Friday, January 27, 2017

Parashat Va'Eira

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’eira, in which we begin to read about the Ten Plagues. The plagues grow increasingly worse: blood in the water for a week, a frog infestation, lice, swarms of arov (alternately translated as wild beasts or flies), cattle disease, boils, and fiery hail. Next week we will read of the horrors of a locust swarm that eats every last morsel in the fields of Egypt, the utter darkness that descends, and of course the tragedy of the first born sons of Egypt.
Now, I have to admit that blood in the water is pretty disturbing to me, but I saw an interesting d’var Torah that an acquaintance shared on Facebook earlier this week that she found the first three plagues paled in comparison with the later ones. I actually think frogs are cute, so I had to agree with her on that one. Sure, it would be a nuisance to have them in your bed and on your head, in your chairs and in your hair, frogs leaping about everywhere! But, it hardly stands up as a terrifying plague of the Almighty in the same way as fiery hail or the Angel of Death. So what was the purpose of the earlier, sort of mundane plagues?
Rabbi Simcha Bunim, an early Polish leader of the Chasidic movement, played with the Hebrew in this parasha to give us some insight. At the beginning of the parasha, before the plagues begin, God gives Moses a series of promises: “I am the Lord your God, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be Your God … I will bring you into the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a heritage.” Rabbi Bunim changes the Hebrew for “burdens” - sivlot - to the word for “patience” - savlanut. The people of Israel have been slaves for so long that they have become complacent with their oppression, and God needs to work to bring them out of their patience as much as out of the oppression coming from the Egyptians themselves. The frogs, and the other early plagues that may seem benign in comparison with what’s coming, are not meant to immediately encourage the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. The people of Israel themselves are not ready to go yet. They must see the wonders of God, be shaken out of their patience for Pharaoh’s nonsense, be ready to move when the time comes. The frogs are warning signs. They are hints for what God really has planned. They smuggled messages to the crushed people of Israel to communicate what God may be capable of once they are ready to believe in real miracles.
In our own lives, there will be signs of what’s to come if we pay attention. Warning signs for the horrors that await us if we harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and signs of hope and faith that liberation are around the corner if we’re ready to work for it like the Israelites. We must be vigilant for these signs and we must be willing to act on them. Seize a career opportunity if it arises. Stand up for rights that feel threatened. Profess your love to someone. If you have the inkling that change is coming, if you feel in your gut it’s time to act, do it. See the signs, have faith, and be ready to make moves. May we all have the strength of spirit to shake ourselves out of complacency, may we find smooth transitions, may we respond to the warning signs in our lives, and most of all, may we find freedom waiting on the other end of that shift. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Parashat Shemot

