Shabbat BeShalakh: What Does It Take To Let Go?

In this weeks’s parashah, called BeShalakh, we read of our people’s experience leaving Egypt. It includes hard labor, a frightening and uncertain exit through water, and great relief upon emergence into a new world. It is the birth-myth of the People Israel. (I use “myth” in the sense of a grand and ancient story that tells a people who they are, and often why; it is not scientific fact but it is very much true in its own way.)

Last week we saw the demand seven times (a highly significant number in Jewish tradition and storytelling) in the parashah: shalakh, “let go”. Let the people go, said Moshe to Pharaoh. And Pharoah’s response, six times, was lo shalakh, “I will not let them go.”  Then came the seventh time, when it is written after the final and most horrifying plague visited upon Egypt that vatekhezak Mitzrayim al ha-Am l’maher l’shalkham, “The Egyptians pressed the people hard, trying to send them forth as quickly as possible” (Exodus 12.33). 

With a literary parallelism written in terror and blood, the seventh response to the demand shalakh is, finally, l’shalkham. This is underscored by the name of our parashah this week, B’Shalakh, which begins “When Pharaoh sent the People forth” (Exodus 13.17). 

The way to freedom is paved with the acts of both enemies and friends.

This week the world observed the 70th anniversary of the day the concentration/extermination camp Auschwitz was liberated. Many of our people understood the Holocaust in traditional Jewish terms (our lens on life for everything, after all), and the liberation of the death camps was seen as a miracle that saved the remnant of our people from the modern-day Nazi Pharaoh. 

Fewer and fewer survivors are left among us to testify to that time. Here is a true story from one of them:

I was sent to do hard labor deep in Germany, helping to build plants and roads for the war effort. They fed us almost nothing; people died all the time from the work, the cold, the starvation, the disease. One guard was always very harsh with us – but when no one was looking, almost every day he brought me a sandwich from his lunch. That Nazi guard saved my life.

Almost every survivor’s story includes a mystifying moment of compassion like this one. For some of us – not for all of us, and certainly not according to any reason that a human being can discern – the act of an enemy has paved the way to freedom.

That is why in Judaism we do not hold a belief in the demonic. No person, no matter how evil, is a demon. We all belong to the same All, and we all share in its characteristics. This is frightening, because it means that we have to recognize that we all harbor evil within us. But it should also be a source of great hope, because that which is evil is not in its essence different from the rest of us. We know evil intimately because it too is part of humanity, and that is a key to disarming it and destroying it.

Mystical Judaism describes our hearts as constantly balancing between mercy and judgment. We are to seek the middle between those two opposites, and according to the mystics, the middle is not neutrality. It is compassion. 

On this Shabbat of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and on this millennial anniversary of the People of Israel’s birth, may you see the compassion in the world clearly, even in the most unlikely places.

Shabbat Bo: You Are Here In Ferguson

In this week’s parashah, we read of how we went out of Egypt.

That’s the command: “in every generation, to see ourselves as those who go out of Egypt.” (Talmud, Pesakhim 116b) Not to imagine as if, but to experience the going out ourselves, in an immediate way. How is that possible? I can’t feel myself enslaved as we were in Egypt; I can’t feel what it’s like to leave home at a moment’s notice and without any possessions.

Isn’t it much more comfortable to regard the stories of our religious tradition from a certain distance? Easier to condemn when necessary, to condescend, to dismiss as primitive and under-developed. But the ancients had an ability to sense reality just as acutely as we moderns. Perhaps theirs was a capacity felt in a different register, but it is a perspective that we might benefit from considering. It requires immersing ourselves in a different kind of mind-set, and heart-set.

Consider:

The story goes that the Israelites left Egypt in the middle of a terrifying night during which every first born child and animal in Egypt died. This is hard to take at face value for a true story, but this is where our tradition offers us another way to understand. The story before us is brutal: slavery by degrees, from which we are extricated with wrenching, overwhelming, all-encompassing suddenness. Innocents die in the process – many Israelites and Egyptians whose names we do not know, many more Egyptians with the onset of the plagues even before the death of the first born, and more still to come at the Sea of Reeds.

