Shabbat Shemot: Behind the Mystery, Common Meaning

On this Shabbat we begin again to study Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names, as it is called in Hebrew. We know it as the Book of Exodus, after the first major event that takes place within it (the other, of course, being Matan Torah, the gift of Torah). As we are in the third year of the Triennial Cycle, we begin with Exodus 4.19, and read that Moshe, after years as a refugee from his home country, is about to return in order to take up his G*d-given task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Moshe had protested, tried to refuse, and argued with G*d, but finally agreed to take the job; it is difficult to fathom, therefore, why almost immediately afterward he experiences one of the stranger moments recorded in the entire Torah if not the entire Tanakh (the Jewish Bible):

וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ ה’ וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ
At a night encampment on the way, HaShem encountered him and sought to kill him.
וַתִּקַּ֨ח צִפֹּרָ֜ה צֹ֗ר וַתִּכְרֹת֙ אֶת־עָרְלַ֣ת בְּנָ֔הּ וַתַּגַּ֖ע לְרַגְלָ֑יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי
So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!”
וַיִּ֖רֶף מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אָ֚ז אָֽמְרָ֔ה חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת
And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4.24-26)

In her Countertraditions in the Bible, the scholar Ilana Pardes notes that the most fascinating part of this story is that G*d responds to Moshe’s wife Zipporah’s act by withdrawing. Zipporah has shielded her husband by means of this mysterious, magical act.

We might understand this strange story, in which the messenger is nearly killed before he has the chance to even deliver the message, as a foreshadowing of things to come, as commentator Moshe Greenberg suggests: there is premonition here of the final plague, as well as of the danger the Israelites must face. The act here of applying the blood to the legs is the same as that which will protect the entire Israelite people from mass death when they take the blood of the sacrificial lamb and apply it to their doorposts in Exodus 12.
There is a strong feminist strain in this story, highlighted by the way in which Zipporah acts here as savior. This is very much in line with the theme of female protectors who have emerged thus far: the two midwives who sabotage Pharaoh’s intended infanticide, Moshe’s mother who hides him from death, his sister Miriam who watches over him, the Egyptian princess who takes in this tiny “illegal alien” under her father’s nose. Moshe once saved Zipporah and her sisters from hostile shepherds, but on this occasion he is passive and needs her protection in turn. This strange nocturnal moment shows the fragility of patriarchal assumptions.
So far we can derive several learnings from this mysterious passage:
1. Ritual, even when you don’t quite understand why, is transformatively powerful.
2. Sometimes men are strong; sometimes women are strong.
3. All peoples share common mythical stories of what makes us human and our struggle for meaning.
The final lesson is a well-known one in Judaism: our formative stories are not only ours. The story of an epic Flood is shared in a number of variations throughout the ancient Near East, as are accounts of the world’s creation. This story as well bears an interesting similarly to an ancient Egyptian song of Isis and Osiris, who are both sister and brother as well as wife and husband. When Osiris is killed, Isis, in the guise of a bird of prey, revives him. And it happens that the Hebrew for “bird” is Zipporah.
Jews take part in a great sea of stories and happenings shared between all peoples. In this instance as well as the others mentioned, we as well as each people tell the story in our own unique way, coming to our own singular conclusions about its meaning and its impact upon our culture and our spirituality.
On the Shabbat may the stories you tell yourself about the meaning of your life, and share with those you love, bring you support and serenity.
hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,
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Upon receiving the Emily Georges Gottfried 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Commission of the City of Portland. 

A parable from Hasidic Judaism:

Once upon a time, the king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would go mad. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop, for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”

“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be the abnormal ones.

“Rather,” said the king, “we must eat from the crop, like everyone else. But we will make a mark on our foreheads. In this way, whenever we look at each other, we at least will remember that we are mad!”[1]

I am grateful to the Human Rights Commission of the City of Portland for the honor of this award, because their choice to honor me is a decision on their part to lift up the work I do, the work to which I have dedicated whatever strength and support I have to give. In these extraordinary days, as we endure the violence of a dysfunctional society, I am among those who find the meaning of my days in Resistance. There are human beings kept in cages. There are human beings sleeping in the cold. There are human beings who are being murdered by those who are sworn to protect and serve them. And there are people in power who want only to keep their power, who seek to silence or discredit those who cry out in their pain.

