Shabbat Bo: Come to Pharaoh

So much happens so quickly in the parashat hashavua for this week: the parashah begins with the final confrontations between the ruler of Egypt and the messenger of G*d, and continues with the description of the first Pesakh Seder. Slowing ourselves down to carefully look at, and listen to, the words of the sacred text yields rich and provocative depths.
For example, it is interesting to note that the opening of the parashah does not say that G*d commanded Moshe to GO to Pharaoh, but rather to “come to Pharaoh.” (Ex. 10.1) The verb is confusing: surely, HaShem is sending Moshe to Pharaoh with a message, and the natural verb one uses with a messenger is “go.”
One interpretation: this is a hint at the truth that G*d is everywhere and it is impossible to “go” from G*d’s presence. “Come” to Pharaoh actually therefore means “Come [with Me] to Pharaoh.” G*d is promising that the Divine Presence will be with Moshe when he leaves the moment of communication and undertakes his journey to deliver it.
Another thought: one does not confront one’s enemy without unless one also confronts the enemy within. One cannot make progress “going” toward Pharaoh until one also recognizes and strives to confront the Pharaoh within oneself.
Bringing these two insights together may shed some light on the place where we stand on this Shabbat, one year after the beginning of the Trump Administration in the United States.
When one attempts to take a stand in Resistance for justice in these days, it may feel precarious and frightening. To stand up, we may feel, is to walk away from safety – and, as well, it certainly does seem that one walks away from clarity. But the Presence of that which sustains you down to the depths of your soul will still be there for you when you are acting out of that depth of ethical conviction. One need not be a prophet to carry an important ethical message; one need only be committed to the message one carries.
The challenge is sometimes being willing to be honest with ourselves in realizing that demonizing others – even the worst of others – invariably unbalances our ability to connect with our deepest ethical certainties. To “come” to Pharaoh is to undertake the “self-purification” that Dr Martin Luther King Jr calls a necessary prerequisite to resistance; it is to ask yourself why you feel as you do, what you are willing to do, and what it means for your and those for whom you bear responsibility.
Our ancestors compare Egypt to a “narrow place” that constricts one’s freedom to be and also one’s ability to think and feel, especially for others. The narrow place has no room for empathy or compassion.  One cannot “go” to Pharaoh until one has “come” to the Pharaoh inside, facing up to our own narrowness of heart and mind.
A final thought: during the plague of terrifying total darkness in Egypt, “the Israelites had light in their dwellings.” (Ex. 10.23) How is this possible? The light was that which each Jew carried within, the holy spark that, when found and carefully strengthened, lights the way before us, for us and each other.
What message do you carry? What Pharaoh must you face? What will help you strengthen your own soul’s light so that you can clearly see the way you must go?
You will not discover the answer alone, but only in the midst of the community. It was together that we found the way out of Egypt, and together that we made our way to Sinai. And together, each shining our special unique light, we will continue: to learn, to support each other, and to act for justice, for truth and for peace.