There is much suffering in a time of great change, and there is destruction ringing the edges of the most beautiful freedom story. Many are dead, with no clear reason or meaning to their tragic deaths. Refugees may be alive, but their futures are bereft. Those whose action or passive compliance allow the suffering to occur also find themselves suffering, for no direct reason that is discernible to them. We drift in darkness and confusion, and turn upon each other with fear rather than compassion.

If we can see ourselves in Egypt, then we can begin to see ourselves leaving Egypt – that is, not each of us personally, but all of us communally. We can begin to discern the beginnings of movement, the promise of upheaval. “Who is wise?” the Talmud records a Rabbi saying, “the one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)

Reading this parashat hashavua (weekly parashah, Torah reading) in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr day, after a year in which some of those whose deaths would normally go unrecorded came to prominence – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and, only today, Jerame Reid, brings a special resonance. Their tragic deaths seem meaningless. Their families and communities are refugees in their own nation, and we suffer the echoes of the far-reaching, inchoate destruction without any clear sense of connection.

Jewish tradition insists that we will not leave Egypt until we all go out together – and we as individuals will not all get there, but we as the human race must. When we know this in our hearts we will have understood the meaning of the mitzvah: b’khol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, “in every age and age, we are required to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” In every age so far, we have not done it. Until we can see it, we cannot do it; until we are here together, we will never get there.

Shabbat Va’Era: How Does G-d Appear To You?

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, begins in an entirely perplexing way:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him: ‘I am YHVH;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai but by My name YHVH I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6.2-3)

Now, all it takes is a quick backward glance in the Torah to the stories of G-d interacting with the Patriarchs to see that this declaration is not, exactly, true. The book of Genesis specifically records the Name YHVH in communications between G-d and all three.

So what does it mean to say that G-d was not known by them in the way that Moshe knows G-d? It is easy enough to suggest that each of us knows the sense of a presence of G-d in our lives (or not) in our own way, and so it’s obvious that Moshe, given his special role, would have an entirely different experience of G-d than those who went before him. But there are deeper levels of understanding here.  

In the scholarly discipline of theology this question might be posed as regarding the quality and impact of revelation. Each Patriarch’s experience of G-d is echoed in the later theological insights offered by commentators:

Jacob was the successfully assimilated Jew. He was living far from the Land of Israel and was doing very well – he had become rich, and had wives and children, and no real plans to fulfill the vow he had made as a young man to return home. And then we read: “YHVH said to Jacob, return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you” (31.3).  In response, Jacob packed up his wives, children, a lot of sheep, and other effects, and left the home he had made for his ancestral home.

“They did not know the faithfulness implicit in My Name, since I made them a promise and did not fulfill it” – Rashi (France, 1040-1105). Jacob’s experience of G-d was one in which he could put off fulfilling a promise – or perhaps letting it drop all together. Here is the picture of a distant, or even non-existent, G-d. You can say what you like and not follow up, you can do what you like without worry, because there is no Divine follow-up. Until there is. To his credit, Jacob responded with admirable alacrity when YHVH finally appeared to him in a convincing, commanding way. 

Have you ever known anyone who acted as if no one was looking, and then one day suddenly decided to clean up his act? Now, for the first time, living an ethical life is meaningful in a way that sweeps aside all doubt?

Isaac was in the midst of struggling with neighboring tribes to dig a well that they would not contest, and find room for his family to live and thrive. He dug three wells, one after the next, and each became a source of strife. Finally he moved his tents to the next ridge and then “YHVH appeared to [Isaac] that night and said, “I am the G-d of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you” (26.24). In response, Isaac was able to relax and know that he was home. He built an altar and proclaimed the Name there.

