torah portion and from the one good protagonist found in almost every Twilight Zone episode. As a people who have faced xenophobia and exile many times throughout history, we should have the empathy to help stop it when it happens elsewhere. In our country, we don’t have quite the problem with this issue that we did 60 years ago, or anything like what we see in this week’s parasha, but racism still lives in this country. You can be like the kind, brave midwives of the story simply any time you hear a racist joke or receive an offensive email forward, and speak out against the joke teller. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you will find how much xenophobia still thrives in our world. Keep your hearts open, and you will find how much you can do to fight it.
            May you all find the courage and openness to openly accept anyone of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors. And may the monsters stay far away and leave us all alone.  Shabbat Shalom.