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus. In it, we read about the birth of Moses, his upbringing as a Prince of Egypt, all the way through his life in Midian with his wife Tzipporah and his command by the Burning Bush to return to Egypt and ask Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free. The Torah skips a large part of Moses’s life. One day, he is a baby found in the river, and then: “It came to pass in those days when Moses was grown that he went out to his brothers.”
So a young adult Moses is walking among the Israelite slaves, which the Torah identifies as his brethren, though we don’t know if Moses actually is aware that he himself is a Hebrew at this point. You may know what happens next in the story: Moses sees a slave master beating a slave and his compassion and empathy is stirred. Perhaps because he identifies with the Hebrew slave or perhaps just because he knows slavery and violence is wrong, Moses intervenes. In doing so, he kills the Egyptian slavemaster. Many versions of the story depict Moses immediately running away after that. However, the Torah tells us that before getting involved in the situation, Moses looks around and sees that no one else is nearby. The Midrash Rabbah, a big many-volumed source of rabbi’s tales about the Torah, says that Moses was looking for someone else to stop the violence, and saw that there was no one but him and so it was his unique responsibility to act, as difficult as it was. But after the Egyptian is dead, it is also clear that because there was no one around, Moses thought no one saw the deed. So he doesn’t run away just yet. The next day, Moses goes out again among the slaves, and he sees two Israelites fighting with each other. The Torah says, “He said to the wicked one, ‘Why would you strike your fellow?’” The wicked one responds that it’s none of Moses’s beeswax, and asks, “Do you intend to kill me too, as you killed the Egyptian?” From this Moses knows that indeed someone did witness his manslaughter the previous day, and THAT is when he runs away.
In the Talmud, robber/gladiator-turned-wise sage Resh Lakish comments on this interaction between Moses and the “wicked” Hebrew slave. He points out that the Torah immediately identifies one as wicked, without sharing with us the details of the altercation, and that Moses uses future tense for the verb “hit”, which tells us that probably no punches were yet thrown, but one is man is being more obviously aggressive toward another. Resh Lakish says that one who “lifts his hand against his fellow, even if he did not hit him, is called wicked,” as it is written: “He said to the wicked one: Why would you hit your fellow?” rather than “Why did you hit," indicating that though he had not hit him yet, he was termed a “wicked one.”
In my second grade classroom, occasionally students like to pretend hit or kick each other, or tease about wicked things. I’m sure many of our religious school students who have joined us tonight have done the same at some point in their lives. Maybe they’ve even hit a brother or sister, not in pretend but out of anger and frustration. Doing such things on occasion as a young kid doesn’t automatically make you wicked. You probably didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and I hope if you have hurt someone by accident, you apologized immediately. Saying sorry is an important Jewish value to learn, and we all make mistakes and act impulsively sometimes.
Sometimes, though, we need an adult, a strong leader, someone with an outside perspective or an ability to look through multiple lenses to help mediate such situations. When such a person comes in and tries to help, it is best not to respond as the wicked Hebrew slave did. Don’t be rude and defiant, but accept help. Take a moment and look at your scene from that person’s eyes. Explain why you were frustrated to the point of raising your fist. Not only is it the right thing to do, because hitting is wicked, but you might find that the outside person, the authority figure, the adult, is able to understand your frustration as well, and help you resolve the issue entirely.
There may come a time when you are that outside person, a more mature viewpoint, a reasonable and strong leader as well. When you happen upon a situation that looks like it might get violent, may you have the courage to step in. A good leader is someone who knows how to mediate and bring peace between people. A good leader knows that violence, even the mere threat of it, is wicked. A good leader is brave but clear headed and able to look at a situation from multiple angles. That’s why Moses was such a strong leader for the Israelites. Although after this incident, he ran away and he was reluctant to come back and put himself in the spotlight again, thanks to the harsh words of this wicked slave, he was still always willing and able to do what was right. He had grown up a prince of Egypt, but was a Jew at heart, and had spent many years as a Midianite shepherd. These varied life experiences helped him know how to talk to different people in different ways, and get his message heard best by the widest range of people. It wasn’t always easy. The Israelites wanted proof that God sent him, and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He had many people who weren’t always sure of his methods. But in the end, he secured the liberation of the People of Israel and the mixed multitudes and he led over a million people to freedom.
May we learn non-violence, may we preach non-violence, may we lead in non-violence. May we lead in strength, grow in courage, and find freedom for all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Parashat Vayichi

