Shabbat BeShalakh: Freedom to be Joyful, or Not

Finally, after 400 years of dreaming about a future that is not yet within our grasp, the time is now. All that seemed to be obstacles has fallen away; the door that leads away from enslavement to now is beckoning toward the commitment to what will be.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

In our parashah, called BeShalakh, the Torah records the great Song of the Sea, chanted to a special melody, during which the congregation rises in respect and excitement at the moment of the great memory relived. 

They’ve crossed the great Sea. Pharaoh can no longer threaten them. Moses and Miriam and the Children of Israel sing and rejoice and celebrate. They have been liberated from bondage. 

They are free! All that they dreamed is now true. And now what?

Grumbling. Complaining. The Hebrew word is ַוַיִּלֹּנוּ  va’yilonu: The people grumbled against Moses: “What shall we drink”? (Exodus 15:24)

Yes. Rather than giving themselves up to celebration and gratitude, the Israelites complained. Rather than trust the vision now realized, they turned their eyes away and grumbled about sore feet, moaning over an entirely unrealistic memory of their Egyptian situation.

The whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron: “We wish HaShem had killed us in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. You brought us out to this wilderness to starve!” (Exodus 16:3).

In Jewish mysticism, we are taught that there are two spiritual states: mokhin d’katnut, “diminished spirit,” and mokhin d’gadlut, “expansive spirit.” Fear is a state that strangles us down to a place of diminished spirit, complaining, angry, hurt, unable to permit ourselves to hope. Curiously, it occurs not when we are beaten down by our situation, but, often, when we are standing on the threshhold of escape from all that holds us down. 

It is at that moment when we ourselves are the weight that holds ourselves down. The state of mokhin d’katnut rushes in just at the moment when we might give ourselves to joy rather than fear.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?

Why is the body so often dumb flesh?

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away

at the moment the word waited for all one’s life 

is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

Here is what it truly means to enter the wilderness. To leave Egypt is to leave that which is comfortingly familiar, even if it stifles growth and freedom and dreams. To leave Egypt is to walk into a wilderness which is only romantic on a bumper sticker; in real life we often see such a moment as scary and unsafe, and we do not see that it is our invitation into mokhin d’gadlut, a chance – that may not come again – to hold out our arms and embrace existence, and to sing its praises.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

On this Shabbat, consider: what do you long to hear, yet run from? Can you begin to understand how it holds not only you back from the ability to trust others, and life itself – and how that holds you, and me as well, from exploring the freedom we might share to move through the wilderness in joy?

Shabbat Bo: Come, O Spring

Parashat Bo arrives at a moment that feels like the return of spring. The timing for the parashah in which we read of our redemption from slavery in Egypt, coinciding with a week in which we saw the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration, seems singularly appropriate since Tu B’Shevat, our annual celebration of spring’s first signs, begins this coming Wednesday evening January 27. 

For “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” who “can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one” and all of us who see reason to breath, along with the national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, a sigh of relief, it seems like this might be the beginning of a long denied rebirth of hope for the U.S. 

I saw with pleased recognition a poem that started making the rounds on social media yesterday. We used to read it often when we gathered for prayer, but it somehow disappeared from my collection. Now, as you can imagine, it’s back:

Sometimes

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel

faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.

Sometimes you aim high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,

elect an honest person, decide they care

enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.

Some of us become what we were born for.

Sometimes our best intentions do not go

amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.

The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow

that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

(slightly adapted for gender accessibility)

I was surprised to read on a website devoted to her poetry that Sheenagh Pugh “hates” the poem: “I think most people read it wrong. When read carefully, it says sometimes things go right, but not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort in that direction.”

She has a point. The leaders of the previous administration and their criminal enablers did everything possible to stay in power – challenging votes and invalidating them, challenging results in court, attempting to bribe and threaten; we only saw a hopeful sunrise on January 20 because of the  incredible effort of so many, Stacey Abrams of Georgia leading them all. 

Things go right, and not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort. Right on cue, a propos of our parashah, Jewish tradition asks, how was it that the Israelites were able to escape Egypt? And the answer is not so different from Sheenagh Pugh’s: 

The Israelites did not deny the existence of God; they refused to give up their Hebrew names or language, or deny their Jewish identity. 