Shabbat VaEra: Revelation Hurts

The name of this week’s parashat hashavua is VaEra, “I appeared.” This, simply put and so very understated, is the epic moment in which Moshe experiences Divine Revelation. G*d becomes unmistakably, believably, manifest. All subsequent experiences of revelation in Jewish history fall short of it; as the last words of the Torah will put it many weeks from now,
 וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. Never again has there appeared a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face (Ex.34.10)
Interestingly, this is not the first meeting of Moshe and G*d – that happened last week, in parashat Shemot. This is different: Moshe has gone to meet with Pharaoh, and been rebuffed; his first foray into politics and social justice actually met with the opposite result. Pharaoh vindictively increases the Israelites’ misery by upping production quotas and withholding the necessary material. The Israelites turn on Moshe, blaming him for just making everything worse.
The Torah indicates, therefore, that it is only then, after failure, recrimination and demoralization, that Moshe experiences something deeper, and more revealing, about the holy touch he senses. What happened to cause this opportunity for deeper connection, greater revelation?
Jewish commentaries from Rashi to the Lubavitcher Rebbe are intrigued by the comparison G*d makes, as the Torah depicts G*d saying to Moshe
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 יה-ה I did not appear to them (Ex.6.3)
Our teachers note that El Shaddai can be translated as El “G*d” sheh “that is” Dai “enough,” in other words, they experienced as much as was enough for them. They did not question, they accepted the touch of G*d and did not ask for more. Moshe’s experience is different. To the Patriarchs G*d was revealed only as El Sha-dai, relating to them via their constraints and limitations within the created reality. But to Moshe and that generation, enslaved, suffering and miserable, G*d was revealed, for the very first time, in essential truth.
Revelation, in other words, hurts. When one is rocked back on one’s heels and feels that one’s efforts are for nothing, when one feels rejected and misunderstood, this is the moment  when one may actually be on the cusp of a deeper, more authentic opportunity. The moment of feeling hurt requires us to look within ourselves to see where our true strength lies – and only when the ego is diminished are we able to sense the real quality of our own connection to the rest of the world, and to the wholeness of the universe which we call G*d for lack of a better term.
As Rabbi Akiba once put it, why does the Shema command us to “place these words upon the heart.” Why not in the heart? Because the heart is usually so confident, so distracted, so unaware of its own need. On all those normal days, place the words upon your heart. Then, on the day when the heart breaks, they will be able to get in.
Moshe initially wanted nothing to do with the full depth of awareness of G*d which was offered him; it is not easy nor pleasant to have our minds and hearts stretched in such a challenging way. But our entire history hung upon his ability to step up. What history hangs upon ours?
Here is history offering itself to us: this coming Monday we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr on the Federally recognized day devoted to him. This year, I invite you to join me in supporting those who seeks to “take back” that memory and hear that prophetic voice to its fullest, essential truth. I offer you his Letter From Birmingham Jail as a place to start.
Yes, Shabbat is for rest and reflection – and regathering our energy to go back out there on Sunday, and Monday, and all the days ahead, to seek what happens in the space after failure, demoralization, and heartache. Let’s go back out there together.

Shabbat Shemot: Do You Know Joseph?

A famous aphorism of our time: it’s not what you know but who.
This is the compelling rationale offered for, among other things, the decline of political civility and bipartisanship in our national legislature. Once upon a time, it is noted, our representatives in D.C. lived there with their families, attended little league games together, shared the same barbers and PTAs – and they got along much better “across the aisle.” Now they all fly home each weekend, and are strangers to each other.
And once upon a time, we all saw more of each other – before television, and certainly before earphones on our music devices. The sociologist Robert Putnam has traced the decline of our ability to resolve our differences “over the backyard fence”, suggesting that the increase in our willingness to sue each other comes from our lack of knowing each other.
And in this week’s parashah, the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt is traced to this very same problem: “There arose a king who knew not Joseph.” (Ex.1.8).
Separateness led to estrangement, to lack of trust, to forgetting that the other is also human.
We see the consequences of estrangement everywhere in our world: the Rohingya of Myanmar are being brutalized and murdered because they are depicted as aliens, literally called by the Buddhist majority “less than human.” In my own career I have watched people sue each other because they did not want to talk about that which divided them. And in our own small community, it happens as well. We don’t know each other as well as we need to, to be the village we want to be. We’re private, or we think they are; we’re tired, or they’re too busy.
But it is also said from time immemorial that no one has ever been too busy to do what one truly wants to do.
Our good old Jewish tradition, subversive as always, insists that we must do better to know each other, lest our world suffer the consequences:
1. we are obligated to judge each other l’khaf zekhut, a Hebrew phrase that means that we are obligated to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Has someone spoken to you harshly? Before you get angry, consider what may have caused their upset. Exercise your compassion rather than your righteous indignation.
2. we are obligated to refrain from lashon hara’, speaking ill of another. Jewish law forbids us to complain about someone when they’re not in the room, and condemns the cowardice of asking another person to let someone know how you feel – anonymously.
3. we are obligated to ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, consider each other with the same regard we want for ourselves. Be kind. Even when others are not kind to you.
A Rabbi once asked a student, “Yakov, how is your fellow student Moshe?”
Moshe responded, “I don’t know.”
The Rabbi was amazed. “Yakov, you study with Moshe every day,
you eat with each other, you pray together;
how can you say you don’t know whether Moshe is well or ill,
happy or sad, struggling or serene?”
That’s how it is with us. We study together, we share a table, we pray in the same shul; but do you know me? do I know you? and what happens if we don’t?