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayichi. In it, Jacob gives his final blessings to his sons and the sons of Joseph. He prophesies what will become of the men as their families develop into the tribes of Israel. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 5b), there is a midrash on this:
Rabbi Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman: “So said Rabbi Yochanan: Our father Jacob did not die.” Asked Rav Nachman: “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?” Replied Rabbi Yitzchak: “I am only citing a verse. It is written (Jeremiah 30:10): ‘And you, my servant Jacob, fear not, says the L‑rd, and do not tremble, O Israel. For behold, I shall save you from afar, and your progeny from the land of their captivity.’ The verse equates Jacob with his progeny: just as his progeny are alive, he too is alive.”
From this we see that the parasha is very fitting both for a Bar Mitzvah weekend and the Shabbat before Martin Luther King Day, and we just so happen to find ourselves in both situations. Just as Jacob passes the torch on to his progeny, so too do we hand off new responsibility to Jewish learning and community to a young member of our community. We foresee a great future of love and respect for Judaism and that this Bar Mitzvah will bring honor to the Tribes of Israel. As long this young man lives by Torah, Judaism and our people are kept alive, as Jacob lives through his descendants.
            By the same logic, those who continue to fight for the civil rights of all Americans keep alive Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As long as we continue to advocate for the freedom and dignity for all people and ensure true equality in this country, we are the spiritual progeny of Dr. King, and as we live, he lives too.
            As Jacob is blessing his sons, he also takes the time to rebuke Simeon and Levi for their massacre at Shechem, and then he says that he too held the sword and bow there, though we know that the Torah tells us he did not join in the slaughter of Shechemites. A series of assorted midrash that build on each other clarifies this to tell us that when Jacob learned of Simeon and Levi’s misdeeds, though he did not want them, he still loved his sons dearly and wanted to protect them. So, he took up his sword and bow to stand guard at the gates of the city of Shechem to prevent any survivors from coming to kill Simon and Levi in retribution. Another midrash further explains that “sword and bow” in Jacob’s hands really means prayer and supplication. A third midrash expounds that we know that prayer is like a bow because the closer you draw it into yourself, the farther the arrow flies. So, too, the closer we draw prayer into our hearts, the greater affect it can have on our actions, the more so it can guide us to better the world.
            As our Bar Mitzvah grows and takes on the responsibility of being an adult in our community, may he find inspiration in these midrashim and in the legacy of Reverend King to all spiritual people. Our prayer, our values learned from Torah and God, are our greatest weapons. With them, we can truly fight inequality with great reach. Selling books to a second-hand store to help people struggling with financial stability still have access to books, and then using that money to help feed hungry children is a great start. I look forward to seeing how your tikkun olam grows and matures as you do. May everyone in our community, regardless of age, can take up this mantle of spiritual social justice. Amen, Mazel tov to tomorrow’s Bar Mitzvah boy, and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Parashat Vayigash

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion of Parashat Vayigash continues the Joseph narrative. At this point in the story, Joseph’s brothers have come to Joseph looking for food but they don’t recognize him. Joseph decided to play tricks on the brothers to test out if they have learned any lessons or grown as people since selling him to slavery. Last week’s parasha ends with Joseph declaring he will keep the youngest Benjamin (the second son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel) as a slave in retribution for Benjamin stealing a goblet (which Joseph planted in his sack). He tells the other brothers they may return to their father in peace.  This week’s parasha opens with the brothers refusing to leave Benjamin behind. Judah in particular pledges himself in return for Benjamin. Joseph learns from this that the brothers have indeed learned their lesson and reveals himself to them. They all embrace and Joseph cries and they feast. Pharaoh allows Joseph to send wagons to fetch Jacob and the rest of the camp and family of Israel.
            I am often fascinated by the family dynamics in Joseph’s story. In these parashiyot Joseph and his brothers go through many changes in their relationship, both external and internal changes. However, this time around, I was struck by a different aspect of the story. In teaching this narrative to the second graders at Gesher Jewish Day School, we watched some of the recording of the play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Today, as the scene showed Joseph’s elevation from imprisoned slave to Pharaoh’s number two, a student who has the entire score memorized, turned to me with her eyes glistening and said, “He went from the lowest person in the country to one of the most important!” It was clear she took great inspiration from this, and I took inspiration from her on that.
            In this week’s parasha we see the extent to which he is elevated. Not only does Pharaoh trust him to oversee the food storage, and all of Egypt defers to him for this reason, but even his own brothers do not recognize him in his finery. Judah consistently calls his brother “My Lord”, and even when he does reveal himself they are afraid of him. But Joseph does not allow this to go to his head, and he welcomes his brothers back into his life with open arms. His position in Pharaoh’s court allows for them to take over all of the land of Goshen and they live quite comfortably for the rest of their days due to Joseph’s kindness. I hope the student that gleans inspiration from Joseph’s social climbing also gleans compassion and forgiveness from Joseph’s embracing of his brothers.
            It’s fairly easy to let any amount of power go to your head, and even easier to hold a grudge against someone who has truly wronged you. I would say it would be completely reasonable of Joseph to not forgive his brothers. “After all,” as he sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, “they have tried fratricide.” In reality, it’s probably safer not to take people back into your life that have threatened so directly and physically. But if Joseph could do so and it all worked out for him and his brothers, all the more so can we learn to forgive people the normal every day offenses they commit against us. All the more so should we remember to treat all people fairly regardless of our positions of power over them. May we all find hope in Joseph’s story and shun despair in dire situations. At any moment, we may break free of our shackles and find ourselves in a situation to put ourselves forward. If such a moment comes, may we find in our hearts the compassion and forgiveness Joseph shows toward his brothers. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.