– Ephod Bad on Pesakh Haggadah, Maggid, First Fruits Declaration 19

In short, they made an effort: 

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

These are days when we must make an effort to remember, past the desire to relax and breathe a sigh of relief, that the evil that has risen up in our society is not vanquished because its feckless figurehead is off camera. 

Remember that in our escape from Egypt, there were moments: we thought we were safe and then we saw Pharaoh’s army chasing us. As one senior researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center said to the Guardian news source: “my primary concern about this moment is the Q to JQ move”; “the Jewish question” which is the white nationalist and neo-Nazi antisemitic belief that Jews control the world.

We have to hold them both in our awareness. Remember that we were once not slaves, we walked without fear and were whole. Remember that Pharaoh cannot be trusted, and may be chasing us.

And spring, thus summoned with hope and with watchfulness, may yet come. But now it is still January.

Shabbat Va’Era: Time to Grow Up


The words of HaShem came to Moshe: “I am The Source of That Which Was, Will Be, Is – your ancestors knew me as a Sheltering Mother; they did not come to this Awareness which is now Yours.” Exodus 6.2-3
____________________________________________________

This period of time, the week that was and the one that will be, are a time the likes of which we have not known in our lifetime: the juxtaposition of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by an armed mob which included members of police and national guards, and the Inauguration of a new U.S. President, which will take place G*d willing in just a few days, on Wednesday January 20 2021.

The ancient Israelite awareness of HaShem here being taught to Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, is perfectly timed to invite us into reflection upon the necessary links between last week and this, and between the experience of the ancestors and that of the People of Israel led by Moshe, Miriam and Aaron.

When we are young, we know only the Source of Shaddai, the mothering, nurturing source of life symbolized by the breast, that original source of life upon which we all depended as infants. Young children, psychologically speaking, are focused upon personal physical survival before anything else.

When we are feeling threatened for our very physical survival, we too focus very narrowly. What can I depend upon? what will keep me safe above all else?

It has been noted by many commentators and scholars that the Torah sketches the birth, growth and maturation not only of some heroic (or otherwise) individuals, but also of the Jewish people. Here in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, a shift is occurring that comes precisely well-timed for us.

The end of Eden, as it were, comes when in the process of maturing, we become aware that life is not safe. And so our teacher Rashi explains how it is that HaShem can say to Moshe that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Genesis did not know the Name HaShem (the yud hey vav hey) when we can see it right there, in the Torah scroll, used in reference to the Ultimate in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah? 

I HaShem was not recognized by them as Faithful and Reliable, for I did not fulfill promises to them in their lifetimes. – Rashi to Ex 6.3

Our earliest ancestors – those who belong to all of us as the earliest examples of what it means to struggle toward a spiritual awareness beyond our full comprehension (even as life is!) – never knew a safe resting place for their lives. The fullest expression of their spiritual path was limited by their ability to mature into the knowledge that life is not safe. Life is not fair. We are not always going to be protected by El Shaddai, the breast that saved us when we were infants.

Recognizing HaShem is the difficult, life-long challenge for Moshe and his People of Israel and it is still our challenge today. To fully grasp that our spiritual path does not bring physical safety – only spiritual certainty, and only then on a good day – requires our understanding that life is a wandering in a wilderness, “a long process of maturation that has no definite end.” (Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel, 3)

Events in the U.S. Capitol only solidify the fearful surmise many have felt for some time: the institutions of capitalism and democracy are twisted out of the promising shape they held for our parents or grandparents when they sought refuge in this country, and reassured themselves and each other that this is the greatest country in the world for Jews and for everyone else as well. At this moment we do not know if the oligarchy that seeks to overthrow elected government will be successful in that mission.

We cannot guarantee safety, neither by prayer nor by buying a gun. All we can do is try to be as grown up as we can about the reality of our lives. The choices we make, by which we are known and defined as human beings and as Jews, should stand up under this pressure, or they are not good choices. 