Shabbat VaYekhi: Your New Day’s Resolution

Taking advantage of what is, interestingly enough after all, only an arbitrary way of calculating a turning point in the counting of our days (why not solstice?), this is the time of year when our society focuses upon the idea of making new year’s resolutions.
Jews practice a variation of this idea on Yom Kippur, when we are meant to consider the ways in which we have missed the mark for which each of us aims as we attempt to live as our best selves in the world. But you may be interested to learn, or be reminded, that our people also instituted a monthly mini-Yom Kippur as part of our regular weekday morning prayers. It seems that our people recognize that once a year review and effort toward change is not likely to be effective. This raises the question of what sort of approach might be most effective.
שוב יום לפני מתתך – “Repent one day before your death.” Pirke Avot 2.15
The Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer offers this answer in Pirke Avot (the title of a Talmudic compendium that might be best translated “ethical soundbites of our ancestors”). It is recorded in later levels of Talmudic discussion that other Rabbis take up this teaching thus:
Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
Repentance and death are fascinating traveling companions. Thus, in parashat VaYekhi, our parashat hashavua, [Torah reading of the week], there is an interesting coincidence that brings several theological strands of Jewish culture together as the Patriarch Jacob, Yaakov ben Yitzkhak, dies at a very old age. Surrounded by his children, he speaks a final word to each. It is the kind of word that is not spoken every day, but it is a communication that each needed to hear. In this act of deathbed repentance, with each message to each child, Jacob turns away from the distractions of life and back, at the end, toward the essential parent-child bond.
This kind of repentance comes from the use the Hebrew word here, shuv. This verb is the imperative form of the word we know from Yom Kippur – teshuvah. In the Torah it is used to mean to turn around and go back, i.e. return. Jewish ethics understands here a return to one’s best self after straying from that path. For a people wandering a wilderness, staying on the path to the next oasis really was life and death, and so, perhaps, influenced our sense not only of our path – halakhah, but also the fact that sometimes one loses one’s way, and that it is vitally important to return to the right path – since one’s life depends upon it.
We might respond that it’s not really likely that we will die when we stray – but no one knows how long we each have to live. To “repent one day before your death” is to spend that day in the conscious realization that it might be your last. What would you like your last act to be? your last word?
The immediacy of it is striking when we consider the ways in which live our relationships obliquely, saying “later” and “when I have time.” Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we may not have time later. When you are hiking, this is manifestly the best way to stay out of trouble: each day, check your path and make sure you return from whatever accidental straying you may have done. When you are making your way through a daily morass of fears and challenges, the ethical imperative to take one day at a time may be just what we need in order to stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed.
None of us knows how long we have. On this Shabbat, I encourage you to ignore the invitation to make a new year’s resolution in favor of making and re-making, every day, this new day’s resolution: repent – return, reset, reconnect with your best self, your loved ones, your community, your world – one day before your death.