“From this it emerges that the text is a pointer, not to G-d’s Name but to G-d’s meaning” – Isaac ben Moses Arama (Spain, 1420 – Salonika, 1494). Isaac was trying to do the right thing, moving from each well when it was contested, but couldn’t get a break. Similarly, his namesake, Rabbi Isaac Arama, was among the exiles expelled from Spain near the end of his life. We know G-d through the characteristics that affect our lives: those who have good lives know G-d as the Compassionate, those who suffer know G-d as the Stern Judge, and those who are rescued from disaster known G-d as the Protector. 

There are those among us who believe that our experience of G-d defines G-d, a breathtaking inversion of the humility of the Psalmist who asserted: 

David’s Song of Ascent:

O YHVH, my heart is not proud, nor my glance haughty,

I no longer run after that which is beyond me, too wonderful for me

my soul is quiet and still, like a weaned child in mother’s arms;

O Israel, hope in YHVH forever!  (Psalm 131)

In the best-known story of all, a messenger of YHVH calls to Abraham not to slay his son Isaac in the infamous and difficult story of the Akedah, the “binding” (22.11). In gratitude, Abraham sacrifices a ram.

“G-d appeared to the Patriarchs as an expression of the natural order; G-d’s miracles were apparent to them without violating it….[but] the People of Israel [will] know My great Name through which I shall perform wonders for them” – Maimonides (Spain, 1135 – Egypt, 1204). Abraham acted without expecting miracles, and he saw them anyway. 

How does G-d appear to you? On this week in which the idea of revelations of G-d is once again misused to justify the evil men and women choose to do, can you find it in yourself to follow those in our past who taught that appearances may be deceiving, and to assert that there is more that is possible? There is, after all, a new revelation to Moshe, because in this week’s parashah we are offered a new understanding of an inspiration, and support, that will move an empire of hatred, split a sea of doubt, and bring us to a mountain of vision.

Shabbat Shemot: A World Full of Suffering

We begin reading the Book of Exodus (Shemot, “Names”, in Hebrew) in the Torah this week; in the opening scenes, our ancestors find ourselves in a developing nightmare – and, unlike the dreams of Genesis, we can’t just wake up from it. 

At first, all seemed well in our new homes in Egypt. But within the bloom of our success were found the seeds of trouble.

  וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.

The children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

  וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.

  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ:  הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ.

And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us;

  הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ:  פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.

come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ (Exodus 1.7-10)

For generations, Jewish commentaries have focused upon verse 8: “a king who knew not Joseph” to explain what happened; the lack of memory not only of those in authority, but of our neighbors as well, obliterated the good will we used to know, and allowed evil to begin to grow. Thus we understood the ensuing enslavement of our people to be a result of narrow perspectives, short memories, and the age-old fear of “not enough to go around”. But we are still left with a troubling question: why is it that the new king assumes that there will be trouble? and why does he respond to his fear with oppression? 

“Why?” is not always a question so easily answered. But unless we ask it, and search for truth in the answers we find, the evil we face will not be faced down.

Why are French satirists murdered? why Jewish hostages? why Syrian refugees? 

What makes a man or woman capable of killing an innocent stranger? 

What madness is this, in this world of ours?

The Jewish people unfortunately developed a real expertise in the mystery of cruelty and evil. During the terrible years of Exile we faced mystifying murder again and again, and easy, facile, untrue answers such as “we must have done something to deserve it” satisfied only those who need any answer rather than face a terrifying mystery. 

The Jewish mystics developed a much more troubling answer. Who knows if it is true? but it has a ring of truth to it. It is taught in kabbalah that our world is made up of ten sefirot, ten characteristics or attributes, that echo through all we are and do; among them is that of hesed, loving kindness, and gevurah, strict judgment. 

Gevurah, the attribute of strict judgment, is the source of our courage and our ability to find strength to fight evil. But it is also taught that evil itself comes into the world through this attribute, when it is mistakenly – unjustly, cruelly – applied. Judgment without mercy, judgment without thought for the individual situation – this kind of judgment opens the door to evil in the world.