We cannot guarantee safety, but we can rely upon the three pillars that keep our personal world, as a Jewish community, strong: gathering in community for learning in Torah study, gathering in community for prayer and reflection, and seeking each other’s welfare the best we can in acts of tzedakah.

The people of Israel have to learn to grow up in order to make it through the wilderness. Just as Jacob spent his life wavering between his childish Jacob behavior and that of the adult Israel, so do we as individuals and as a people. We will witness the “one step forward, two steps back” struggle of the Israelites from now through the rest of the Jewish year of Torah study. Some will be lost as others continue onward toward a future we cannot define.

This is true of those who will seek to become unidentifiable as Jews in pursuit of safety; this is true of those who turn away from any uncertainty. We felt we had been promised safety, and that promise was not fulfilled: these are difficult times! The god El Shaddai of infancy does not exist; the god HaShem of maturity is not conducive to emotional uprisings (see Korakh, the Golden Calf, et al).

The last refuge of those who do not want to grow up is to demand safety. To truly become a mature community is to recognize that one must do one’s best every day, because no one knows what will happen tomorrow – except that we will still be there for each other, offering compassion and encouragement for each other when the wilderness of our fears howls.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us hold on, and hold on to each other

Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Shemot: Listen and See that All Is One

we have met the enemy and they are us – cartoonist Walt Kellly in the comic strip Pogo

What is the cause of uprisings? the seed of violence? what did we see on Wednesday in Washington D.C., and all spring and summer in Portland?

Others will turn to political scientists and sociologists; to these sources of wisdom we are fortunate to add another resource: the Torah. Torah in its widest sense, which invites us to seek wisdom with which to respond to the challenges of our days thoughtfully, from our people’s experience and insights.

A new book of the Torah greets us on this Shabbat Shemot. (Even the way we name our weeks when we tell time centers Torah and its weekly offerings of consolations and challenges to our way of thinking!)

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “look, the Israelite people are far too much for us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they increase, and in the event of war, join with our enemies and rise from the ground.” – Exodus 1.8-10

Once, Joseph had saved Egypt from famine. But the beginning of parashat Shemot, the first parashah of the book of Shemot, called Exodus in English, describes a time long after. Now the Israelites living in the midst of Egyptian society are suspect. They seem dangerous. After consultation, Pharaoh’s ministers advised him to murder every baby Hebrew boy by throwing them into the Nile
“because they are too much for us.”

Why would the Israelites become suspect?
Why were they suddenly seen as possibly dangerous? 

The Torah, and the midrash investigating the deeper meanings of its words, point to the very words: this people are too many for us, they might be our enemies. This is the timeless, fearful rhetoric of us vs. them.

The Jewish response to this is to suggest something far deeper and more difficult to fully grasp, and it is the true meaning of the Shema – that we are all One. There is no us vs them; only shifting groups that change and coalesce around thinking and feeling processes that we are only partly aware of in ourselves and around us.


Unless you are willing to try to understand that, you will never be able to grasp the insight that true monotheism offers you – the kind Isaiah tried to teach us:

יוצר אור ובורא חושך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ה עושה כל אלה
Shaper of Light, Creator of Darkness, Maker of Peace and Creator of Evil; I HaShem do all these things. – Isaiah 45.7

To understand the central tenet of Jewish spiritual culture is harder than we might understand at first grasp. It tells us that there is no such thing as radical individualism. The mystics compare this to a drop of water in a stream; each of us is such a drop of water. We are barely aware of the ocean in which all our acts are contained, carried and influenced. We are, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner put it in his writing, all linked by Invisible Lines of Connection.

More than one psychologist has suggested that the self was never meant to carry its own weight. We are herd animals. We would rather feel safe at home in a bad agreement than alone in righteousness, for good reasons: one who is alone is in danger of death – or the lesser death of ostracism – at the hands of the many. That is the spirit of the mob this week at the U.S. Capitol; it is the same spirit in the Klan. It is the same human spirit in a youth group and a football team and a group of anarchists breaking windows at night downtown.

We are all the same in our basic needs. We are all the same in our humanity. We are all influenced by factors in our makeup, our history, our community – and there are so many that we are completely unaware of! 

