Shabbat Va’Era: Reveal Yourself

In last week’s parashat hashavua we witnessed a rapid transition in which the people of Israel went from a good life in Exile to a persecuted, miserable slavery. At the end of the  parashah Moshe, after his first attempt to organize the people of Israel, is discouraged.

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל י-ה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אד-נָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moshe went back to HaShem and said: ‘HaShem, why are you making this situation worse? why would You send me, if this is the outcome?

וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.

Ever since I spoke to Pharaoh in Your name, he has dealt harshly with this people, and You! You have not saved Your people.’ (Ex. 5.22-23)

After the marching and rallying of last week came the flurry of destructive executive orders. Why is it getting even worse? we might cry out as Moshe did.

Generations of commentary have sought to understand our own efforts for justice by studying this passage from our Torah. At the beginning of our parashah for this week, G*d replies:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי י-ה.

G*d spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘I am HaShem;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי י-ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as a mighty G*d, but by My name YHWH I did not reveal to them. (Ex. 6.2-3)

The great Torah interpreter Rashi noticed the order of Names of G*d: First Elohim, a generic word for G*d also used to refer to other gods, is a word associated in Jewish tradition with G*d’s Judgment, where the Four Letter Name which we refer to by using the word HaShem (“the Name”) is associated with G*d’s attribute of mercy.  A later commentator, the Piacezsner Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto (who wrote during the Holocaust), carries this insight forward to create a teaching that goes like this:

Harsh judgment is not always the way to bring people together; to get people to listen to you, and maybe even hear you, takes gentleness, kindness, and mercy.

We must open multiple fronts, my friends and companions in Resistance. Especially in #JewishResistance, we will be most effective and most true to ourselves and our tradition when we follow Isaiah in “crying out with full voice, making our voices a shofar” (58.1) and sometimes we must quietly speak our truth and listen openly to that of others. This tradition in Judaism is called makhloket l’shem shamayim; it challenges us to act not only with justice, but also with mercy, as a moment may demand.

We are taught that we are made in the Image of G*d and we are to be as G*d. Here that means to follow G*d’s example and reveal not only the Judgement side of ourselves, but also the side that shows Mercy, Compassion, and Love. It is as the signs of the marchers say: it is not hate against hate that wins; Love conquers Hate. 

It took the Israelites a long time to leave Egypt. For us as well, the road ahead is long. We won’t be marching every part of it – sometimes we’ll be resting, coming together for reinforcement, meditating on what is happening both without and within, and finding our balance with each other’s help. 

Shabbat Miketz: Life Comes At You Fast

This week’s parashah is Miketz, which literally translates as “at the end”. In the Torah’s context, it refers to the end of two years’ time during which Joseph languishes, forgotten, in an Egyptian dungeon. The word ketz, “end”, is short and sharp. It echoes another key word of the parashah, vayikatz, which refers to the way in which Pharaoh startles awake after a disturbing dream, not once but twice as the parashah unfolds its tale.

The overall impact is of language which startles with its abruptness. Life changes just that quickly: one carries on for endless days until, suddenly and shockingly, everything changes. Pharaoh is shocked out of sleep and complacency; Joseph is hauled up out of the dungeon with no warning, brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We go on day by day with our lives, consuming fossil fuels or throwing things “away”, until, suddenly, the reality of climate change bursts upon us, and we have to have emergency meetings in Paris.

Life seeems to change that quickly. Even when we have a sense of warning, and think we have time to prepare, the actual moment of impact can be shockingly sudden. 

But the work of that change is actually slow, even plodding, and full of blind alleys. What seems a sudden sprouting is really the result of greater forces at work than we can possibly manage, or even discern – not to mention the forces that grind themselves out before their impact can become known. Once again we realized that we are not in control of our lives, nor of what happens to us. 

As is often said, all we can control is our response. And we sabotage our responses in many ways: we become afraid to move, we underestimate our capacity to act, we let the momentary imbalance of the shock send us into a rabbit hole of panic. 

This all sounds very personal, but it is also global. We are who we are, regardless of the scale.  And it is true that, in ways we do not easily feel in our bones, our individual responses have meaning.

We can choose as individuals to join a march to express our individual convictions, to commit to some small act to lighten our single demand on the planet, to reach for a new degree of kavvanah, mindfulness, in all our acts – and in so doing discover that many others are marching, committing, and reaching in the same way. 

During this dark time, as we struggle with so many invitations to despair, I offer you one specific act to heighten the meaning of the Hanukkah menorah you light this year (I recommend doing it on the 8th night, when the menorah is fully ablaze):  https://www.vsgoliath.org/action/blacklivesmatter-chanukah/. One small way to say to the forces of evil that they will not win. We have their number.

Life comes at us fast – but Shabbat is here to give us a moment to focus, and that slows everything down just enough. This evening we mark T’ruah’s call for a national Human Rights Shabbat. Spend some time on this Shabbat, in shul with your community if you can, lighting a candle, and meditating in its light upon how together we can help each other not to panic, to recognize our ability to respond, and then, to do so to the best of our ability.

shabbat shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!

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 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 Miketz: Enough Already, Let’s Wake Up

This parashat hashavua (parashah of the week) is called Miketz, “at the end”. The word refers to a period of time, as the Torah specifies: “It was at the end of two years….” It describes the Egyptian Pharaoh in the grip of dreams that start out innocuously enough, but then turn into terrifying nightmares: happy, fat cows grazing on the lush grass by the side of the Nile are eaten by horrifyingly gaunt, zombie-like cows who look no different after consuming the healthy cows. Then, in a literary echo of the parashah’s name, we read vayikatz Par’oh, “Pharaoh’s sleep came to a sudden end”. The dream was repeated, this time with stalks of grain, and once again the Pharaoh was startled out of a troubled sleep. 

