Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One

Shabbat Yitro: What does the Voice of G-d Sound Like?

This week parashat Yitro calls us to stand once again at the foot of a mountain as a people, brought together not by lines of descent but by a willingness to go forward, to cross over, to live with uncertainty in the hope of reaching a vision.

One of the most compelling uncertainties of Jewish religious tradition centers on G-d. It begins when Moshe asks, “how shall I say when I am asked how I was sent?” and receives the reply: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “What Will Be is What Will Be”. As if we were children asking to know what will happen when we grow up, all Moshe is told is that Time Will Tell. It has been noted already by Rabbinic scholars and interpreters that this is not a name. It may be, rather, a way to describe Eternity – all time and all space, All, Here, Now.

And what did it sound like, to hear a voice one might – during or afterward – attribute to G-d? Coming out of a bush, of all things? According to our parashah this week, G-d spoke:

Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the foot of the mount. Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G-d descended upon it in fire; and smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled violently. When the voice of the shofar grew louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by a voice.  (Exodus 19.17-19)

What does that mean, “by a voice”? what did our ancestors hear? what are we, by extension and by tradition, called upon to hear?

It is useful to compare another fascinating story of that mountain, preserved in our sources, that happened at another time:

[The Prophet Elijah traveled] forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mountain of G-d. And he found a cave, and hid there; and, there, the word of G-d came to him, saying to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ …. G-d said: ‘Go forth [from the cave], and stand upon the mountain before G-d.’ And, behold, G-d passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks; but G-d was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but G-d was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  (I Kings 19.8-12)

According to our Jewish intuition, developed over millennia, the sound of G-d’s voice is not a great and thunderous, frightening, obvious sound. The phrase “by a voice” in the Sinai story hints to us that hearing G-d is not necessarily the sound of a voice, although it might be “a still, small voice.”

G-d’s voice might also come to us as a realization of something true for our lives; or as an invocation of something real when we find ourselves standing before it; or as a realization, after the fact, that we were in a place of connection to a sense of something greater than our own individual small selves.

What was, is, and will be.

Such an awareness comes to us in small moments, but the impact is earth-shattering. That still, small, certain voice says that you are an essential part of all that is, carry within you the potential of all that will be, and are a necessary, cherished part of what will be remembered. You are part of us, and of All That Is, Always.

On this Shabbat may you hear what you need to hear, and may the source of that hearing delight and unsettle you with a new awareness of the places where truth resides.

Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.

Shabbat Bo: When Will Death Come?

Have you seen the television commercial for heart health that begins with a person very matter-of-factly receiving a note that says “your heart attack is coming tomorrow.” As we know, says the voice-over, such events happen without any warning. If you could know when a life-threatening event would happen, you could prepare for it, dodge it – even, as in our Jewish legends, try to avoid the Angel of Death by changing your name, or heading to the town of Luz (where no one ever died).

This week our reading, the second segment of the parashah according to our Triennial Cycle count, begins with a terrifying declaration: come midnight, all the first born of Egypt shall die. Terrifying, yes, but perhaps some people would like to have such certainty. After all, there’s even a “Death Clock” on the internet. Very appealing, perhaps, to fill in the information it requests – but would you believe the answer?

Our ancestors were aware that they were part of a never ending cycle of life and death; that they, like all that lived and moved, would one day stop living, stop moving. Curiously, ancient Hebrews did not seem to worry so much about life after death – at least, not to the extent that our Torah speaks of it. When our ancestors died, according to our Scriptures, they either had a “good death”, which meant being surrounded by loved ones who cared for and buried the body afterward, or a “bad death”, which meant that one died in agony – of war, disease, famine, and other horrible causes – and that there was no sure burial for the body. A “good death” was indicated by the idiom “gathered to one’s ancestors”, and a “bad death” was expressed by the term “going down to She’ol”. (A helpful site for more information, including what the ancient Hebrews DID believe about life after death, is in the Jewish Encyclopdia: Sheol.)

The fear of death, however, was as powerful for them as it is for us. When would death come? how? when will we be deprived of those we love? In most cases, there is no certainty. Even in our first verse of this week’s reading, there is one tiny letter that hints at the uncertain territory between life and death. In Exodus 11.4 it is literally written: כחצת הלילה – “some time around midnight”. The single letter khaf indicates “sort of”, “almost”, or “about”.

That’s as close as we get in Judaism to the ultimate truth of life and death. That letter khaf stands in between us and the complete, transcendent truth. We cannot know the time of our death, or any of the other things we want to know the most, and the khaf is there to remind us of that.

Don’t let the khaf get you down, though. Consider this tiny message from the Hebrew letter: the letter khaf has the same name as the word “hand”, and a khaf has the numerical values of two tens, that it, two yuds, which designate a Name of G-d. The little khaf that stands between you and death reminds you that you are in the hands of G-d. And no matter where you go, what you fear, or what happens to you when, you can never fall out of the hands of G-d.