Friday, February 17, 2017

Parashat Yitro

    Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Yitro. Most famously the parasha of the Ten Commandments, it also gives a lot of insight into Moses’s domestic life. Yitro or Jethro, for whom the parasha is named, is Moses’s non-Jewish father-in-law, who shows great devotion to Moses and his people. As we know, at this stage in our people’s history, the covenant has mostly been through men. The Israelite men may take wives from other cultures, who are expected to take on Israelite practice and belief in the home. But Moses’s wife, Tzipporah, and her family appear to really embrace Moses’s God in a way the wives and extended families of our earlier Patriarchs didn’t. Tzipporah, on the way to Egypt, circumcised her son herself when Moses failed to perform this sacred task. And now, after the miracles of the Exodus, Jethro, a priest of Midian, a presumably devout follower of his native religion, declares how great Adonai is and offers a sacrifice to God.
    This scene happens at the beginning of the parasha, before the revelation at Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Ten Commandments, so the Kabbalistic resource, the Zohar, tells us from this we know that the Israelites were not fit to receive the Torah until after Jethro acknowledged the greatness of Adonai. Moses values Jethro’s opinions greatly, as we also see in this parasha when Jethro teaches Moses about the importance of democracy and delegating responsibilities. Although Moses was already willing to do as God asked, and although Tzipporah seems to have already long bought into the Israelite faith, they needed Jethro to sanction it as well. Jethro who was “the supreme priest in all the pagan world,” Jethro who was only Moses’s father-in-law and was not going to take on his daughter’s new lifestyle, Jethro who was Moses’s guide in many ways throughout Moses’s personal revelations as the leader of a new people, Jethro was the key to unlock a new standard for our people. The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic stories and explanations on the Bible, explains that Jethro’s behavior in this parasha is the meaning of the verse from Psalms, “Better a close neighbor than a distant brother.” Jethro being the close neighbor, who responds to the great miracles of God and comes to join Moses as he sets out on this journey, and Esau being the distant brother who despite having the opportunity see the divine intervention on Jacob’s part, preferred to keep his distance from his brother and the Israelites.
    After making his sacrifice to God, and giving Moses some advice, Jethro still goes back to Midian and continues his life as before. The family does not get in each others’ ways. This is a good example for how families and communities of mixed faiths or cultures can work together. In the books of Ezra and Nehemia, the stories of the priests who reestablished the Israelite community after the first exile, there is a lot of condemnation of interfaith marriages, particularly between Israelite men and foreign women. This may even be the start of the practice of matrilineal descent, of refocusing the religious inheritance of our people onto the matriarchs of the families instead of the patriarchs, since it seemed that in the time of Ezra and Nehemia, men who married foreign women did not remain committed to their own cultures. While it is still statistically true today that moms get to choose the family religion, we in the Reform movement know that we can follow the models of our Torah patriarchs and embrace patrilineal Jews and interfaith marriages as well. The key, it seems, is to not try to dissuade each other from native faiths, but let each partner stay as fully immersed in their own culture as is comfortable. Why was Moses’s son not already circumcised in Parashat Shemot? Presumably because he was not trying to force anything onto Tzipporah or her children, until she decided for herself it was the right thing for their family. Why does Jethro not follow the Israelites, even after making a sacrifice? Because he still has his own life to live in Midian. Why is Moses so willing to follow Jethro’s advice on how to lead these people when he already has God in his ear? Because this is a family that respects each other. It is an important value to learn. People who share family and community must respect each other, no matter if they have different backgrounds or faiths.
    May we always be willing to acknowledge the divinity in each other, in our families, in our communities, and in our differences, as Jethro and Moses were able to with each other. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Parashat BeShallach and Tu B'Shevat

     Shabbat Shalom! This week is Tu B'Shevat, which is a traditionally Kabbalistic festival to celebrate God's presence in the natural world. In a Tu B'Shevat Seder, the Kabbalists walk us through four worlds, which correlate with a different emanation of God, a different season of our ecological world, and each is represented by a different kind of fruit (those with inedible outsides, those with inedible insides, and those which are wholly edible - in the last world we eat no fruit but take special note of our other senses alight at the Seder).