It follows that there is no meaningless violence – only causes that we do not as yet understand – or do not wish to understand. We may feel a certain leaning to condemn one more than the other. In such moments we do well to remember that none of us can claim to know Truth, but only a partial truth. 

As white supremacy expresses itself in police violence against Black bodies, so does alienation from social values similarly express itself – in violence that we want to distance ourselves from for our own safety.

Yet we all own all human acts, those we are aware of and those we are not, those we commit and those we witness. Yom Kippur puts these words in our mouths: for the sin we committed on purpose and for the sin we committed by mistake, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. Atonement means at – one – ment, recognizing that we live within and among, not separate from, all that makes us recoil as well as all that makes us happy.

To believe in meaningless vandalism from individual thugs who can be punished individually for their individual stupidity or anger is the final absurdity – of which, alas, too many of us are convinced. It allows us to deny our own complicity in the state of our society. 

Jewish tradition is braver than that, and in every honest moment of study and prayer we are invited to step from safe space into that brave space. Brave Space – actually a recently developed concept to improve our thoughtfulness about how we behave in diverse community – is a useful way of fact-checking the truth you feel safe with, and allows you to consider how you might grow beyond your current definition of personal safety, in ways that might allow others to feel more safe with your support. Learn more here: Fakequity 

The Shema should remind us of our link to everything else in Creation every time we recite it – and if we are not Jews who daven regularly, we might be those who recite it at bedtime, and know that it has also become the cry of defiance of our martyrs. Why should it have become a sacred utterance if not because it stands beyond our ability to fully grasp, and therefore is always urging us to do better, to think more compassionately and with more humility, seeking the wisdom which our tradition tells us is the path to peace?

In this week of national horror and disgrace, to be overwhelmed is to fail in our response. The Shema is defiance because it calls us to recognize and accept our part, both in the evil and in the good that we can rally to overcome evil by our small, every day actions, and by recognizing how they add up. That’s what the gift of our mitzvot are, and they matter more now than ever. No, that’s wrong: they always matter; it’s we who must change.


Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other

The Face of Evil at the U.S. Capitol

The foolish do not know
the ignorant to not understand this
though evil seems to flourish like weeds
springing up, vigorous, in every corner
it will not last
God is above all; God is what lasts.
That which hates truth and light will fall
all that is the enemy of goodness
will perish, and crumble away into dust.
– Psalm 92

Shalom Shir Tikvah companions,

The news from our national capital, that a pro-Trump violent mob has breached the U.S. Capitol, is frightening and horrifying. This mob, at the urging of the outgoing, defeated U.S. President, have caused the evacuation of both House and Senate chambers and disrupted the Electoral College vote. They insist that the election was corrupt and are demanding the vote be stopped. At least one person has been shot and seriously wounded.

All we can do is to watch and pray for the peace of our nation and the well being of those who are tasked with guarding the democratic process upon which we all depend for our lives and welfare.

The state National Guard has been called; we have no reason to believe that the electoral process will be stopped. But we know now that the evil that has been unleashed in our nation is not going to quietly ebb away. There is so much more that we are going to have to strengthen ourselves, to survive and to act toward the healing of our society.

We dare not underestimate the danger of the hatred and lawlessness encouraged by the outgoing President. We see it not only nationally but locally. Let it not overwhelm us – we are an ancient people who have lived in more than one nation, and affected by more than one historic event. Focus on that which you love, that which you know you can trust, and the trust and the love we share and know to be real.

My companions, let’s remember what our teacher Elie Weisel once said: we as Jews are vulnerable, but we must not be alone. Reach out to those you know in our community and beyond. Do what you can to console and strengthen others, and you will find your own soul strengthened. Let’s hold hands and watch together; let’s hold on to each other and keep believing in the words of Psalm 92 we chant every Shabbat morning:

Look up and see that evil cannot last
listen and hear then end of meaningless suffering

hazak hazak v’nithazek – let us be strong and hold on to each other!