The King of Egypt became desperate to find a meaning for the dreams, and a way to answer them, to understand and therefore to escape from the nightmare they presented. And a dream interpreter was found: Joseph, son of Jacob, who in the process becomes the first “court Jew” of many in our people’s history. 

When the dreams are related to him, Joseph declares to Pharaoh, “the two dreams are one and the same. You have been shown what is to be.” (Bereshit [Genesis] 41.25)

Joseph is able to correctly foresee the coming catastrophe and to offer guidance to meet it which Pharaoh was able to accept. Disaster, in the form of a years-deep, deadly famine, was successfully averted by centralized government planning, led by a wise and capable “Famine Czar” – Joseph himself, appointed by Pharaoh. Disaster is averted because the Egyptian Pharaoh woke up startled from a nightmare and took action.

In Israel right now, our fellow Jews are trying to wake up from a dream of Israel that has slowly turned into a nightmare. If the “public square” of Israeli media is any indication, more and more Israelis are desperate to find a way out of the ever-recurring nightmare which is the ethical and political morass of the status quo. 

But that’s not all:

In the United States right now, our fellow citizens are trying to wake up from the recurring nightmare of the interrupted march of our nation toward equal rights that started as a beautiful dream, but is being consumed, just like the healthy cows of Pharaoh’s dream, by harbingers of death and disaster: persistent racism, sexism, economic classism. It is known by many names, and its evil threatens to consume us.

The two dreams are one and the same.

The only real question is whether we will wake up, and take action to avert the catastrophe. For us as American Jews, there is supportive action we can and must undertake, and it is dictated in our traditional Jewish ethics: “justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16.20)

The dream of Israel: It is true that we are not in Israel, not part of the Israeli polity, and not subject to Israeli taxes; nor can we vote in an Israeli election. But it is a mitzvah, an obligation incumbent on every Jew, to build the land and to care for it, to do our part in help the Jewish homeland become the light to the nations that the prophets foresee as its destiny. We do have a relationship with the land and people of Israel. We can and should support those Israeli causes that further the Jewish values of justice and equality as proclaimed in the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence  In so doing we are helping Israel become what the people of Israel aspire to be as their best selves, most fully reflecting the presence of G-d in the world. In the declaration’s own words:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The dream of the United States of America: “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (VaYikra [Leviticus] 19.9) Those of us who used to feel safe, who thought that we would remain untouched by civil wrongs, are coming to see that we live in a truly inter-connected world. There is nothing wrong with money – it is a gift and those who have it are privileged to do good with it – but there is clearly something wrong with the way wealth is used in our nation.  There is nothing wrong with being white, either, unless those of us who identify as white are blind to the obligation to help our neighbor lift his load when we see that he has fallen under it, as our non-white neighbors suffer under the racism that drives them to their knees. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s own sexual identity, unless one is driven to defend it by hurting others. The ethical obscenity of the inequality we see demonstrated every day requires an ethical Jewish response, as the Prophet Jeremiah demanded: that of working for the welfare of the community in which we live, that it may prosper. (Jeremiah 29.7)

For the sake of all that is good in our dream, we must wake up and take action against the looming nightmare it is becoming. Let your kindling of the Hanukkah lights be sanctified this year by your own personal urgent search for Joseph’s way forward. 

Shabbat VaEra 5774: Don’t Look Away

We take up our story in the parashah called VaEra at chapter 7, verse 14: Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. Moshe and Aharon had come to bring him a message, and he turned away from it.
A close examination of the events so far indicate no reason why Pharaoh should be impressed: Moshe and Aharon his brother have appeared before him, and Aharon has turned his walking staff into a serpent. Pharaoh’s servants promptly imitated the special effects, and Pharaoh turned away, dismissing the message and the messengers.
How many of us have had this experience, or been the victim of it? A disturbing message, dismissed as someone else’s truth, not mine? A message refused on the face of it, because it’s so patently ridiculous? After all, you see it your way and I see it mine, and aren’t both views – or even my assertion that there is nothing to see – both equally true?
It is true, after all, that all truth is relative; what is also true, however, is that different truths create different contexts and different consequences. Truth must be understood by the company it keeps, so to speak. What are the consequences of what we see and refuse to credit?
Pharaoh turns away, “hardening his heart” and refusing to listen to a message that seemed preposterous, or at least ridiculously unpleasant. Did his unwillingness to to listen, to look, early on really lead to the catastrophe his people experienced? And if so, what must we learn from this example of turning away from the unpleasant and disturbing messages that come to us? What are we risking by pretending everything will be all right – what are the chances, anyway?
On this Shabbat, what can we learn from a parashah  called VaEra, from Exodus 6.3: I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as a Mighty G-d, but by my Name I did not reveal Myself to them….
 
Perhaps that truth is revealed in different ways at different times, and different contexts. No one’s truth is absolute; all of us need to listen, and to look.
In a recent article about the polarization of American politics, Jill Lepore offers us a fresh perspective on this idea:
“In more analytically luxuriant times, political scientists debated some of the very questions that…before the denial of climate change, certain philosophers argued that all science is interpretation….But intellectuals, as Bruno Latour once pointed out, are nearly always one critique too late: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” Irony is cheap, not painless.”  (New Yorker, Dec 2 2013, p. 79)
Truth is a very powerful weapon. In the wrong hands, it brings plagues and tragedy. We cannot afford to look away and dismiss the potential damage of arguments that seem absurd, especially when so many people are ready to uncritically adopt them.
Not all is revealed to anyone; humility is a necessary partner to the truth we think we know well enough to assert, and live by. But truth does exist, and as the Kotzker Rebbe said, we must look for it everywhere, and help it to rise from the ground.