Shabbat Nakhamu: What If There Is No Consolation?

What if we don’t get there? This week our parashat hashavua is named for the pleading of our leader Moshe before HaShem; he begged to be allowed to take the final steps into the Land promised to his people, to see it for himself.

 

אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃

Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”

 

וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֤ה אֵלַי֙ רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃

But HaShem was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me; HaShem said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! (Deut. 3.25-26)

 

No appeal, no reprieve. And Moshe went on to continue his work. Not for nothing is he called Moshe Rabbenu, Moshe our teacher. He might just as easily have quit then and there. After all, it wasn’t fair, as many midrashim poignantly convey. Yet he seemed wise enough to understand that the work of his life was neither defined nor belied by remaining incomplete.

 

“I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

 

These words spoken by our teacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the night before he was murdered are sometimes referred to as “the mountaintop speech.” He was speaking with that same wisdom, offering us that same lesson: it does not matter how or when we die, whether our life’s work was completed, whether the timing was “fair” in our eyes. It is enough of a blessing to be part of a meaningful life, to have one’s own life fulfilled in knowing that we are part of something bigger, something transcendent.

 

Something of Moshe Rabbenu is within us; something of Dr King as well. And lest you don’t feel famous enough to believe this, here is a third moment of illumination in the face of darkness:

 

Our greatest injury is the one we inflict upon ourselves. I find life beautiful and I feel free. The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head. I believe in God and I believe in human beings and I say so without embarrassment. Life is hard, but that is no bad thing. If one starts by taking one’s own importance seriously, the rest follows…True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race – even into love one day, although perhaps that is asking too much. It is, however, the only solution. – Etty Hillesum, 1942

 

The injury we inflict is to let the maelstrom without define us within. We spend our lives learning the balance:

 

To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself;

to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself;

to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself.

– Martin Buber, 1950

 

On this Shabbat our people lifts our collective head from the mourning of Tisha B’Av. Our tradition encourages us to take solace in the fact that life goes on, even as individual lives must end. In these Seven Weeks of Nekhemta, Consolation, upon which we now embark, each Shabbat will offer us a memory of all the good we know, from which we learn to draw strength as water from a never failing well.

 

It is not about us; it is all about us: our capacity for generosity, for love, and for celebrating life and its beauty in the face of fear. Let’s hold hands and find the way together.

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.