Shabbat VaYehi: Update Your Priors

“One should always be as soft as a reed, and not as hard as a cedar.” Ta’anit 20a-b

Parashat VaYekhi is the final parashah of the first book of our Torah, the book of beginnings called in Hebrew Bereshit, “with beginning”(in English, “Genesis”). It’s appropriate that it falls on this Shabbat as we end the darkest days and begin our Northern Hemisphere’s turn back toward the light of the sun. We are beginning to find our way back to warmth, light and, dare I say, hope.

In this parashah, the last patriarch of the Torah, Jacob, dies. His death is accompanied by one of the more ancient texts in Genesis, the deathbed song of the patriarch. It doesn’t seem to be much of a blessing, although it is called one, for much of what Jacob has to say to his children, as he reflects back over his life and learning, bears the harshness of long-avoided truth.

Truth is not necessarily harsh. Long-avoided truth, however, will always be more painful than necessary, if only because of lack of practice in learning and growing. If only because of the shock of finally hearing something never spoken, but always known.

It is said that a good death is when HaShem takes one’s soul away with a kiss. The image of a kiss, neshek, is of love, gentleness, openness; such a death seems easily to be what we would all prefer. But to get to such a lovely moment of openness we have to be able to open ourselves past the armor of a lifetime, and past the armor of the fear of a moment.

Such a deathbed moment may occur long before the moment of death. It is a moment of recognizing, or avoiding, the relationships that matter. Each one of us chooses every day whether each moment of connecting to another person, and the G*d within them, is a moment that we will meet by donning our emotional armor, or opening up to the possibility of gentleness symbolized by a kiss. 

This is what our tradition is trying to tell us in the ancient teaching repent one day before your death (Pirke Avot 2.15). How can we know which day is our last? Better to live each day as if it is our last, and become the person we have been putting off becoming.

Such a becoming requires us, finally, to grow up: to grow past the child’s response of the experience of fear, to the adult’s ability to be thoughtful about other people’s fear.  Fear – yir’ah, according to Jewish tradition, is a necessary first posture we all adopt vis a vis the world. It is, after all, a vast and terrifying place. Yet there is a higher stance to which we are urged to strive: love – ahavah. It is a place not devoid of fear, yet not ruled by it.

How do we learn to grow past the need for the armor we all have developed, into the gentleness our souls require to thrive in connection with each other?

The uncertainty of life will not change. All we can do, in the words of statisticians, is to “update our priors”:

“priors” are your prior knowledge and beliefs, inevitably fuzzy and uncertain, before seeing evidence. Evidence prompts an updating; and then more evidence prompts further updating, so forth and so on. This iterative process hones greater certainty and generates a coherent accumulation of knowledge. (an explanation of Bayesian analysis from How To Think Like An Epidemiologist, NYTimes 4 August 2020)

We all carry our “priors,” our beliefs and certainties, with us every day. Without prior beliefs in the nature of our existence and context we would not be able to function. Yet 2020 has been a year like no other in the exercise of learning which of our prior beliefs and certainties we held have been proved wrong!

This past year has only been a more extreme version of the challenge life constantly offers us: to learn, from teachers and from experience, and to grow from that learning. For Jews this is the heart of Jewish wisdom: “teach your mouth to say I do not know and you will learn” (attributed to Maimonides). This year has surely shown us the damage that comes from holding on to beliefs that are proved wrong, misplaced certainty, and trust betrayed by elected leaders.

Barukh HaShem, Thank G*d, we are not our certainties; when we learn and grow and our certainties become uncertain on the way to new certainty, we do not lose who we are. We become more of who we are meant to be.

When we are as stressed out as we have been in 2020, it’s hard to stay open to learning and to love. We might find that we tense up in fear, our armor strengthens, and we close off from gentleness. Yet religious teachings all encourage us to be gentle with each other and ourselves, that anger destroys and compassion builds.

It’s inevitable that life hurts, things change, and we are misunderstood. What’s not at all certain is how we will choose to respond. After a year of so much irrational suffering, may we all learn to be a bit more open to the rationality of learning, and growing. Any prior belief or certainty may change at any time; let us hope to be in all circumstances not like a stiff cedar, but like a reed, capable of bending gracefully with the pressure that will come to bear upon us from storms without and within.


Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other.

Shabbat shalom.