This teaching offers us a way to inquire after the evil in our world. What opened the door to it? what unjust judgment was passed, and when? For Jews, to inquire is to look into Torah and consider the challenges its teachings offer us. One of those is the doctrine that sin will reverberate for three, and even four, generations, before the pain of the evil created by that sin abates.

Then there is evil that seems to defy even this doctrine; inexplicable suffering, cutting innocent lives short, leaving us who are left to witness such evil wondering if the universe is, perhaps, after all, a cold, meaningless void.

To this the mystics offer a teaching that is a mix of despair and hope. We balance our lives and our relationships between different attributes, sometimes more kindness, sometimes more judgment, sometimes more wisdom, sometimes more endurance. Some of us tend more toward one characteristic or another, and that is our own private struggle for a lifetime; in the next lifetime, that of our offspring and students, that tendency will become part of their lives, and they will balance it in their own way. 

There is no answer to the why of such a personal tendency. There is another teaching without a why, a teaching that our universe is also a lifetime, that also tends toward one attribute or another. The universe before ours expressed one or another of the attributes above all the rest, and ours does as well.

Unfortunately, it is taught, our universe was born into Gevurah, and the doorway that lets evil in cannot be barred. We see evidence of inexplicable callousness, cruelty, and other forms of evil every day.

It will take all the kindness of which we are capable to meet this evil, and hope to balance it, sometimes, and to do what we can to push our world toward the next universe – whose name is Tiferet, Compassion. So on a day when you don’t understand why there is such evil in the world, know that your answer can only be this: to be even more kind, randomly, hopefully, stubbornly faithful to the truth that even if the universe is a void, it doesn’t matter. We have to help each other create meaning for our lives anyway. 

What Day Is It? Depends Upon Your Memory Place

Today is New Year’s Day – secular new year’s, of course. What do you do to mark the day? It seems somehow appropriate to note the passing of the year, the turning of the calendar page, the beginning of a new count of days. It’s arbitrary, of course, but it does help to give shape to our days, and significance to our years.

I spend some time on New Year’s Eve going through my datebook for last year, and speaking my memories of significant times aloud with my beloved. Do you remember this, and how do you remember that…. There are, of course, days of which I have no conscious memory. They have no “memory place”:

The “Memory Place” creates an encounter between the individual and the collective and the commemorated object, event, or symbol. This encounter disturbs the daily routine, which, because of its nature, encourages forgetfulness. Like a person who encounters the past by passing from time to time by a physical monument in his neighborhood or visiting a memorial, the past is also encountered  when the person faces the temporal “Memory Place” on the calendar. This encounter is cyclic by its nature and with it, the person reflects about the past event, and in a way, even experiences it every year. (Dr. Guy Miron, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies)

Judaism gives us many opportunities for memory places in a year, and in so doing enriches our lives immeasureably. One of those Jewish memory places occurs today, by coincidence. Today is Asarah b’Tevet, the tenth day of the month of Tevet. The day commemorates the beginning of the end of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. Clearly, this is a day that would have long since been lost to us, if the Prophet Ezekiel, in his leadership position among the community of Jewish exiles in Babylon, had not mandated it as a day of remembrance.

There are those who suggest that such Memory Places as a day of destruction and exile should now be erased from the Jewish calendar, since the State of Israel has been re-established in our day and all Jewish exiles are able to come home. Yet the day has been on the calendar for so very long that for some to erase it seems wrong, and others of us might be left asking, how long is long enough to remember something that was once significant to us?

There’s another option. This particular “Memory Place” was chosen in the 1950s by the Israeli Rabbinate for a new significance: that of the yahrzeit for all the unknown victims of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Since traditionally, Kaddish is recited by an offspring on the date of a person’s death, what were we to do with all these Jewish deaths of unknown date? “Let the date of the first hurban (disastrous destruction) be the date of the last one”, suggested the Rabbinate, and so it is, we pray!

Read more about Asarah b’Tevet below, or by clicking on this link: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Minor_Fasts/Ideas_and_Beliefs/Tenth_of_Tevet.shtml?p=0