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. 

Shabbat Hazon: A Vision To Hold On To

This week we begin to read the final book of the Torah, called devarim, “words”. The entire book consists of Moshe’s parting words.

The Israelites will soon cross the Jordan River, under the leadership of Joshua. Before the crossing, a moment of reflection: Moshe is reminding the Israelites of where they came from, and how far they have come. Over and over he will urge us, remember your ancestors, and what they did; remember your forebears, and what they taught.

As we face the challenges of our lives, it may help to consider that, whatever we are facing, there is a good possibility that either we have been in a similar situation before, or that our friends, our colleagues, even – yikes – our parents, may have, and may have the wisdom of experience to share. None of us need ever be alone in a stressful situation.  As Jews, we are told this over and over again: you are part of a community that remembers, that seeks to learn from experience, and that holds before it an ideal against which we measure ourselves, our experiences, and our beliefs.

Our starting point is the belief that life is a gift, and that it is not enough to be grateful. We have a responsibility as receivers of the gift of life, to respond out of that gratitude, and ask what is my obligation? what do I owe to Life, having been given life? The answer, of course, is to become the best life-form we can be: to be open always to learning, to pray and meditate upon that which is learned, and to practice loving kindness at all times.

It is easy to understand a teaching when one agrees with it; it is easy to pray and meditate when one is serene; it is easy to do kindness to those we like or feel sorry for. But our obligation to uphold our ethics is no less when it’s difficult – rather, that’s where we find out what we really believe, and what we really worship. It is in the face of anger, frustration, stress, and fear that we discover what we’re really made of.

On this Shabbat we are challenged by a special haftarah to consider how we are doing. This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon – the “Shabbat of vision”. The vision is that of the Prophet Isaiah, whose words supply our haftarah for this Shabbat. On this Shabbat, consider his words as they echo in your life and the life of our People:

21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her once. 

22 Your silver is become dross, your wine mixed with water. 

23 Your leaders are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and follow after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.

24 Therefore says our G-d, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies; 

25 And I will turn My hand upon you, and purge away your dross as with lye, and will take away all your alloy; 

26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning; afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 

27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness. 

Evil, whether done by us or by others, will not endure, if we are committed to its end. This is the vision that we are called upon to believe in and to make real through our words and our acts. On this Shabbat, consider your own power to create a more just world in every small act, in every situation, and that real justice will only come from finding within ourselves a willingness to learn also from those whom we don’t like, to pray and to meditate upon our acts and our attitudes when we are not serene, and to practice kindness with those from whom we recoil. Such behavior can only come from constantly reminding ourselves, in the moment before crossing from a word to an act, to consider G-d’s command to us to, at all times, to

do justice

love mercy

and walk humbly with G-d. (Micah 6.8)