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.
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Shabbat Shemini: What’s Kosher and What’s Treyf

This week in parashat Shemini the Torah sets out the law of kashrut, the ancient Israelite guide to good eating. At first glance, you may assume that you will be given a list of what’s kosher and what’s treyf. What’s fascinating is that in all of chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus the word kasher, “fit”, does not occur.  Here’s a glance at a few interesting and misunderstood words that do.
1. “Kosher,” (in Hebrew it’s pronounced kah-SHEYR) is a word we use as a general term for what Jews eat – but the actual description of what we eat and why is expressed in different terms altogether.
  אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם. Do not not make yourselves sheketz [“detestable”] with any swarming thing that swarms. Do not make yourselves tamey with them, for they will make you tamey.
 כִּי אֲנִי י-ה, אֱלֹה-כֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. For I am HaShem your G*d; make yourselves kadosh [“holy”], and be kadosh, for I am kadosh. Do not make yourselves tamey with any of the swarming things that move upon the earth.
We are to eat certain things and avoid certain other things as part of what it means to be kadosh, itself a word often misunderstood. It is translated as “holy,”, but is better understood as “set apart for a specific purpose.” In this way we might understand the eating discipline of kashrut to be similar to the eating regimen of a vegetarian, a locavore, or even a weightlifter: each focusing on that which is eaten in a very precise way for a clear purpose which is holy to that person.
2. We are to avoid that which is sheketz, “detestable,” to us, in order to be unique as HaShem is unique. It’s an identity statement, not too different from wearing one’s team colors on game day. One interesting theory comes from the insights of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, who points out that the swarming creatures are not seen as “detestable” to themselves, or to G*d their Creator, or to the rest of the world – only to the Jews.
What is it with these swarming things, and why are we to avoid them? Notice the other place where we have seen this word recently in the Torah, in Exodus 1.7:
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. The people of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed abundantly and multiplied greatly; and the land was filled with them.
Mary Douglas posits that there is some kind of historical linkage for us, perhaps a retention in our cultural memory of a time when we were called “swarming” using this very same word. From this insight we might further wonder if this is, on some level, an expression of empathy. We ourselves were once called swarming things, and, therefore, forever after our religious tradition holds that those creatures which swarm upon the earth have our protection.
The Jewish food laws are about so much more than food.
3. What’s treyf, then? It literally means “torn [by a beast or bird of prey]”, which is to say, the ancient version of roadkill. But the term has come to signify anything that isn’t Jewishly good or right or true. And that fits the way we use the word kosher as well.
For halakhah as it has evolved in Jewish tradition, what’s kosher, “fit” to eat, has been understood as that which is healthy and, in the case of living creatures, was killed in a way judged to be as painless as possible. (There are Jews who argue that vegetarianism is the holiest way to eat, basing themselves on the Noah story. After the Flood, Noah’s family was given permission to eat meat under certain conditions.) Left Coast kashrut has added to this understanding with what is called Eco-Kashrut, extending the provisions already explicit in halakha to cover areas unheard of in earlier times: the destructive practices of large-scale raising and killing of animals, the transgression of child (and other) labor laws, and the fraud perpetrated by some who are untrustworthy kashrut inspectors.
So for example, those of us who follow what we consider the higher standard of Eco-Kashrut refrain from eating veal even though it is considered kosher by halakhic standards, and some have held that organic, anti-biotic free, and free range chickens who are demonstratively cared for in a humane way are more kosher than chicken or their eggs that are marked kosher but not kept in such conditions. And so it literally becomes a question of what is holy to us.
But we can go further, as the Prophets do, to the highest level of kashrut, which is this: no matter how carefully one eats, if you do not fulfill the mitzvot of caring about others, yourself, and the world, you’re not kosher. Hypocrisy makes everything it touches treyf.
Here’s wishing you food choices that are fit, empathetic, thoughtful, and true, and expressive of your unique sense of what matters most in this world.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat VaYeshev: Return, O Light, and We will Return to You

This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.

Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.

The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.

Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.

Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty. 

How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.

We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.    

And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.

This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.

Shabbat haGadol: Preparing for Today

This is the last Shabbat before we leave. Grab what you think you can take with you, we have no idea, really, what we’ll be facing, only that we’re leaving.

בכל דור ודור חייב אד לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים . In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.  (Mishnah Pesakhim 10:5)

This mitzvah, this obligation, is at the heart of our celebration of Pesakh, the Festival of Matzah. And on this last Shabbat before Pesakh we are to prepare, and to help each other to prepare. But here’s the paradox: the moment itself, should we reach it (may we reach it in peace!), will be something we cannot be prepared for.

How shall we be prepared for that which we cannot prepare for? The regular parashah this week, parashat Tzav, holds a clue to the answer. Among the directions for maintaining the newly established sacrificial system we find the following:

  אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה.

Fire shall be kept alight upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Lev. 6.6)

We find that the Jerusalem Talmud comments, “continually—even on Shabbat; continually—even in a state of spiritual unreadiness.” (PT Yoma 4.6)

In a very real way, this is still our daily work: to keep the fire burning. The mystics teach that every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary, within the soul of the Jew. Your heart, they teach, is that altar. Our most important task is to keep the fire – of passion, of love, of joy – burning. 

How do you prepare for the unknown that Pesakh commands us to face? by keeping your inner fire bright. That which you do to take care of that inner fire – even on Shabbat, even when you are distracted, bored, not “spiritually ready” – that will keep you prepared, even for that which you cannot imagine in your future.

In this context we note that the name here for the continually burning fire is eysh tamid, from which we get the ner tamid, that light in every Jewish sanctuary which is misunderstood as the Eternal Light. The only thing eternal about it is the regular daily dedication of those who were tasked with keeping it going, regularly, all the time! Once that was the priests on behalf of us all, but since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, we act according to the Torah’s teaching that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19.6). We are all priests now, and that fire’s regular light depends upon all of us to keep it going, not only for ourselves but for each other.

The Talmud records the teaching: “the one who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith.” (BT Eruvin 54a) This is not meant to encourage you against future planning – only to understand that essentially we cannot control tomorrow, but we can act upon today. Especially upon ourselves. Worry about yourself today, the Sages suggest, and you need not fear tomorrow. Keep that fire going for today. One day at a time. Right now.

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.