This world of ours is full of pain and loss for too many of us. The grain has been tainted, and we are surrounded by madness. To know this is to Resist.

I am a Rabbi, and as such I see my Resistance work in a historic context which reaches directly back to the Prophet Isaiah, who called for justice to roll down as waters, sweeping evil before it as a flash flood obliterates all in its path. I am inspired by the Prophet Jeremiah, who declared to the government that if a society does not care for the vulnerable, it will be without cohesive civic strength, and will decay and collapse under pressures of outside aggression and inner disaffection.

I am a Jew, and I find my strength to Resist as I am grounded in my tradition. There is an ancient Jewish perspective depicting our world as an island of order floating in an endless abyss of chaos. We are taught that the stability of our world depends on three things: study, prayer, and what is called hesed. This last term is difficult to translate, but in a moment I will attempt it.

I believe that the ancient wisdom of these three pillars can help all of us make some kind of ordered sense out of the chaos in which we live.

The first pillar that can help you hold your world steady is that of learning. I cannot act for the greater good simply based upon my own sense of what is good, something that is likely to be tainted by the bias of what is good for me.  Real learning requires the humility of knowing you don’t already have the answer; it requires a willingness to hear all voices and contemplate all perspectives, especially those that contradict the clarity we want so badly to reach. Only slowly do we come to learn that our own well-being is wrapped up in each other’s.

My learning comes from so many brilliant, brave sources: from the Oregon ACLU, from Don’t Shoot Portland, from Empower Portland, from the NAACP, and from Portland United Against Hate. It comes from Portland Resistance, from the Oregon Justice Resource Center, from the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, from APANO and IRCO and from Basic Rights Oregon; from Black Lives Matter and from Jewish Voices for Peace and from the Democratic Socialists of America. Downtown at a demonstration, it comes from the Unpresidented Marching Band, from the National Lawyers’ Guild, from Rose City Antifa, and from my own Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. I am grateful for all the learning.

The second pillar that holds up our world is prayer, in the best sense of that reality: not the repetition of rote words, but the piercing clarity of finally realizing their meaning.  A good prayer moment is a time of quietness, when one listens for a voice which speaks of the complexity of truth. It is the time after learning when one sees the fullness what one is discovering, and knows it is changing one’s sense of self and purpose.  You may call it meditation, or musing, or a walk in the park, but it requires a willingness to face one’s own soul, and one’s own solitude.

The third pillar is called by the word hesed. This Jewish word refers to the kind of caring that we extend to another person whom we recognize as part of our group; a member of our tribe; a companion upon who we can depend. While the ancient Hebrew term was never meant for a multi-cultural society, nevertheless in it is a key to our survival and thriving: unless we come to see everyone as an equal companion on our path, worthy of the same kindness and support we need, this third pillar that supports our lives will not stand.

The third pillar can only be understood in terms of the first two. The humility that comes with real learning echoes in the quiet moments of a single life, and perhaps to the realization that we are, after all, all connected. In my tradition we are all born with a beautiful and perfect soul, and all of us join in that purity, connected one to the other. My tradition rejects the idea that any human being is less than human – even the human being you find most odious. Every soul has a part to play, every human being is irreplaceably precious.

In this way of thinking, no one can be demonized as “other” and therefore dismissed; someone may be a deeply damaged human being or a highly developed one, but we are all human. This is disconcerting, because it means that I am no different in my potential than a racist or a murderer; on the other hand, it is encouraging, because I’ve got their number – I can find a way to stop that evil, because I recognize it.

It follows, then, that for resisting the effect of that tainted grain we must work together. Your path must be my path or ultimately it is no path. Learning by listening rather than speaking, deferring to others, and sharing space, is essential. Acting with open hands and heart, putting down the defensive posture and the certainty that I know already all I need to know, and to let go of the need to be noticed, to be first, to get credit – because we all get there, or none of us do.