     The first world is Assiyah, Doing. This Shabbat's Parashat HaShavua is Beshallach, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Our Torah tells us that when faced with the sea, the Egyptian army catching up with the Israelites, Moses prayed to God and God asks Moses what the heck he's doing praying because it is time to act. Our sages tell us that the sea didn't really part until Nachshon walked all the way into the sea up to his nose. Nachshon is not meant to be a leader, he bears no formal responsibility for the Israelites, but damned if he's going to stand around and wait for someone else to act. Each one of us must know when it is time to act, to take a first step on our own, to Do. In the world of Assiyah, may we be Nachshon, walking right into seas of uncertainty up to our noses, prepared for danger, for the sake of freeing our people.
     The second world is Yetzirah, Formation. In Bereshit, when God created the world, God separated the waters from the earth and sky on the second day, and separated the waters of the earth from the dry land on the third. As the Children of Israel walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, the water standing up on all sides of them, they had a glimpse of creation, of the formation of the world, of the great and mysterious power of nature. In the world of Yetzirah, may we take note of nature, reflecting on the waters and dry lands that make up our Earth, and pledge to protect both.
      The next world is Briyah, Creation. This Shabbat is also called Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, because of the songs the Israelites sang as they crossed the sea, and because the Haftarah for this parasha is the story of Deborah, a great judge and prophetess whose prophesies led to an important military victory which she celebrated with a song. In the world of Briyah, may we acknowledge the importance of our creative powers, how art, literature and music can move our souls to do great things, how they guide us through difficult tasks, how they help us process complex emotions.
      The final world is Atzilut, Nobility. Although the Ten Commandments are given in the next parasha, Parashat BeShallach does include a commandment to honor Shabbat. Even in all their wanderings through the wilderness, they must keep camp for the whole of the seventh day. The Israelites, the mixed multitudes, and the animals alike must rest on the Sabbath. Rabbi Heschel referred to Shabbat as a "Sanctuary in time," reiterating a more ancient idea that Shabbat is a small portion of paradise. "The Sabbath," he said, "is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization." In the infinite world of Aztilut, alongside God's ineffable nobility, may we give thanks for Shabbat, for our communities, for any breaks we allow ourselves from the outside world.
Chag hailanot Sameach!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Parashat Bo

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we see the last three plagues and the people of Israel prepare to finally leave Egypt. First come the locusts, which eat up everything in sight and then fly off again by a great wind of God so that the Egyptians have neither crops nor crunchy locust snacks to eat. Then comes the darkness.
The rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah ask: “Why does God send such utter darkness over Egypt?” They answer themselves: “Because there were transgressors in Israel who had Egyptian patrons and who lived in affluence and honor, and were unwilling to leave. So G‑d said: “If I bring upon them publicly a plague from which they will die, the Egyptians will say: ‘Just as it has passed over us, so has it passed over them.’” Therefore He brought darkness upon the Egyptians for three days, so that the [Israelites] should bury their dead without their enemies seeing them.” Chidushei Harim, an early and influential Hasidic rebbe of 19th century Poland, commented on the same passage of this parasha, “There is no greater darkness than one in which “a man did not see his fellow”—in which a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow man. When that happens, a person becomes stymied in his personal development as well—“nor did anyone get up from his place.”
Throughout history, as Jews have been oppressed, enslaved, forbidden to practice their religion, subjected to unfair laws, the objects of pogroms, and forced to endure any number of indignities, there have been “Court Jews.” A term that appeared in the Enlightenment era, it was retroactively also applied to positions throughout the Medieval Ages, particularly in Europe. Court Jews were primarily bankers or merchants who provided the royal families with food and wine and riches, but they also often served as the money changers the monarchy charged with the distasteful position of collecting taxes, evicting serfs who could not provide their King his due, and generally doing the financial dirty work of the kingdom. All the while, the court Jews would enjoy special privileges, even occasionally given the honor of being dubbed nobility themselves. Yet, while they climbed the social ladder and sat in the lap of material luxury, they did nothing to liberate their people and free their co-religionists of their masters’ tyrannies.
