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: 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,