Twenty years ago the sociologist Robert Putnam noticed that less and less of us are able to talk to our neighbors. The scale of our lives doesn’t allow us to stop on our way and chat. Less time spent in each other’s presence translates to less ability to see each other as approachable. Divides between different communities became wider, and within communities as well. Rather than talk to each other, some are now more likely to call the police, expecting them to make up for our increasing lack of ability to learn outside our comfort zone. That comfort zone becomes a pair of blinders, and we don’t even know what we don’t know about each other.

These are terribly upsetting days. Everyone, it seems, has eaten tainted grain, and it’s hard to know which way is forward, and what will confront each of us next in society. In my experience it is too easy to believe that those who disrupt are the problem, when they are actually serving in the role of symptom. There is no cure for what ails us if we don’t consider the symptoms a valuable warning.

I believe it’s not only a Jewish value to stand with those who are being trampled upon, even when they are upset enough to act in ways which are seen as disruptive and unpleasant. No one really wants to spend their time marching downtown when they could be hiking in Forest Park. The traffic jams and the vandalized buildings and the embarrassing headlines should be seen as a signal to all of us that something systemic is very, very wrong, and disruptive and unpleasant change may be inevitable.

One has to be willing to consider the upsetting voice truthful, even prophetic, in the sense of the Prophet Jeremiah. He was jailed, and even thrown down a well for saying upsetting things, such as declaring that his corrupt society would be destroyed. But it was anyway. You do not change the facts because you silence them. A prophetic voice is perhaps simply that voice which says something that we all know is valid, even though we may not wish to think about it.

No one really wants to think about the fact that the entire harvest is tainted, and that radical change may be necessary, lest the pillars give way and our world sink into chaos. Yet the work of resisting the tainted grain will always be uncomfortable, upsetting, and disruptive.

The Rabbis said to Rav Hamnuna Zuti at the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina, “sing for us!”

He sang, “Woe for us that we are to die!”

They said to him, “what shall we respond?”

He sang, “Where is the Torah and the Mitzvah that will protect us?”[2]

A mitzvah is a sacred obligation. Someone like me, given access to the dais because of my position, whether I have earned it or not, is obligated to use that advantage for the nurturing and thriving of all the life on this dirt raft we share together. The mitzvah of being present downtown at a protest is to simply act upon my belief that in a city which respects and protects all its residents, all of us should be equally able to be present, at all times, anywhere. I come downtown whenever I can (note to organizers: please plan a Sunday sometimes.  Jews like me take Shabbat off).

I am downtown and I will be present where voices are raised against the violence we would rather not see, because it disturbs and disrupts us and we can’t fix it all. I will continue to join those who do something, anything to voice protest, because I find my common path to lie with those who are raising up the prophetic voice of our day in declaring that

Killing is evil.

Compassion is good.

Violence is evil.

Patience is good.

Separating children from their parents is evil.

Empathy is good.

Using tear gas is evil.

Listening is good.

Racism is evil.

Humility is good.

Justice is not justice if it is just us.

This is what I think works: getting grounded in one’s own traditions of finding one’s way and one’s balance. Keep learning and seeking community, so that we can stay strong and centered in these days. Figure out your own Shabbat, your own down time, and use it to think deeply about what you are learning and doing. Keep learning; try to get used to being uncomfortable. Find a delight in learning that all you thought you knew on an issue was actually wrong, and now you know better. Remember the kindness and mutuality of hesed, and try to be gentle with others, and with yourself when you realize how much more work there is to come before we can bring in a good harvest of nurturing, healthy grain, and celebrate it together.

Thanks for this honor: it really belongs to all from whom I have learned, and I will try to be worthy of it. I do hope that it’s neither indicative of the lifetime I have yet before me, nor the achievement toward which I still hope to grow.

[1] Tales of Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav

[2] BT Berakhot 31a