Though we don’t know what role the Israelites in the palace of Pharoah might have played, whether financiers, entertainers, or house servants, we can surmise from the commentaries quoted above that they, like the Court Jews of the Medieval and early Modern eras, lived in a moral darkness. They chose personal comfort over liberation, material wealth over the health of their communities. They allowed themselves to be oblivious to the plights of others, imagining themselves to be untouchable, and in doing so, prevented themselves from ever being whole people. Because those in power who favored the Court Jews still never saw them as anything but Jews. Moses may be an exception, an Israelite who was accepted into the Egyptian royal family as a son, but remember that he went out “among his brethren and saw their burdens,” which communicates that even he felt a sense of an outsider status in the royal home. Even when Court Jews were bestowed noble names and paid well, they were never seen as equal. Even after Emancipation, wealthy and educated European Jews who sought to work their way into high society were advised to be a “man in the streets and a Jew only in his home.” How can such a bifurcated identity ever feel whole?
This week there was a great darkness in our nation, when even vetted immigrants were detained at airports around the country. Those with approved visas and green cards, those attending American universities trying to return from visits to their home countries, those still living in far away lands who waited and carefully planned their visits to their immigrant children and their first generation American grandchildren, and so many other stories of innocent people held. Not just in the way that so many others have experienced since increased security in airports since 2001, but in inhumane conditions. Children handcuffed. People held for over 30 hours with no food, bed, or phone calls to let the families expecting their arrival know where they are. People fearing their loved ones were already deported or disappeared. And while thousands turned up at the airports in protest, shouting love and support for those in the holding rooms, lawyers offering free legal help to the families of the detained, Jewish and Muslim children sharing signs of solidarity and support, others turned their back on this crisis. Perhaps in the name of real concerns. Perhaps for reasons borne from personal experiences, losses from terrorist attacks, a closeness to the situation I cannot understand. But perhaps, for some, simply because of xenophobia. Perhaps from a lack of facts and data. Perhaps in a historically misguided view that if we, as Jews, support those in power at all costs, we will stay safe. Perhaps from a moral darkness that makes it so we cannot see our fellow. In a moral darkness that prevents us from getting up from our comfortable places and facing the darkness.
As Jewish Americans, many of us are here today because of the courage and strength of our refugee and immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents. Many of us have family members that escaped great violence, and many more bear the cultural scars of a people who carry trauma in their very DNA. We are a people who know what it is to seek refuge, to never fit in quite right in any country, to bounce from nation to nation looking for safety. We are the Sephardic Jews of Touro and we are the lost souls of the St. Louis. We are Emma Lazarus and The New Colossus and we are Emma Goldman and the Rosenbergs. We are the hope of freedom that this country has to offer and we are the fears and xenophobia, the mistrust and the assimilation. It is important that through all of that, we remain Jews. We hold on to Jewish values which teach us to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to care for the poor orphan. If we lose those values, if we try to shed our Jewishness and assimilate entirely, if we try to be Court Jews, we will be lost in utter darkness. We may never find liberation in the arms of oppressors, but we can find it in working for the liberation of others.
Once the final plague descends and the Israelites living in the Pharaoh’s palace, refusing to leave, are killed along with the Egyptians, the Israelites spared in Goshen are finally free to leave. With them, go the “mixed multitudes.” Likely other lowly classes of Egypt, the poor, slaves from other conquered cultures, these are people who were ready to align themselves completely with our people. They came with us into the wilderness, embraced the unknown, followed the strict laws of a God they had no context for. They were willing to stand in complete solidarity with the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, and then ready to escape with them. They, and the leaders of the Israelites who took them in without question, knew that the liberation of all people is bound up together.
May we in this current time of difficulties stand up in the darkness, strive to see our fellows, work to hold on to our whole selves, and may we see freedom for our mixed multitudes soon.