Shabbat VaYigash: One Person, One Step

O, once again, what a week it has been in the United States of America. I feel so very fortunate to be part of a tradition much older and wiser than the 240-odd years of this nation’s development since its birth. Jews have lived under many forms of government and seen many, many examples of the kind of leadership, conflict and oppression that we are witnessing today. Our people’s teachings offer us a welcome perspective which is larger, longer, and deeper, and thus we have more learning to draw on, and less excuse to be left feeling completely overwhelmed and confused. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts in on Twitter, #We’veSeenThisBefore.
For Jews and the people who love them and live with them, staying grounded in our Jewish identity and its guidance offers us a way to stay grounded when all around us it seems that the center cannot hold, and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Judaism comes at the world, and our place in it, from a very different perspective, for example asking not “what are my rights?” in any moment but “what are my obligations?” It’s a helpful way to shed new light on difficult questions. We cannot fight gravity, but there is always, always something that we can do. There is always a mitzvah in the moment.
This Shabbat, our parashat hashavua (parshah of the week) offers us a way to relate to the events of this week, to break them down and parse them for a handle by which we might know what we might choose to do in response. Torah relates this week the courage of one individual. A single person finds the inner strength to step forward and challenge the bullying of a high and powerful government official.
VaYigash, the first word of the parashah, means “he drew near.” The context: the Vizier of Egypt is threatening, bullying, persecuting a group of foreigners who have come to plead for food to help them survive a famine back home. They are powerless and terrified before the ruler of the land, who blusters and threatens to throw them all in jail or have them killed. That group of foreigners are our ancestors, the sons of the Patriarch Jacob, and they are all looking at each other in fear and wondering what to do.
At that very moment, one of them, Judah, takes a step forward, and “draws near” to the ruler. Our commentaries point out that this is not just a physical move; what Judah does is to find the strength, somehow, to speak to the terrifying bully in words that actually touch him. He does not denounce him, though the ruler deserves it; he speaks as a human being, and he evokes the human fears of the moment.
We experience ways in which we may not be ready to publicly denounce someone who acts to oppress another human being, but we may be able to act as an ally nevertheless by speaking quietly as one human being to another. One example would be in the case of hearing another person tell a racist joke. One may not feel able to draw upon our tradition’s prophetic righteous indignation to declare that the joke teller is going straight to hell – but we can say “ouch” or “not with me” or words to that effect, and walk away from the group.
There is one step we can take – and, thank G*d, as a community we will usually find someone willing to take it with us. Sometimes it may bring us closer to the evil we are trying to challenge; sometimes it might only bring us closer to ourselves and our own hearts – but that is just as important. As it has been said, we may not be able to change the world on any given day, but we can work to make sure that the worst of the world does not change us. We are not helpless; there is always some small step we can take.

Shabbat Miketz: Benefit of the Doubt

One of the Jewish ethics presented to us most powerfully by our parashat hashavua, and our week as a community, is this: khaf z’khut, “benefit of the doubt.” It is an important Talmudic teaching, and understood as a vital mitzvah of relationships, that we must always give someone the benefit of the doubt – even going out of our way to do so. Here is one well-known story which illuminates the principle:
It became known to the Rabbinical Sages that one Abba the Healer was considered to be an especially good and ethical person.
Two of the students were curious, and they went to Abba, pretending to be ill and in need of his help.
Abba the Healer received them and gave them comfortable reed mats to lie on while they waited their turn to see him.
When he was occupied, they took the mats and left.
A day later they returned to him, and he welcomed them.
“But do you recognize us?”
“Yes, of course I recognize my honored guests. You were here yesterday.”
“But did you know that we took your reed mats?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What did you think?”
“I said to myself, certainly an unexpected opportunity for a ransom of prisoners became available for the Rabbis, and they required immeidate funds, but they were too embarrassed to say so to me or to ask for money. Instead, they took the rugs.”
The students then offered the mats back to Abba the Healer. “Here, now please take them back.”
But Abba the Healer refused them, saying “from the moment I realized that they were missing, I put them out of my mind and consigned them for tzedakah.
As far as I am concerned, they are already designated for that purpose, and I cannot take them back. They are no longer mine.” (Taanit 22a)

In the world in which we live, many would consider Abba the Healer to be hopelessly naive. But our tradition insists that a person cannot be a good Jew unless s/he is committed to giving others the benefit of the doubt every single time there is any doubt at all. In this week’s parashah, the willingness to trust – or the lack thereof – shapes lives, relationships, futures.

In a world so full of disappointments on every level, it may be tempting to give in to the whisper of the yetzer hara’ as it urges us to give up on each other, and to become cynical and suspicious. But that way does not lie wholeness of the self, nor happiness in one’s relationships. To continue to see the good in others may be, on some days, a real act of defiance against the more dystopic aspects of our American culture – and in so doing, to affirm the wisdom of our far more ancient Jewish ethical culture. Judge each other l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, and may we all know the grace of having that benefit returned to us.